Observations from the Patriots' 35-7 win over the Buccaneers:
1. Safety valves: Not only are Patriots safeties Brandon McGowan and Brandon Meriweather quickly becoming one of the best tandems in the league, their games are improving and evolving to where the coaching staff can utilize their abilities to keep offenses confused and perplexed. Meriweather took another step toward becoming a premier safety by picking off two of Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Johnson's passes, returning one for a score on the fifth play of the game. It was Meriweather's first career interception return for a touchdown. McGowan has been a heavy hitter for the Pats' defense all year, but it was his versatility that showed versus the Buccaneers. He often lined up at outside linebacker in the Patriots' 3-4 defense. From that outside linebacker spot, McGowan did everything from playing the run to rushing the passer. When in coverage he drew the assignment of covering Buccaneers tight end Kellen Winslow. The athletic tight end had just two receptions for 9 yards.
2. Thomas returns: After a week of speculation about Adalius Thomas' unexplained benching for last week's game against the Titans, Thomas was back at his usual starting outside linebacker spot. He only registered one tackle and his playing time was not significant, but is a step in the right direction.
3. Hybrids en vogue: Perhaps a reason for Thomas' lack of playing time versus the Buccaneers was the utilization of players that fulfill a variety of roles. Tully Banta-Cain has been emerging as a valuable player who lines up at various positions. In the 3-4 defense, he saw action as an outside linebacker, and when the Patriots went to the 4-3 look, Banta-Cain was a down lineman. In third-down situations, he rushed the passer from the defensive end position. Derrick Burgess is another player who plays a slew of positions. These hybrid players are becoming more valuable to Patriots defensive schemes that continue to expand. Banta-Cain and Burgess give the defensive coaches flexibility to run multiple defenses from the same personnel groups. Offenses won't know how the Patriots are matching up until the snap of the football.
4. The athlete? Tom Brady wasn't the most athletic quarterback on the field Sunday, but he used his athletic ability more effectively than Johnson. While Johnson was looking for the opportunity to use his legs and run, Patriots defenders kept him in the pocket by staying in their rush lanes. This neutralized Johnson's most valued asset, his scrambling ability. Combine that with the Patriots' disguising their coverages and you end up with a young quarterback forced to make decisions from a place he does not want to be. Johnson threw three interceptions (one was returned for a score) and was sacked three times. The way Brady used his athletic ability was subtle, but brilliant. He wants to be in the pocket. When he feels pressure, his use of movement is second to none. To stay alive he will slide-step, shuffle, reset his feet, dip his shoulder, gain ground in the pocket. All of this is done in the smallest of spaces. Athletic ability to be revered? No. But as an NFL quarterback, it's worth a king's ransom. On Brady's 54-yard touchdown pass to Sam Aiken, Brady's athletic ability was on full display when he eluded the Buccaneers' pass-rushers to stay alive and deliver the ball to Aiken for the score.
5. Bye, bye: What more could the Patriots want going into their bye week? They've had two decisive victories in which they've gained an identity and young players have received valuable playing time and confidence. They are sitting atop the AFC East thanks to the struggles of Mark Sanchez and the New York Jets (prior to Sunday's big win over the Raiders). Brady has thrown nine touchdown passes in the past two weeks and the defense is among the league's best in points allowed. A week off is well deserved, but there are some areas that need to be addressed, namely injuries to Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris, Matt Light and Julian Edelman. Also, Ty Warren (ankle injury) was seen being carted off the field in London. These players will be needed down the stretch. The punt team looked shaky at best versus the Bucs. A false start on an attempted fake, and a partially blocked punt and protection breakdowns all game are cause for concern. You never notice a struggling punt team unit until you hear that dreaded double thud when a punt is blocked. The Patriots start playing quality competition after the bye -- the Dolphins at home followed by a trip to Indy are on tap. The days of playing winless opponents are over.