FOXBORO -- Kenbrell Thompkins was looking to beat press coverage.
The rookie receiver, who had navigated so expertly through the Tampa Bay secondary on the way to his first of two touchdowns Sunday, nearly managed to give the slip to the media that was waiting to talk with him after the game, a contest in which the Patriots managed to completely and effectively dismantle the Bucs for three quarters on the way to a 23-3 victory at Gillette Stadium.
But with Thompkins yards from making a clean getaway, the New England media was able to do something that the Tampa secondary couldn’t pull off -- namely, slow down Thompkins before he reached his goal. On his way out the door, the media caught the rookie, who now is more than halfway to the team's rookie receiving record for targets in a season through just three games. (The undrafted rookie out of Cincinnati has 28. The record belongs to Julian Edelman, who had 54 as a rookie in 2009.)
He wasn’t talking too much about himself. Instead, it was mostly about the team and the offense, which was able to shake off some early sluggishness -- 12 plays and three punts on the first three possessions -- and post a relatively easy win over Tampa Bay, scoring five times over six possessions in the second, third and fourth quarter to pull away for the win.
"Overall," Thompkins said, "I thought it was a good day for the team."
In the win -- which made New England 3-0 for the first time since 2007 -- Thompkins and fellow rookie Aaron Dobson combined for 10 catches on 17 targets for 93 yards and two touchdowns. (This after completed passes on just 9-of-21 targets between the two in the first two games.) Thompkins had three catches on seven targets for 41 yards and two touchdowns, while Dobson had seven catches on 10 targets for 52 yards.
The highlight of the day for both of them came on New England’s finest offensive series of the afternoon, an 11-play, 66-yard drive that consumed 5:13 and ended with an impressive 16-yard pass from Tom Brady to Thompkins for the touchdown. (On the score, Thompkins did a very nice job of weaving his way through a maze of defensive backs on the way to the end zone.) On the series, New England got 37 of the 66 yards on passes to Thompkins and Dobson, and Brady hit Dobson on the third- and fourth-down conversions.
On Thompkins' second series, he was able to benefit from a sweet play-action fake by Brady. With 47 seconds left in the second quarter and the ball on the Tampa 5-yard line, Brady Hoovered in the secondary and linebackers with a nifty play-fake that allowed the QB a brief chance to find Thompkins for the touchdown pass.
“That’s a play we work on every day in practice,” Thompkins said. “To go out there, for me to be open, and to have Tom trust me to throw me the ball felt good.”
Said Dobson of his fellow rookie: “He definitely had a great day, and I’m proud of him. We started together, so I’m very proud of him.”
It has been a trying stretch for the rookies, one that got slightly more complicated on Sunday when it was reported that Brady had reached out to former Patriots receivers Deion Branch and Brandon Lloyd via text in hopes of gauging their interest about a possible return. (After the game, Brady downplayed the report, saying it had been a long time since he had spoken with either Lloyd or Branch.) Setting aside the fact that the return of either veteran likely would mean a setback in the development for both Thompkins and Dobson -- and ultimately be more detrimental to the team in the long run -- the youngsters clearly are learning how to play for their quarterback, an occasionally difficult taskmaster who didn’t appear to air them out publicly like he did on occasion last week against the Jets.
"Well, hopefully it stays that way," Brady said with a small smile after the game when asked about his improved body language, which appeared to only include a four-letter word directed at himself after a second-half pick in the red zone.
"They’re doing a great job -- they’ve worked really hard to understand what we’re trying to do on a weekly basis," Brady added when asked about the rookies. "And it changes up a lot with our offense. It’s not like we do the same thing week to week all the time; we try to attack teams in different ways."
In terms of Thompkins, he didn’t have the same level of production as Dobson, but his two touchdowns represented the first time the Patriots had a rookie pass catcher account for two touchdown receptions in a game since Rob Gronkowski had a pair in a December 2010 game against the Bills. The undrafted rookie spent most of the afternoon working against all-world cornerback Darrelle Revis, who gave a mild endorsement to the New England rookies.
“Yeah, they’re a little different,” Revis said. “They don’t have the veteran experience at the receiving corps, but they played well today and they are improving — they’re looking all right.”
Going forward, Thompkins and Dobson have to build on their performance and create the level of consistency needed to succeed in the NFL. (It’s also worth mentioning that Sunday was another opportunity to cross another game off the calendar, a week closer to the return of Gronkowski, Danny Amendola and Shane Vereen.) Fair or not, their performances on Sunday raised the level of expectations for both of them, and the two will be asked to continue to provide a sizable bulk of production when it comes to the passing game.
"We’re trying to keep elevating and improving every week," Dobson said. "We’re not trying to backtrack. We’re trying to keep the level up and move forward.”
Ultimately, Sunday represented a positive step in the process for the two of them, one the Patriots hope can continue next week against the Falcons. The Bucs were a good test, but the road gets considerably harder from this point on. The Patriots hopscotch from Atlanta to Cincinnati, then back home to meet New Orleans. And with it, the evolution of a young receiving corps will continue.
Here are nine other things we learned about the Patriots Sunday.
THE DEFENSE STILL IS OUTPLAYING THE OFFENSE
You can deride the competition all you want -- and in truth, it should be taken with a grain of salt because the Patriots have faced teams led by EJ Manuel, Geno Smith and Josh Freeman -- but it’s important to note that the Patriots defense played well for the third consecutive week. The Patriots held the Bucs to 5-for-18 on third- and fourth-down opportunities, sacked Freeman and picked him off once, and didn’t allow a point over the last 46:47 of game action. Dating back to last week against the Jets, New England has gone five-plus quarters without allowing a touchdown. (The last one the Patriots gave up came with 5:05 left in the third against New York.) In all, they’ve allowed 34 points through three games, an average of 11.3 points per game. (The last time the New England defense was that good to start a season was 1979, when the Patriots allowed 33 points in their first three games.) All in all, a good opening for New England.
BRANDON BOLDEN STILL CAN PLAY
In his first game of the year -- he was a scratch the first two weeks because of a knee issue that dogged him over the summer and into the first two games of the regular season -- the second-year running back out of Ole Miss had a standout performance, accounting for 100 yards from scrimmage (five catches on six targets for 49 receiving yards and three carries for 49 yards). In his limited work last season, Bolden showed a knack when it came to working between the tackles, but he didn’t show much flair as a pass catcher. However, it’s important to remember he caught 76 passes as a collegian, and he could be a short-term answer as a target out of the backfield while Vereen continues to rehab his injured wrist. He deserves to be knocked for pulling up on a pass play down the sideline -- and he acknowledged as much after the game -- but other than that it was a very good debut for Bolden on Sunday.
THE DEFENSIVE WRINKLES WILL CONTINUE
As was the case through the first two weeks of the season, the Patriots continued to show some interesting defensive tweaks. Defensive end Chandler Jones bumped inside to a defensive tackle spot on 13 occasions, and he did as well as could be expected against Tampa’s massive offensive line. He didn’t have the same level of success he had last week against the Jets, but he managed to come away with one sack for 4.5 yards and a pair of quarterback hits. (Jerod Mayo also had a sack, and Rob Ninkovich and Tommy Kelly shared one sack.) Two other defensive notes worth pointing out: One, safety Devin McCourty was left alone on the back line on a handful of occasions early so the Patriots could get an extra linebacker on the field. And two, after spending two games as the odd man out -- he played a total of 47 defensive snaps over the first two games, a massive drop off in his usual workload -- linebacker Brandon Spikes was a regular part of the defensive rotation. By our count, he was involved in at least 34 of the 66 defensive snaps, including 26 in the first half.
THE PATRIOTS FOUND A WAY TO SLOW DOWN VINCENT JACKSON
Jackson was a guy who had shown an ability to scald the Patriots in the past. In his three previous games against New England, he had 19 catches on 31 targets for 359 yards and three touchdowns, with the highlight (lowlight?) coming in 2011 when he had 10 catches for 172 yards and two touchdowns as a member of the Chargers. But on Sunday, the Patriots rendered him a non-factor, as he finished with three catches (on six targets) for 34 yards, with almost all the work done by Aqib Talib. The two, who went head to head off the line just about the entire day (until Jackson left in the second half with a rib injury), battled fiercely. And while Jackson was able to make his share of plays -- including an impressive 19-yard pickup along the sideline in the first half -- Talib ultimately got the better of him, coming away with his third pick of the season when Freeman threw a bad ball his way at the end of the first half. With Talib effectively containing Jackson, the rest of the defense was free to concentrate on shutting down Doug Martin, and while the "Muscle Hamster" was able to rip off a few impressive second-half runs, it was 88 of the least eventful yards the Patriots have allowed to this point in the season.
THE SPECIAL TEAMERS CAN SURVIVE ONE WEEK WITHOUT MATT SLATER
New England was operating without captain Matthew Slater on Sunday against the Bucs, but at first glance, the Patriots were able to get a good performance out of their special teams. Slater’s most important work is as a gunner on the punt coverage team, and it was interesting to see the Patriots put one of their two punt attempts out of bounds. (The Bucs were able to get one other punt return for 12 yards -- it appeared that Duron Harmon got the bulk of the work at gunner, opposite Marquice Cole.) As for the rest of the special teamers, New England was able to get a very good performance across the board against the Bucs when it came to the specialists. Stephen Gostkowski connected on all three field-goal attempts (from 53, 46 and 33 yards) and both his extra-point attempts, and also put all five of his kickoffs into the end zone. Punter Ryan Allen averaged 42.7 yards on his three attempts, and punt returner Julian Edelman averaged 14.5 yards per return on his two opportunities.
LEGARRETTE BLOUNT GOT THE BETTER OF HIS OLD TEAM SUNDAY
The New England offense really did a nice job of grinding down the Bucs with its final drive of the fourth quarter, a 4:36 sequence that took them from the Patriots’ 29-yard line to the Tampa Bay 11. While New England couldn’t cash in (it turned the ball over on downs at the Bucs’ 11-yard line), the series cleared nearly five minutes from the clock and allowed the Patriots to effectively close out the contest. Fifty-six of the 60 yards New England accounted for on the drive came from Blount, as the big back did his best Corey Dillon impression down the stretch. He came away with a season-high 14 carries on 65 yards, an impressive 4.6 yards per carry average. (During the sequence, his former housemate and old Tampa Bay teammate Aqib Talib could be seen on the sidelines, jumping up and down and cheering him on.) At first glance, it appears the Patriots have gotten the better of the Blount-for-Jeff Demps swap: Blount had 65 yards on 14 carries, while Demps’ two-week roster exemption ends Monday. He has yet to take the field for the Bucs.
THE MOST IMPORTANT YARDS OFTEN ARE THE ONES THAT COME ONE OR TWO AT A TIME
The Patriots were trailing 3-0 with just under 10 minutes left in the second quarter, and were facing a 4th and 2 from the Tampa Bay 37-yard line. To that point in the afternoon, the New England offense had been sluggish, punting on three consecutive possessions and drawing boos from the faithful at Gillette Stadium. But the Patriots decided to push their chips to the middle of the table and go for it: operating out of the shotgun, Brady zipped a pass to Aaron Dobson on a three-yard out route to the right side that Dobson turned into a six-yard gain. New England picked up the first down, and never looked back -- four plays later, Brady hit Thompkins on the first of two touchdowns to make it 7-3. Contrast that execution with the work of the Bucs, who whiffed on all four of their fourth-down chances. Tampa deserves kudos for understanding the philosophy that you have to take some chances and can’t be cowed when you face the Patriots in Foxboro, but to go 0-for-4 and throw in a missed field goal to boot wasn’t the sort of performance you’re looking for.
JULIAN EDELMAN REMAINS A TOUGH COVER
The Patriots got a strong afternoon from their rookie receivers, but Julian Edelman still finished with seven catches (on seven targets) for 44 yards. Heading into the Monday night game, he’s tied for the league lead in receptions with 27. In a weird statistical quirk, he has 201 yards for 7.4 yards per catch -- of all receivers who have at least 15 catches, only Dallas’ DeMarco Murray at 7.3 yards per catch, rookie Tavon Austin in St. Louis at 6.6 yards per catch and old pal Danny Woodhead at 6.4 yards per catch are behind Edelman. Despite that, he’s still the most trusted target that Brady has, having caught 27 balls on 34 targets. Those numbers will dip when the Gronkowski/Amendola/Vereen combo returns, but to this point, not many receivers have had the kind of start in the New England system that Edelman can boast of.
THE PATRIOTS' SEASON IS ABOUT TO GET TOUGHER
The Patriots just finished a stretch against three teams (the Bills, Jets and Bucs) who will be fortunate to combine for 20 wins before the season is done. They’ll now start a stretch against three good teams -- two of which made the postseason last year (Bengals and Falcons) and another that boasts one of the better offenses in the league (Saints). Two of the three games are on the road, and two of them boast elite-level quarterbacks. Once New England comes out the other end, we should have a better idea of just how good this team is. Through the stretch, the Patriots will be helped by the likely return of Gronkowski and Amendola, and so that could provide the first real look at the ceiling for the 2013 offense. Meanwhile, the defense will also be tested: after a three-game stretch where they faced some subpar offenses, Vince Wilfork, Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and Devin McCourty won’t have the same luxury over the next few weeks. How the Patriots respond to the challenge that’s been placed before them in the form of this three-game stretch will go a long way in determining the outcome of the 2013 team.