FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' pass rush faded Sunday, Tom Brady's confidence rose.
Tampa Bay's defense shackled the future Hall of Fame quarterback for a while before Brady probed the soft middle and consistently found Aaron Dobson and Julian Edelman for key gains that sustained drives in a 23-3 triumph.
In New England's previous game — a nationally televised 13-10 victory against the Jets — Brady was demonstrably upset with his young receivers. Against the Bucs, with wide receiver Danny Amendola and tight end Rob Gronkowski inactive due to injuries, Brady posted a typical passer rating of 92.9.
The longest of Brady's 25 completions covered 20 yards, but he consistently released the ball quickly to frustrate a pass rush that sacked him three times.
“The dude's just great,” Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. “If you don't diagnose well and you let him get on a roll, he'll kill you. Everybody had 'quote, unquote' questions about his receiving corps, but this guy has turned so many receivers into stars — because of him.”
New England punted on each of its three first-quarter possessions as Brady struggled to find his rhythm and was sacked twice.
“We were getting guys in his face,” Bucs linebacker Lavonte David said. “But sometimes he was able to make completions. With a great quarterback like that, there's really not a lot you can do.”
In the second quarter, Brady led the Patriots on a pair of long drives, capped by touchdown passes to rookie Kenbrell Thompkins.
“You've got to tip your hat to Tom Brady. They up-tempoed us a little bit and they executed,” Bucs cornerback Darrelle Revis said. “What they do is hard play action to suck the linebackers up, then he throws right on top of them in the middle of the field. He did a lot of that. Brady sells the play action very well.”
With a 17-3 halftime lead, Brady turned to his ground game. The Patriots responded with 103 of their 156 rushing yards after intermission.
Brandon Bolden broke loose for a 46-yard run early in the third quarter, and ex-Buc LeGarrette Blount gouged Tampa Bay for a 23-yard gain in the fourth quarter.
“We did a great job in the running game against one of the best run defenses in the league,” Brady said. “And we definitely made some adjustments of routes that we thought would be better against what they were playing. We had a bunch of third-down plays with guys crossing the field, so that was important.”
According to defensive end Adrian Clayborn, the Bucs were kept off balance once New England built a substantial lead.
“Once we were behind, it was their choice to run or pass,” Clayborn said. “We didn't get into those situations like we did the first two weeks — when we dictated the play call. Even though we held them to field goals at times, they were hurting us with long drives.”
By avoiding sacks and negative plays, the Patriots were able to keep their offensive options open. Brady kept pinpointing the mismatches and capitalizing with short slants and crossing patterns.
“We got in some long-yardage situations early,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said, “and you're not going to overcome those very often. Third-and-15, you just can't expect to get too many of those in this league, not against a good defense like Tampa.”
After his first look against Brady in a game that counts, McCoy figures he has seen quite enough.
“They've been in five Super Bowls, and as long as No. 12 is under center and that coach is over there, they're still the Patriots,” McCoy said.