Last season, the Patriots got to the Super Bowl thanks in part to an impressive running game and a solid, athletic offensive line that was one of the NFL’s best.
This year, with mostly the same group of running backs but limited options at tight end, an offensive line that’s been hit by injuries, and on paper one of the best groups of wide receivers in franchise history, it figures the passing game will be what drives the offense. As long as Tom Brady has time to throw.
The Patriots look like a juggernaut, so it’s hyperbolic to call this much of a concern, but it’s worth monitoring going forward if Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels can call everything they’d like to for the likes of Antonio Brown, Josh Gordon, and Phillip Dorsett if the line won’t be able to provide enough time for routes to develop and those plays to work.
“Some plays, if this player was in there, we might want to run that, but maybe he’s not available this week so we’ll go with something else, and that frequently happens, no question about it,” Belichick said Tuesday. “It’s a consideration. Ultimately, it comes down to matchups, and if you are concerned about a particular matchup then you’ve got to really decide how much you really want to run that play.”
The Patriots were in a position with some parallels in 2017, especially early in the season. Two of Brady’s leading receivers were Brandin Cooks and Rob Gronkowski, who averaged 16.6 and 15.7 yards per catch, respectively. That iteration of the offense was more reliant on downfield passing than most others.
It worked, with the Patriots finishing ranked first in points and second in total yards, but one unfortunate byproduct was that Brady got walloped, especially early on. Overall, he was sacked on 5.7 percent of dropbacks, which ranked 13th, and was sacked 35 times that season, ninth most in the league.
So far, so good this year. Brady has been sacked three times. The offensive line was excellent against a physical Steelers defensive front. The Dolphins game went fine with mostly backups playing a toothless defense.
The injuries continue to pile up, though, the latest blow coming Tuesday when left tackle Isaiah Wynn (turf toe) was placed on injured reserve. At the earliest, he can return for Week 11. In the interim, one task will be finding a way to support the linemen without hamstringing the vertical passing game.
“We can’t do everything but we can do the things that we feel confident in, that we’re able to practice and prepare for, and hopefully we can do a good job of those as we’re starting to expand overall with that group,” Belichick said.
The Patriots have used plenty of motion and made a few decisions — getting Gordon to bulk up and work more out of the slot comes to mind — that stretch the field horizontally, not just vertically. That’s something McDaniels said mostly depends on the defense they’re facing.
“There were times where we may have called something with an attempt to put the ball down the field in one of those areas the other day, and based on what they were doing it didn’t really allow for it, and then the ball had to go somewhere else,” McDaniels said. “So I don’t ever think you want to become too one-dimensional in terms of trying to continue to throw the ball laterally or horizontally without pushing it up the field, and we tried to marry our scheme with the talents and abilities and strengths of our players, hoping to keep in mind what we anticipate from the defense.”
Falk not unfamiliar
Luke Falk had never played an NFL snap until Monday night and was just activated from the Jets’ practice squad, but with Sam Darnold out with mononucleosis and backup Trevor Siemian out for the season with an ankle injury, Falk is the presumed starter on Sunday against the Patriots.
Belichick said that doesn’t mean New England doesn’t have ample scouting on him.
“We have to know all the players that are on our opponent’s roster, including really the practice squad players because we know that they could be moved up at the last moment like what happened in the Pittsburgh game and Miami last week with the offensive lineman for Miami and there was a linebacker in Pittsburgh, so those moves can happen on Saturday,” Belichick said. “We have to be ready and anticipate those ahead of time, so all of the players that are on the active roster we have to prepare for.”
Belichick also commented on the decision to deal Demaryius Thomas to the Jets last week, his first-ever trade with the Jets.
“There was, I would say, a certain period of time when there’s no way this transaction would’ve happened,” Belichick said. “But during other periods of time — yeah, again, we don’t want to help the Jets, they don’t want to help us. We’re in the same division, so they’re not the easiest trades to make but, you know, if the trade is good for both teams, and ultimately what we’re trying to do is improve our team.”