MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Everyone knew that Antonio Brown would suit up for the Patriots on Sunday against the Dolphins once the NFL cleared him to play.
But how quickly could he learn the offense after joining the team last Monday? Could he integrate right away despite having just three practices with his new team?
It took all of two snaps in the Patriots’ 43-0 win for Brown to start answering those questions.
Tom Brady’s first pass of the day, on the Patriots’ second play from scrimmage, went Brown’s way, 18 yards over the middle for the first down. Brady then connected with Brown twice more on the opening drive, for 18 more yards. And in the second quarter, Brady fired a bullet to Brown near the front pylon of the end zone, connecting on a back-shoulder throw for a 20-yard touchdown.
Brown’s four catches and 56 receiving yards led the Patriots on Sunday. He also drew a holding penalty in the end zone that led to the first touchdown of the day.
“I don’t think any of us had any doubts about AB’s skillset,” fellow receiver Josh Gordon said. “I think it was just good for everybody to see it in an actual game. He continues to be who we expect him to be, and that’s a great wide receiver.”
Brown was ultimately just a role player on Sunday, playing in 23 of the Patriots’ 72 snaps (including penalties). He played just 10 snaps after halftime, partly because he is still learning the offense, partly because it was a blowout.
Brown didn’t stick around the Patriots’ postgame locker room to speak with reporters, either.
There were a few struggles, which is understandable given Brown hasn’t been a Patriot for even a week. After connecting on all four throws in the first half, Brown and Brady misfired on each of their four targets in the second half, as the Dolphins started regularly double-teaming Brown. And twice near the goal line in the third quarter, Brady and Brown couldn’t get on the same page, with Brown twice not quite ready for the ball to come his way.
“We have a long way to go. We really do,” Brady said. “I feel like we haven’t been working together very long. Just trying to get in a rhythm.”
The Patriots didn’t put too much on Brown’s plate — the only time he went in motion came on a designed jet sweep that he took for five yards. But Brown still displayed a variety of skills that show why he is one of the two or three best receivers in the NFL.
He played both in the slot (15 snaps) and on the outside (eight snaps). Brown showed impressive quickness off the line of scrimmage with his three first-quarter grabs, which all came against single coverage. The jet sweep will also be something that opposing defensive coordinators will have to prepare for all season.
And on his touchdown catch in the second quarter, Brady made an “alert” at the line of scrimmage, then hit Brown on a perfect back-shoulder throw with former Patriot Jomal Wiltz in coverage.
Brady wouldn’t reveal much about how much he worked with Brown over the past week (and wouldn’t comment last week on whether Brown is living with Brady at his home in Brookline). Brown spent much of his day Sunday near Brady — sitting next to him on the bench, and catching his passes when Brady was warming up on the sideline.
“We’re just trying to do the best we can do to get up to speed and ultimately come out here and play well,” Brady said.
But the fact that Brown could not only contribute right away, but also be on the same page with Brady at the line of scrimmage, was a great start for the duo.
“It was awesome. He’s a playmaker,” receiver Julian Edelman said of Brown. “He’s a smart football player. He’s played in this league awhile, he knows football. It’s awesome to get him out there and established a little bit.”
The Patriots’ offense has a different feel now with Brown in the lineup — much more receiver-heavy than in recent years. With Brown, Gordon, Edelman, and Phillip Dorsett, the Patriots’ receiving corps is arguably the offense’s deepest unit. Several times on Sunday, the Patriots used “10” personnel — four receivers, one running back, and no tight end, a grouping they rarely if ever used a year ago.
“They’re going to have to cover somebody. You’re either going to focus on him or focus on me,” Gordon said. “It’s a tremendous asset. It takes a huge stress off of the offensive linemen, the running backs, everybody. There’s no way you can pinpoint one facet of our offense to try to shut us down.”
Sunday’s game was just a warmup for Brown and Brady, as the star receiver continues to learn the offense. But Brown earned high marks on his first test.
“Guys that are football smart just pick it up,” Gordon said. “He’s one of those guys that’s gifted in that area. He was able to come here and adapt on the fly. But it just goes to show how much he really wants to be a part of this offense.”