FOXBOROUGH — The moment came during the final half-dozen minutes of the Pittsburgh game, just after the visitors had clawed back to within 10 points. Aaron Dobson lined up near the left sideline on first down and noticed that cornerback Ike Taylor was poised to jump the run. Tom Brady noticed it, too.
“We were talking about that play all week and giving [Dobson] a chance to get behind the defense,” the quarterback said. So Dobson altered his route and Brady hit him for an 81-yard catch-and-run score that put the Steelers out of commission.
“It was great coverage recognition and those are things that, the more you do with quarterback-receiver, they know when I’m looking and when there will be a great opportunity for them to get the ball,” said Brady, who had thrown to Dobson for a 17-yard touchdown earlier in the quarter. “That’s what receivers do. They try to do everything they can to get the ball. They want to know where they need to be so they can get the ball.”
For Dobson, who submitted the first 100-yard day of his career, it was another step in the ongoing education and evolution of a rookie receiver who is developing into the long-range weapon the Patriots hoped they were getting when they took him in the second round out of Marshall, their highest draftee at that position since Chad Jackson in 2006.
“I think the adjustment for a rookie receiver is huge in this league, in any offense,” observed coach Bill Belichick, who pronounced himself pleased with Dobson’s progress. “I really can’t speak for what the other 31 teams do but I just think in terms of the overall sophistication of the passing game in the National Football League: the players, the amount of press coverage on the perimeter, the number of different coverages and route adjustments that you have to make, situational play — third down, red area, two-minute, end-of-game situations — all those plus the normal plays, all that gets pretty complex.”
Dobson was flattered that a franchise that had won three Super Bowls in four years with a future Hall of Fame signal-caller saw him as a desirable addition to its offensive arsenal. “I was excited about it because I felt like they saw something in me that maybe they didn’t see in other people,” Dobson said. He knew there would be accompanying expectations and that he would not immediately hit the fast lane in overdrive. He also realized that knowing the playbook cold was merely the entrance exam.
“You’ve got to learn a lot, you’ve got to be on your thing,” Dobson said. “You’ve got to study a lot because there’s so much. You’ve got to see what happens before the snap and after the snap, so there’s a lot of things that play into it. You’ve got to buckle down and study and know what you’ve got to do.”
With Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, and Danny Woodhead departed, an intensive group tutorial with Brady was in order for Dobson and fellow rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce. “It’s still going on to this day,” said Thompkins, who started the first seven games after arriving undrafted out of Cincinnati. “We’re trying to get on the same page with [Brady] and make sure that we’re doing what he wants us to do.”
For the newbies, that was not unlike bookmarking a volume with 500 pages that were turning rapidly. “I think there are some challenges that are built into playing with a veteran established quarterback that we have in Tom,” said receivers coach Chad O’Shea. “I look at it as a great advantage in being able to play with somebody like that.”
Brady is peerless in his ability to find the open receiver among multiple moving targets and then get the ball to him. What he expects is that said receiver will be where he’s supposed to be and will make the catch. Early on when Dobson wasn’t or didn’t, he received Brady’s annoyed stare.
“Obviously, I’ve been watching Tom since I was young so I know what type of player he is — he’s a perfectionist,” Dobson said. “You can’t take it personally. It’s going to happen. If we mess up he might be yelling at us but we can’t take it personally.”
As the rookies gradually have come up to speed, Brady’s exasperation with botched plays has diminished. And as Dobson has become more comfortable with the speed and sophistication of the pro game, his quarterback has come to appreciate his diligence and dedication. “Aaron has grown since the time he got here and his caliber of play and his level of execution, his understanding of our offense, has gone up significantly,” Brady said.
What Dobson understands is that the X’s and O’s look decidedly different on the field. “On paper it looks cool, it looks easy,” he said, “but executing it takes time.” Though Dobson had plenty of company whenever he ventured near the end zone in his Marshall days, the collegiate defenders were smaller and slower than those he sees now and the pace was more moderate.
“The whole speed of the game amps up from college,” said Dobson. “It’s how everybody moves. Every second matters. You’ve got to get into your route because if it takes a little bit too long the hole might be closed. Everything just moves that much faster.”
Dobson can accelerate, too, and his basketball background (he was an all-state high school performer in West Virginia) has made him adept at wresting away a ball in traffic. And he’s learned how to take a licking and keep on ticking. “He’s taken some hits,” said Belichick. “He’s fought through some bumps and bruises and he stays out there and keeps going and gets through it. That helps because you learn but you can’t really improve [by] watching. You have to go out there and do it and get the timing and execution with your teammates, and he fights through and does it.”
After sitting out the opener and coming off the bench in three of the subsequent four games, Dobson now is a fixture in the starting lineup and he has learned the secret of attracting Brady’s attention before the hurly-burly begins. “Trying to see what he sees,” said Dobson. “When he alerts and maybe changes it around maybe I see it before he sees it or see it at the same time, so I’m looking forward to seeing him checking. It’s all about being on the same page.”
So it was against the Steelers, and as Dobson’s evolution and education continue during his first semester, the Patriots are hoping for more of the same from the man they call “A.D.” “The longer we play together, the better we’re going be at those things,” predicted Brady. “It’s constant improvement, and you don’t ever stop in this game. It evolves and changes but you’ve got to figure out ways to improve yourself and improve your team and hopefully that leads to more wins than losses.”