FOXBOROUGH — Rookie quarterbacks haven’t exactly made life simple for New England’s defense this season.
The Patriots finally will face a veteran Sunday, though, and they’re quite familiar with Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman.
“He’s a big guy. I didn’t realize how big he was,” New England defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. “Until you see him in person, you realize he’s 6-5, 6-6. Big presence in the pocket.”
Ninkovich was speaking from plenty of firsthand experience.
New England and Tampa Bay held joint practices each of the last two training camps. And contrary to facing a pair of first-year signal-callers in Buffalo’s EJ Manuel and the New York Jets’ Geno Smith, there is plenty of tape to watch on the fifth-year Freeman.
There’s been more than enough time to prepare, too. Sunday will mark 10 days since the Patriots (2-0) last played a game.
“The more film you have of somebody, obviously, the easier it is,” Patriots safety Steve Gregory said.
Nothing has been easy for New England. And Tampa Bay (0-2) isn’t about to change that.
Between Freeman, explosive running back Doug Martin and 6-foot-5, 230-pound receiver Vincent Jackson, the Patriots are in for another test despite the Buccaneers’ record.
“We have our hands full with (Martin) and Vincent Jackson. There’s no letdown with those two on the field,” Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. “It’s going to be a challenge for us. But at the same time, every week it feels like it’s something different.
“But that’s football. You get challenged in different ways every week. It’s going to be different from the first two weeks for us.”
But it starts and ends with the tough-to-tackle Freeman. Despite rumors that he wants to be traded, coupled with a poor start to the season, Freeman still poses a threat to New England’s defense.
“I think Josh has real good physical skills and he’s matured and developed a lot as a player,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “Even working against him in practice the last two years, just seeing him on a consecutive-day basis standing out there watching him throw the ball, run the offense, handle the team, he’s definitely grown and developed as a quarterback and is a guy who can run the offense and has all the physical talent to make all the throws, scramble and get out of trouble.
“He’s a hard guy to sack.”
Freeman isn’t off to the best start, completing just 45.3 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He’s not much of a threat to run the ball, either, something New England had to contend with when facing Manuel and Smith.
“As a D-line, you just try and get the pressure on him and get him thinking,” Ninkovich said. “Just getting pressure on him, having him make quick decisions, that’s what you want to do to get after him.”
They’ve certainly wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks so far. In fact, New England’s defense surprisingly has helped overcome a shaky start by Tom Brady and the offense.
Usually, it’s the other way around.
Trailing by four points in the fourth quarter of the opener at Buffalo, the Patriots forced three punts and recovered a late fumble to help seal the win. Four days later, with Brady and a slew of rookie receivers struggling to connect, the defense recorded four sacks of Smith and intercepted him three times in the fourth quarter to end the upset bid.
“I think everyone knows we’re a couple of plays away from losing games and they were a couple of plays away from winning games,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. “So you really can’t always take a team just from the record.”
And as much as the Patriots seem to understand what Freeman is capable of doing, the benefits extend to both teams.
“Having those preseason practices and the game, you can kind of get a sense of personnel, strengths, weaknesses. And they also have the same thing, too,” Ninkovich said. “It was cool to have practices against them, but it is preseason and it’s not like they’re throwing everything at us and we’re throwing everything at them.
“This is a regular season game and this is where it counts.”
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org