Aqib TalibFOXBORO, Mass. — The Patriots didn’t put forth a dominant performance against the Buccaneers, despite what the final score may suggest.

New England’s 23-3 victory was reminiscent of the grind-out wins the Patriots used to churn out week after week early in Tom Brady and Bill Belichick‘s reign in Foxboro. No one aspect of New England’s performance stood out, but if anything, that will just give Belichick more teaching points when the film is reviewed on Monday.

The defense let up plenty of yards but held the Buccaneers when it mattered. And the offense only found their way into the end zone twice, despite five trips into the red zone.

Here is what I noticed from watching the game in the press box and after a quick rewatch of all the Patriots’ defensive passing downs:

1. Patriots’ secondary steps up in second half: Perhaps it was because Vincent Jackson was out and Mike Williams was limited (OK, it more than likely was), but New England’s secondary really stepped up in the second half. Early in the game, the defensive backs struggled at times to contain the Buccaneers’ receivers. But once the pass rush saw an uptick and New England’s cornerbacks improved in coverage, Josh Freeman‘s completion percentage dipped below 50 percent.

All of the completions Talib allowed were caught by Jackson in the first 31 minutes of the game. Talib allowed a 12-yard reception to Jackson on the first play of the third quarter, but he was flawless after that play.

I charted the Patriots’ defensive coverage targets in my TV film review. Check out my findings below (the yards, receptions and targets don’t add up to Freeman’s totals because some receptions and incompletions don’t garner any blame or credit).

Alfonzo Dennard: five receptions on 10 targets for 108 yards
Aqib Talib: 3-7, 34 yards, INT
Jerod Mayo: 3-5, 24 yards
Logan Ryan: 2-4, 23 yards
Kyle Arrington: 2-6, 21 yards, pass interference
Dont’a Hightower: 1-2, 17 yards
Steve Gregory: 0-2
Rob Ninkovich: 0-1

Devin McCourty, Jamie Collins, Duron Harmon and Dane Fletcher also spent time in coverage but were not targeted.

Here’s how the Patriots stack up for the whole season in coverage:

Dennard: 8-19, 187 yards, INT
Talib: 5-12, 81 yards, 3 INT
Arrington: 7-20, 74 yards
Mayo: 6-12, 51 yards
Gregory: 3-7, 43 yards
Ryan: 2-4, 23 yards
Hightower: 3-5, 18 yards
McCourty: 1-2, 18 yards, TD
Spikes: 1-1, 7 yards
Harmon: 1-1, 3 yards
Ninkovich: 1-2, 2 yards
Collins: 0-1

2. Patriots have second straight impressive performance rushing the passer: New England may have piled up just three sacks, but they kept constant pressure on Freeman all game. Rob Ninkovich, who reportedly agreed to a contract extension, celebrated his new deal with a half sack, five pressures and a quarterback hit. Chandler Jones had two half sacks, but he only gets credited for one whole sack, which seems kind of unfair since he created two separate pressures.

Rob Ninkovich: .5 sack, 5 pressures, 1 qb hit
Chandler Jones: 1 sack, 3 pressures
Tommy Kelly: .5 sack, 1 pressure, 1 QB hit
Jerod Mayo: 1 sack, 1 pressure
Brandon Spikes: 1 QB hit
Jake Bequette: 1 QB hit
Michael Buchanan: 1 QB hit
Vince Wilfork: 1 pressure
Joe Vellano: 1 pressure

Here’s how the Patriots’ pressure stacks up for the whole season:

Jones: 3 sacks, 10 pressures, 4 QB hits
Ninkovich: .5 sack, 11 pressures, 3 QB hits
Kelly: 1.5 sacks, 4 pressures, 2 QB hit
Buchanan: 1 sack, 3 pressures, 2 QB hits
Wilfork: 3 pressures, 1 QB hit
Hightower: 2 pressure, 1 QB hit
Spikes: 2 pressure, 1 QB hit
Mayo: 1 sack, 1 pressure
Bequette: 1 QB hit
Vellano: 1 pressure

3. Tom Brady struggles as rookie receivers step up: For weeks now, Patriots fans have doubted the rookie recievers. They finally stepped up on Sunday, but Brady had more than a few concerning throws.

The most questionable throw came on Brady’s red zone interception. Most people thought New England’s signal caller was targeting Zach Sudfeld on the play, but it actually looks like the throw was intended for Aaron Dobson in the back of the end zone.

It was either a really poor pass or Brady just didn’t see Mark Barron, but it was points off the board as the Patriots found their way into the red zone and came away with nothing. Brady is adjusting to his new targets just as much as they’re adjusting to their quarterback.

Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson came away as big winners, even if they didn’t play amazing. Both players had drops, but it was a big improvement from last Sunday’s performance. Dobson had seven receptions for 52 yards on 10 targets while Thompkins had three catches on seven targets for 41 yards and two touchdowns.

4. Brandon Bolden adds spark to offense: With Shane Vereen and Leon Washington out, Bolden stepped up as the team’s main pass-catching back. He shined in the role, catching five passes for 49 yards. It was Bolden’s season debut and he made the most of it.

Bolden’s biggest play came on a 46-yard run. His worst play of the day was in the second quarter when he was lined up across from Darrelle Revis. He got open down the field on a go route, but appeared to give up on the route when he didn’t see Brady’s pass coming his way. He looked open as the ball dropped five yards in front of him, but who knows if Revis would have caught up if both players didn’t stop in the middle of the field.

5. Patriots give the reserves a chance: Belichick showed a much bigger rotation on defense. Ryan got a chance in the secondary starting in the third quarter when Arrington was sidelined for undisclosed reasons, Bequette got some pass-rushing opportunities, Collins got some reps in the nickel defense and Harmon got some snaps for Gregory.

Perhaps it was because New England got a big lead midway through the third quarter or maybe Belichick thought it was important to give his starters a rest. It’s good experience for the young defenders, though. The Patriots also showed some new personnel combinations with a 3-3-5 nickel and a base defense with three cornerbacks and one safety.

The team was also in a 3-4 more times than I can remember in Weeks 1 and 2. Overall, it was a good performance for the defense, but not quite as good as the score may suggest.

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