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Bucs-Patriots: What to watch in today's game

Robert Ayers has sacked Tom Brady in his career, forcing a fumble in a 2015 game. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
Robert Ayers has sacked Tom Brady in his career, forcing a fumble in a 2015 game. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
Published Oct. 5, 2017

TAMPA —- Bill Belichick has never beaten the Bucs in Tampa. Tom Brady has never played a regular-season game in Tampa. This is somehow true — thanks to a 2009 Bucs home game against both in London — but here are five other things to watch in today's Bucs-Patriots game.

1. GET OFF THE FIELD ON DEFENSE

The Bucs had the NFL's best third-down defense last season, holding opponents to just a 34 percent conversion rate. With linebackers Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David sidelined by injuries, they're at the other end of the rankings — last in the NFL, allowing 50 percent conversions.

The Patriots offense ranks seventh in third-down conversion at 45.1 percent, but the defense needs to keep Tom Brady off the field as much as possible, so winning third downs is a huge part of winning the game.

2. BE READY TO RETURN KICKS

The Bucs and Patriots are at opposite ends of the NFL special-teams spectrum when it comes to opponents returning kicks.

The Bucs have the third-highest touchback rate at 80 percent, content to let opponents start at the 25. The Patriots have the NFL's lowest touchback rate at just 36 percent. The average returns are nearly identical, the Bucs allowing 21.0 per return, the Patriots 20.8, but New England wants opponents to try to return their kicks.

Along the same lines, Patriots opponents have only one fair catch on punt returns all season, compared to 10 returns for 71 total yards. The Bucs have allowed an NFL-low two punt returns in their three games, with their coverage gunners well-timed to arrive right when Bryan Anger's punts do.

So there's a major opportunity for Bucs returner Bernard Reedy, who could have as many actual returns today as he's totaled (eight) in his first three NFL games.

3. GET TO THE QUARTERBACK

The Bucs have one sack in three games in 127 passing attempts for opposing quarterbacks. That's easily the lowest total in the NFL — even pro-rated because the Bucs have only played three games. The Dolphins (4) are the only other NFL team with fewer than six sacks.

The good news? The Patriots have allowed Brady to be sacked 13 times, tying for the seventh-most in the NFL. By comparison, the Bucs have allowed only five sacks (again, three games).

Robert Ayers has sacked Brady in his career, forcing a fumble even in a 2015 game, though the Patriots were able to recover the loose ball.

4. EXPLOIT A STRUGGLING DEFENSE

The Patriots are allowing 32.0 points — only the Colts, at 34.0, are worse — and that's a major change for the defending Super Bowl champs. They didn't allow 32 in any game last season and gave up 25 points or more only twice in 19 games.

If the Bucs can score 26 points on New England — seems like a big if — the Patriots will have allowed 154 in five games, their worst five-game stretch in 18 seasons under Bill Belichick. The record is 153 in 2005, during which they went 2-3, which is what they'd be with a loss today.

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Belichick's first game as Patriots head coach was a loss to the Bucs -- 21-16 in Foxborough, with Derrick Brooks getting 15 tackles and Warren Sapp 1.5 sacks. Since then? The Patriots have outscored the Bucs 86-10 in three lopsided wins.

5. LET NICK FOLK GET REVENGE

Bucs kicker Nick Folk missed three kicks before hitting the game-winner Sunday as time expired. He needs a mistake-free game to get back on track.

But beating the Patriots? Few players can appreciate that more than Folk, who is 2-12 all-time against New England. In 2014, he had two long potential game-winners blocked —- a 58-yarder and a 52-yarder, both in close losses.

But go back to 2013, and Folk had one of his best games against the Patriots — 3-for-3 on field goals, 3-for-3 on extra points, with a 42-yard field goal in overtime to give the Jets a 30-27 win.

Contact Greg Auman at gauman@tampabay.com and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.