Wes Welker knows he’s a rare commodity in the National Football League.
“Catching 5-yard routes, you’ve got to be able to do something with it afterward,” the NFL’s most accomplished receiver said about making yards after a catch. “That’s something I’ve got to be able to do, or I’ll be out of a job here pretty quick. It’s definitely something I take pride in and try to accomplish.”
On Sunday against Tampa Bay, he had 10 receptions for 107 yards and one touchdown on the way to the relatively easy, 35-7 win over the Buccaneers at London’s Wembley Stadium. (Check out the full recap here.) Most of the catches were typical Welker — quick little screens where he zig-zags back and forth, trying to find daylight.
“He’s a great player. He does everything right out there. He’s always in the right spot. He gets open vs. any coverage, any route,” quarterback Tom Brady said of Welker, who now has seven career regular-season games with 10 or more receptions, including three this year (he had 12 vs. Buffalo and 10 vs. Tennessee). “He and Randy [Moss] and the way [Sam Aiken] played today, they all stepped up and made some great plays. We needed it.”
But it’s more than the catches. Brady trusts Welker in a way he trusts no other wide receiver. Over the last two games, Welker has caught 20 of the 21 passes that were thrown in his direction. This season, he’s been targeted for 62 passes and caught 46, the best percentage of anyone on the team who has more than 10 receptions.
On Sunday, Welker was targeted 10 times by Brady, and he caught all 10 passes, including a classic Welker-style touchdown where the slot receiver took a quick throw from Brady, made his way through traffic and splashed down in the end zone on a 14-yard reception with 2:16 left in the first quarter.
“Those guys did a great job of getting a hat on a hat, and when I saw [cornerback] Ronde Barber slip, I knew we had a chance to get into the end zone,” Welker said.
Welker arrived prior to the start of the 2007 season. Since then, Brady has completed 561 passes for 6,606 yards in 24 regular-season games. Welker has accounted for roughly one-quarter of those receptions (151) and one-quarter of that yardage (1,572) by himself. Sunday was no exception, as he accounted for 107 of Brady’s 308 passing yards.
“He had a lot of big plays,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “He comes through like he always does.”
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday:
EVEN WHEN HE’S LESS THAN HIS BEST, TOM BRADY STILL CAN BE OVERWHELMING
Remarkably, for a team that was able to put 35 points on the board, it was an occasionally sloppy effort on the part of the New England offense, which appeared to have its attention wander for large portions of the game, Brady included.
Despite the fact that he finished 23-of-32 for 308 yards, the quarterback threw a pair of interceptions. His first was a rather lazy-looking floater meant for Randy Moss that was picked off in the end zone by Tanard Jackson. It broke a streak of 183 completions between interceptions (dating back to a Week 2 loss to the Jets), which set a franchise record. (Drew Bledsoe went 179 consecutive throws without an interception, going from Oct. 23, 1995, to Nov. 26, 1995.) Brady's second pick was a shot downfield for Brandon Tate that was snared by Aqib Talib, an acrobatic interception that was probably the highlight of the day for the Bucs.
“Those plays happen at times when you’re trying to make the right play — it happens,” Brady said. “I’m happy with the way we responded in the second half. We came out and put a touchdown on the board early, and had a great drive there at the end. So I’m not disappointed at all.”
Even though Brady wasn’t sharp at times, he was more than good enough to help the Patriots beat the woeful Bucs, who could not offer any sort of sustained offense all afternoon.
“We went out there and put two touchdowns on the board there in the second half,” Brady said. “We had plenty of distractions coming over here, but everybody was really energized. To get the win and fly home and have a [bye] week off is just great.”
“Tom, he’s the guy that changed the game. He’s the guy you worry about constantly,” said Tampa Bay’s first-year head coach Raheem Morris. “When you have a great quarterback like that, that’s what he does and that’s what he will do for you.”
THAT BENG SAID, THE BUCS WERE NEVER IN IT
The Bucs never had a shot. Sure, they had some really nice moments — they were the first team to pick off Brady in the red zone since 2005, and Talib had one of the most acrobatic interceptions you’ll ever see. There also was a nice throw-and-catch between Josh Johnson and Antonio Bryant that ended up as a 33-yard scoring strike at the end of the first half.
But Tampa Bay can take a small measure of satisfaction in knowing it denied the 2009 Patriots the chance to become the first New England team in almost 27 years to pitch back-to-back shutouts. (Ron Meyer and the 1982 Patriots were the last New England team to turn the trick, coming away with a 3-0 win over the Dolphins in the Mark Henderson "Snow Plow” Game on Dec. 12, followed by a 16-0 win over the Seahawks in Seattle a week later.)
Small satisfaction for a team in the throes of an 11-game skid — the longest the franchise has endured since the 1976-77 Bucs lost 26 straight games.
“Give credit to [the Patriots],” Tampa linebacker Barrett Ruud told reporters. “Aqib is playing great. He shut down Randy Moss, pretty much. They hit us with a bunch of short routes, which is what they do. They throw a bunch of short routes and then try to hit Randy over the top. We took one part of it away. But they were able to hurt us with the other part.”
BRANDON MERIWEATHER IS A TONE-SETTER
The safety came away with a pair of interceptions in the first six minutes of the contest, leaving the Buccaneers reeling and setting the stage for an afternoon when the Tampa Bay passing game accounted for just 95 passing yards in the first half and just 172 yards on the day.
On the first series, Meriweather stepped in front of wide receiver Sammie Stroughter on a short slant, picked off Josh Johnson’s throw and ran untouched into the end zone.
“I just happened to have a good break on the ball,” Meriweather said. “I think the quarterback and receiver were on two different pages, and he just happened to throw it to me. Any big play sets the mood.”
On the next drive, the Bucs drove to New England’s 32 when Meriweather intercepted Johnson again on a deep throw down the middle intended for Michael Clayton. He ran the ball back 31 yards to the 46. He became the first Patriot to intercept two passes in a game since cornerback Asante Samuel picked a pair against Philly on Nov. 25, 2007. In addition, he became the first Pats defensive player to score a touchdown since Eugene Wilson returned a pick 5 yards for a touchdown on Dec. 16, 2007, against the Jets.
It is the latest step in a continuing growth process for Meriweather, who, halfway through his third season in the league, is becoming the dynamic playmaker and leader the team has hoped he would become.
“I think Brandon’s had a real good year for us. From the beginning of training camp he's really been a leader for us, making calls, making adjustments, sometimes taking harder responsibilities with the safeties,” Belichick said of Meriweather, who also had a pair of tackles on the afternoon. “There are a lot of plays he makes that don't show up on the stat sheet. Today’s plays did.”
ADALIUS THOMAS WASN’T AS BIG A DEAL SUNDAY AS WE BELIEVED HE MIGHT BE
A week after the outside linebacker was a healthy scratch for the first time since he was a rookie in 2000, Thomas got the call to start Sunday against the Bucs. He played 16 snaps (by my count), and wasn’t much of a factor in the contest. Belichick did acknowledge his work, including his stop of Tampa Bay running back Derrick Ward in the second quarter on a third-and-short situation.
“I think Adalius did a good job,” Belichick said. “I’d have to take a look at the film, but there were a few plays out there — a short-yardage play, it looked like he made a nice play on that, the third-and-1. He’s a good player. He contributed a lot for us the last 2½ years, and I’m sure he’ll continue to in the future.”
One other linebacker did hit a milestone on Sunday: Veteran Junior Seau now has won 24 conseuctive regular-season games in which he appeared with New England, tying defensive tackle Maulty Moore of the Dolphins (1972-73) for the longest personal winning streak since the merger. Seau’s record stretches from two wins in November 2006 (he finished the 2006 season on the injured reserve list), 16 regular-season wins in 2007, the final four games of 2008 and the wins over Tennessee and Tampa Bay in 2009. Seau had been tied at 23 with former Patriots running back Patrick Pass, whose streak ran from 2003-04.
THE PATRIOTS OFFENSIVE LINE IS IN FOR A TOUGH DAY IN THE FILM ROOM
The Patriots committed 10 penalties on the day (one shy of tying the team record for most in a game this year) with eight of them going against the New England offensive line. Left guard Logan Mankins was flagged for three false starts and a holding penalty while left tackle Sebastian Vollmer (in his second career start, replacing a still-injured Matt Light) was hit twice for holding. In addition, center Dan Koppen was caught once in a false start and right guard Stephen Neal was penalized for being an illegal man downfield.
As a group, the linemen were able to keep Brady upright for most of the day — they limited the Bucs to just four quarterback hits and one sack — but Belichick clearly wasn’t happy after the game.
“We play in noisy stadiums on the road every week. That’s no excuse. We have to do a better job than that,” Belichick said when asked about the false starts. “We play in stadiums that are deafening. We just have to execute that better.”
MAYBE THE WHOLE IDEA OF “TIME IN THE SYSTEM” IS OVERRATED
In the wake of Joey Galloway’s release and Julian Edelman’s injury, Brandon Tate made a good argument for himself as the Patriots’ No. 3 receiver Sunday against the Buccaneers. Tate saw his first action at the NFL level, coming away with 11 yards on an end-around, as well as 44 yards on a pair of kick returns.
Tate’s accomplishment was all the more impressive considering he was activated this week from the reserve/non-football injury list. The rookie suffered a knee injury last season as a collegian at North Carolina, and while he was allowed to sit in on meetings, he wasn’t allowed to take part in practices until the past week.
The 6-foot-1, 195-pound Tate was allowed to practice for the first time all season on Wednesday, and clearly made the most of his time — he was officially activated to the 53-man roster early Sunday morning. On the field Sunday, he was targeted once by Brady on a deep ball down the middle of the field, but the underthrown ball was picked off by Talib.
“He did good,” Brady said of the 22-year-old Tate. “It’s pretty tough to do without practicing at all, all through training camp and the first six weeks of the year, and you come out there and return kicks like he did. He had a nice play on a reverse. We need depth at that position, and he’s going to be called upon as a contributor even though he’s a rookie, so he just has to continue making improvements.”
IN THE RACE TO BE THE NO. 3 RECEIVER, SAM AIKEN CAN ALSO FEEL GOOD ABOUT HIS CHANCES
The special teams captain had two catches for 66 yards, including a 54-yard grab that went for his first career touchdown. He was at his best when he gathered in a laser from Brady over the middle and turned a quick crossing pattern into a 54-yard touchdown when he first outraced Ruud and then sped past Jackson on his way to the end zone.
“We needed him to step up today — we only had four receivers in the game, not including Slater,” Belichick said of the 28-year-old Aiken, in his second season with the Patriots. “We knew Brandon Tate was going to be a little bit limited in the number of snaps that he got, so Sam did a nice job of filling in there and stepping up and making plays. Not just filling in, but being productive for us.”
The 54-yard play was the longest of the season for New England, besting a 48-yard pass play from Brady to Welker against Tennessee. It was Brady’s longest touchdown pass since a 65-yard touchdown pass to Moss in the 2007 regular-season finale against the Giants on Dec. 29, 2007.
THE PATRIOTS WERE ABLE TO EMBRACE SOME OF THE POSITIVE ASPECTS OF THE JOURNEY
No one was all that interested in heading overseas, but the time away from New England could ultimately prove beneficial. According to Brady, the team was able to use its time together in a positive way — the Patriots went out to dinner. According to Welker, the British public had never heard of them.
“They thought we were a boy band,” Welker said. “We had two offensive linemen with us. I don’t know where they got that from.”
“We all went out to dinner on Friday night, which you don’t get a chance to do too often, spending 10 meals together and all sitting on the plane together,” Brady said. “And I think just that experience for all of us and getting to know each other will hopefully serve us well down the road. There’s been a lot of new players, and it’s kind of nice to all come together and experience something like this. It’s kind of a unique bonding experience for all of us.”
THE PATRIOTS OWE THE SCHEDULE-MAKERS A THANK-YOU NOTE
It doesn’t come at the perfect time — that would probably be after next week, the official midpoint of the regular season — but considering what the Patriots just went through and the stretch that looms ahead, they won’t complain about the fact that they’ll have next week off. There are more than enough injured players who need to heal up, including running backs Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris, as well as Edelman and Ty Warren, who went down with an ankle injury late in Sunday’s game.
In addition, there’s the toughest stretch of the season looming, with four games against teams (Miami, Indianapolis, the New York Jets and New Orleans) that now have a combined record of 18-7.
“It’s nice going into a bye with a couple of victories under our belt. It’s going to be a fun flight home,” Brady said. “We’ll take time to kind of do some self-scouting, reflect on what we’ve done, what’s been successful and what hasn’t.
“Certainly there are some good things to take from being 5-2. We’ve had two poor halves of football there against the Jets and the Broncos. Those outcomes may have been a bit different. We have some pretty tough games coming up, but that was a good one to get today.”