One reason I liked the under when the Patriots took on the Saints last week was because they were going up against a strong run defense of the Saints that I felt would minimize the Patriots ability to make consistent gains on the ground which would inevitably force more third-and-long situations and result in more punts from the Patriots offense.
Prior to their Week 3 game vs the Saints, the Patriots ran the ball at an above average rate on early downs and didn’t ask Mac Jones to do too much.
The Patriots resorted to what they did with Tom Brady against good run defenses, and that was pass the ball. A lot.
The Patriots went high pass rate on early downs, throwing on 70% of early downs in the first three quarters. This was the second highest pass rate in the NFL last week. But it was necessary because their early down runs averaged just 1.7 YPC and a 20% success rate.
However, unlike when Tom Brady commanded the offense, these early down passes were highly inefficient. They averaged just 5.3 YPA and 22% success.
Mac Jones had 23 of these early down pass attempts and he was pressured on 44% of them, which was almost double the NFL average pressure rate.
This prevented consistent efficiency underneath. There also were two concerning elements from the passing game: lack of ability to stretch the field and incredibly low pass rate usage.
First, on the day vs the Saints when throwing beyond 10 yards, Mac Jones was 4/21, 3.8 YPA and -0.73 EPA/att with 1 TD and 2 interceptions. He was pressured on 57% of these attempts.
On the season, passes deeper than 10 yards, Mac Jones is 11/36, 6.6 YPA, -0.52 EPA/att with 1 TD, 2 INTs and a 55% pressure rate.
Second, Mac Jones had just 3 pass attempts deeper than 7 yards with play action in the game and threw 46 non play action dropbacks
The reason this is a key concern is because the Patriots are absolutely going to need to pass the ball against the Bucs, because like the Saints, this run defense is highly likely to limit the Patriots efficiency on the ground.
Jones will have to improve his ability to stay efficient on these early down passes in order to avoid third-and-obvious pass.
What will likely be a big factor in his success or lack thereof is the blitz rate of the Bucs. They lead the NFL in blitz rate at 41.5%. Against the blitz so far this year, Jones has only delivered a modest 5.7 YPA on 26/46 passing, so this strategy may work for the Bucs. However, when they have blitzed other quarterbacks this season, including Dak Prescott, Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford, this defense has allowed a 72% completion rate (5th highest in the NFL).
While it’s never something you want to hope to experience, the only silver lining if the Patriots do get forced into third and longs is the Bucs defense is allowing a NFL-high 9.1 yards per play on third downs.
Now, unlike last week, if the Patriots never fall behind by much, it’s not the end of the world if the passing game isn’t clicking with precision – they may still be in the game. Last week, the Patriots defense was fine enough, but turnovers and points off turnovers really allowed the Saints to dig the Patriots into a hole on the scoreboard.
Such mistakes are unlikely to occur for a second straight game, but what is far more likely to put the Patriots into a hole on the scoreboard is the Brady-led Bucs passing attack. Both because it’s highly dynamic and likely out of necessity, because this ground game for the Bucs has been beyond stagnant.
Tom Brady had the 4th best early down EPA/pass att vs the Rams last week, averaging +0.37 EPA/att, 9.4 YPA and 68% success.
But they averaged the 5th worst early down EPA/rush att (-0.22 EPA/att, 2.1 YPC, 40% success)
The Bucs inability to run coupled with the scoreboard had the Bucs shift 1st down pass rate from 60% in the first quarter to 67% pass in the 2nd quarter to 75% pass in the 3rd quarter to 100% pass in the 4th quarter.
I do expect the Patriots to run the ball slightly more frequently in the second half if they are enjoying a lead on the scoreboard, but they absolutely won’t be able to run their way to that lead.
Brady needs just 68 passing yards to take over as the all-time passing yardage leader in NFL history in his return to Foxboro.
While the Patriots defense has looked strong, overall, ranking #8 in defensive efficiency and #4 vs the pass, they’ve done so against the #1 easiest schedule of offenses in the NFL, and the #2 easiest schedule of passing offenses. Examine who they’ve played:
Now they must make a huge step up in class to take on Tom Brady’s Bucs pass offense.
It will be intriguing to see if the Bucs can get production on the ground running against a Patriots defense which ranks #28 against the run on the season despite playing the 4th easiest schedule of opposing run offenses.
Historically, Tom Brady has struggled passing the ball against Belichick disciples. Now, he’s going up against Belichick himself. This is the biggest must-watch matchup of the season to date.
I expect a high-pass rate for the Bucs offense and if Belichick is unable to confuse Brady, I think the Bucs and their #5 red zone conversion rate offense will have ample success.
Keep in mind, however, that this is setting up to be the #1 most bet game of any regular season game in NFL history, with over 90% of the bets coming in on the Buccaneers.