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Pats' defense sputtering entering showdown with Bucs

TAMPA, Fla. -- The New England Patriots appear vulnerable after a 2-2 start, which includes a historically bad run of defense through the first four games.

But don't tell that to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Heading into Thursday night's game against the Patriots at Raymond James Stadium, the Bucs (2-1) are giving full respect to the defending Super Bowl champions.

"I would expect those (defensive) issues would all be taken care of by Thursday night," Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said. "They've got fantastic cover guys. What's tough about them is they're an amoeba defense. They can play any personnel group. They've always been able to adjust. They can switch at halftime. They've always been a difficult team to prepare for."

Through four games, though, including Sunday's 33-30 home defeat against the Carolina Panthers, the Patriots are off to their worst defensive start under coach Bill Belichick. They have allowed 128 points and 1,827 total yards, an average of 32 points and 456.8 yards per game.

According to STATS, since the 1970 NFL merger, it's the most points allowed in the first four games by a team that had the best scoring defense in the previous season.

"Collectively, we've got to do a lot better," Belichick said. "We've got to coach better. The players have to execute better."

Said Patriots safety Duron Harmon: "Obviously, what we're doing is not good enough. In my five years here, we've prided ourselves on being a smart and tough football team, especially defensively. We're just not doing it. ... Like I said, obviously, it's not enough."

Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower said it's mostly about the small details.

"The big plays and all that stuff, obviously, it's easy for guys to see that," Hightower said. "But it's the small things that happen ... getting that little bit of extra pressure on the quarterback, that extra knock on the center on the quick jam at the line of scrimmage.

"All the little things matter right now. Don't take things for granted, you know? Appreciate every little thing and be knowledgeable of each small detail."

Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston said he expects to get New England's best shot.

"We've got to be real with ourselves and know this is a week-to-week league," Winston said. "Teams are going to come back with a better plan. They're not going to just allow teams to get yards on them. They have a great coach, a great quarterback, a great defense."

The Patriots defense might be the focal point, but New England quarterback Tom Brady also has Winston's attention.

Growing up in Bessemer, Ala., Winston said he studied great quarterbacks. In a young Winston's eyes, Brady separated himself from the pack.

Winston said he's looking forward to meeting Brady for the first time.

"Getting a chance to witness greatness in front of us, Tom Brady coming into town, that gets you pumped up, definitely," Winston said. "I'm thinking, what am I going to say to him when I see him and meet him?'"

Winston said Brady's ability to protect the football and take advantage of opportunities has been "impeccable."

Brady is off to another huge individual start with a 66.5 completion percentage, 10 touchdowns, no interceptions and 1,399 yards in four games. With a victory on Thursday night, Brady (185-54) will tie Brett Favre (186-112) and Peyton Manning (186-79) for the most regular-season wins in NFL history.

Meanwhile, Belichick said Koetter has done "arguably as good as any coach has done with any quarterback in the first two years of a career," pointing out Winston's 4,000-yard passing seasons to start his NFL tenure.

Winston came up big in Sunday's 25-23 home win against the New York Giants, going 5-for-5 on the final drive that led to Nick Folk's game-winning 34-yard field goal as time expired.

Overall, Winston was 22-for-38 with 332 yards and three touchdowns against the Giants.

But Winston said he needs to do a better job of targeting wide receiver DeSean Jackson, a free-agent acquisition who has struggled to get opportunities. Jackson has just nine receptions in three games.

"I just have to get on track with him and I have to play better in all respect(s)," Winston said. "He has been open. It's obvious I have to get him the ball. He's going to make this team better.

"He's a big-time player who makes big-time plays at big-time moments. He's more happy winning than anything else."

The Bucs dialed up a winning effort against the Giants, despite playing without two starting linebackers, Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David. Neither player practiced on Monday or Tuesday, making it unlikely they would play against New England. If that's the case, rookie Kendell Beckwith again will start at middle linebacker and call the defensive signals.

Offensively, Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin returns after a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs (he sat out the final week of 2016). Koetter wouldn't speculate how much Martin will be used.

But in the three games without Martin, who had a pair of 1,000-yard rushing seasons in his previous five years, the Bucs averaged just 84.7 yards on the ground (26th in the NFL).

Updated October 3, 2017

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