Buccaneers, Patriots, Donta Hightower
The Patriots need Donta Hightower more involved against Tampa Bay. Getty Images

Three things to watch for Thursday night as the Patriots take on the Buccaneers.

 

 

 

Tall task

 

The Patriots defense has made Alex Smith, Deshaun Watson and Cam Newton all look like All-Pro quarterbacks this season. Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston is more talented than Smith, more experienced than Watson, and more healthy than Newton – so one could easily make the case that this will be the Pats’ toughest assignment to date.

 

Winston played a strong game in the Bucs’ 25-23 win over the Giants this past Sunday, completing 22-of-38 passes for 332 yards, three touchdowns and zero picks. But the game prior, the Vikings defense figured out the third-year pro. The Minnesota defense picked off Winston three times in a 34-17 Vikings victory.

Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes was all over Bucs top receiver Mike Evans in that one, holding him to seven catches for 67 yards. Given the way things have been going, it will be a tall task for Malcolm Butler or Stephon Gilmore to shutdown Evans like Rhodes did.

 

Pats procrastination

The Patriots can’t rely on the late-game heroics of Tom Brady all season long. Coming to the surprise of most, Brady is not a deity.

It’s been strange for the Patriots the past two weeks in that their first drives are outstanding and then it seems everything after that in the first half is mediocre at best. On their first drive against the Texans, Brady marched the Pats down the field 51 yards on seven plays, culminated with a Rob Gronkowski five-yard TD reception. The Pats’ next three drives in that one were punts.

Against Carolina, the Pats went 52 yards in eight plays but had to settle for a field goal (which wound up being a killer). They punted on their next drive, but wound up putting up 13 points in the second quarter. The third quarter, however, was brutal as the Pats ran just 11 offensive plays and punted on both drives.

 

Time to step up

Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler have taken enough grief this week so let’s pick on the Patriots’ non-existent pass rush for a moment. Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise have been strong but other than that it’s tough to name anyone up front of from the linebacking corps that’s made life miserable for an opposing QB so far this season.

Dont’a Hightower has been banged up all season, but even in limited action he should have more than four total tackles on the season.

On the defensive line, first round pick Malcom Brown was supposed to be Vince Wilfork 2.0 at this stage in his career (Brown is in Year 3) but he has just 11 tackles so far this season with zero sacks.

Someone needs to step up on this defense.