By Matt Citak
The New England Patriots entered the season as favorites to win Super Bowl LII. But after two losses in four games, including this past Sunday’s last-second defeat against the Carolina Panthers, the Patriots clearly have several question marks around their roster. However the areas of weakness are not offensive, as their 423.8 yards per game leads the NFL, while their 32.3 points per game ranks second. Tom Brady continues his stellar play, seeming ageless even at 40. Through the season’s first four games, he leads all quarterbacks in passing yards with 1,399 and is tied with Aaron Rodgers for the league lead in passing touchdowns with 10.
The biggest reason for New England’s struggles has been the defense. The Patriots have surrendered a league-worst 1,827 total yards through four games, 242 yards more than the next highest team. In addition, the team’s 32.0 points per game allowed ranks 31st in the league, ahead of only the Indianapolis Colts’ 34.0 points per game. Starting linebacker Dont’a Hightower’s two-game absence certainly factored into the defense’s poor play. But with Hightower back in the lineup, the Patriots are hoping their defense can get on track.
On the other side of the field, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have endured a similar start to the season. Jameis Winston has played great, averaging 288 yards and two touchdowns per game through three games. The Buccaneers have scored 23.7 points per game thus far, even without starting running back Doug Martin, who just completed his league suspension in Week 4.
While the offense has been clicking on all cylinders, Tampa Bay’s pass defense has struggled immensely. The Buccaneers have allowed opposing quarterbacks to throw for 315.7 yards per game, which ranks 31st in the NFL, ahead of just the Patriots and their 324.0 passing yards allowed per game. Despite allowing a ton of yards, Tampa Bay has done a decent job of keeping opponents out of the end zone, holding opposing offenses to 21.3 points per game.
THE NFL TODAY pregame studio show analyst Phil Simms weighed in on this week’s Thursday Night Football matchup between the New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, as well as other upcoming NFL ON CBS action.
New England Patriots vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – 8:25 PM ET Thursday – CBS and NFL Network
CBS Local Sports: Both of these teams have found great success on offense this year, but have struggled on defense. Which team has the advantage heading into Thursday Night Football?
Phil Simms: [Given] the scenario… it should be an exciting game, that’s for sure. Which team has the advantage? The New England Patriots, even though it’s played down in Tampa, just because they can work the clock more with a short passing game, time-consuming, protect-their-defense type game that Tampa cannot. Tampa, they run the football. They’re going to get Doug Martin back. But they are more of a big-play offense in the passing game. So I can’t see them all of a sudden designing a bunch of short passes and changing the whole philosophy to protect their defense against the Patriots.
Los Angeles Chargers vs. New York Giants – 1:00 PM ET Sunday – CBS
CBS Local Sports: Which team’s disappointing 0-4 start is more surprising, the Giants or the Chargers?
Phil Simms: There’s no question. Everybody that’s involved in the NFL, even fans, would say it’s the Giants, and for many reasons. They have a Super Bowl-winning quarterback. They have a receiving core that’s as good as anybody’s, and a strong defense, with the way it played last year. It’s caught me by complete surprise. Everyone keeps talking about the offense, but I’m more surprised by the defense, that it has struggled more than I thought it would. And the run defense has not been nearly as good as I expected it to be. It makes for an interesting game. Being an ex-player, I felt panic when we lost the first game of the year. Honestly, I cannot imagine the panic that [the Giants] feel. Not panic, but just the pressure to try to get that first win. We throw 8-8 around like it’s something common that you can do. But winning is tough, and winning the first one in a situation like this is very tough for both teams.
CBS Local Sports: Do either of these teams have a chance at turning things around and saving their season?
Phil Simms: If I had to pick one, I would pick the Giants. The Chargers are out there in the AFC West, with the other three teams being so good. The NFC East is not a cakewalk, with Dallas, Philadelphia, and Washington. But the Giants have a little more to work with than the Chargers do. If anybody can dig themselves out of an 0-4 start, it’s the Giants.
Baltimore Ravens vs. Oakland Raiders – 4:05 PM ET Sunday – CBS
CBS Local Sports: With Derek Carr sidelined for a few games, what do the Raiders need to do in order to stay afloat in the talented AFC West?
Phil Simms: It’s really two simple things. They’d like to run the ball better. That takes some of the pressure off of EJ Manuel. And it’s going to be the same offense for the Raiders, but the offensive coordinator is not going to call the same sequences of plays since Derek Carr is not in there. There might have been a first-down pass deep down the field with Derek Carr, but maybe now with EJ Manuel, they might still throw it, but it could be a screen. Or they could run it on first down instead of taking that chance. But the big thing for the Raiders is their defense has to play a little better. They can’t make mistakes in the defensive backfield. When you make mistakes in the secondary, you give up long plays or you give up touchdowns. That’s the number-one thing, first and foremost, the Raiders have to make sure the defense is on the same page, and that they don’t make these big, glaring mistakes.
CBS Local Sports: How can Baltimore get their offense back on track this week?
Phil Simms: When you struggle on offense, there is no magical cure. The one thing you can do as a coach is you can give them a few plays. I like to call them drive-starters. They will design these plays where [the QB] just throws it to the wide receiver, and it can pick up four or five yards. Or if they block it the right way, a screen. But what it all comes down to is they need to be more physical. If they run the football… it makes your team tougher. It makes the defense play a different way, so when you do throw the ball, [the defense] rushes the quarterback differently. The league is never going to change. It comes down to which team is going to out-hit the other. And the Ravens have had great success under John Harbaugh for many years and won all of those games because they can simply out-hit you. That’s what they’re going to have to do. They’re just going to have to be the bigger, tougher, stronger team. That will get their offense going and give them a much better chance to win.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.