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Ben Volin | On Football

Patriots’ passing game: Drops, poor throws, no chemistry

A banged-up Julian Edelman had just two catches for 9 yards.
A banged-up Julian Edelman had just two catches for 9 yards.matthew j. lee/globe staff/Globe Staff

CINCINNATI – Julian Edelman stood in the locker room following the Patriots’ 34-13 win over the Bengals, listing all of the great things the Patriots did Sunday.

“Gilly [Stephon Gilmore] showing you what he is. That dude’s All-Pro,” Edelman said. “J.C. Jackson over here grabbing picks. The special teams, just doing what they’ve been doing. Defense has been rolling as well.

“It was awesome to come away from the game with no turnovers. That’s how you got to start to play around this time of year.”

Basically, the defense balled out, the special teams created another turnover, and the offense stayed out of the way and didn’t mess up.

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That’s where the Patriots seem to be after 14 games this season. Even though the Patriots scored 34 points, the game was still a grind, especially in the passing game. The Patriots’ offense was held to less than 300 total yards (291) for the fourth time in five games. And Tom Brady was held under 200 passing yards (128) for the third time in four games.

The good news is that, as Edelman said, the Patriots played relatively mistake-free football. Relatively, because Mohamed Sanu still dropped a pass on fourth and 4 that hit him right in the hands, and Sanu and Sony Michel had fumbles overturned by Bengals’ penalties, and the Patriots only had one drive longer than 47 yards all day — the 75-yard touchdown drive on the game’s opening possession.

Of the Patriots’ 34 points, 7 came on Gilmore’s pick-6, 14 points came on short fields (after a turnover and an onside kick), and a field goal came after the Bengals muffed a punt.

“Look, you score a bunch of points, you get a chance to win,” Bill Belichick said afterward. “However you get ’em, you get ’em.”

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The Patriots’ run game finally had a breakout performance, rushing for a season-high 175 yards on a 5.5-yard average. Sony Michel had a healthy 89 yards on 19 carries, and Rex Burkhead put the game away with a 33-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.

Then again, it came against a Bengals defense that entered the game ranked 32nd in rush defense (157 yards per game), and 29th in yards per carry allowed (4.9). But Belichick played up the Bengals like they are the Steel Curtain, perhaps sensing that his offensive players need a pick-me-up.

“To average over 5 yards per carry against that defense, that’s something to build off of,” Belichick said.

The Patriots’ passing game, though, is still a mess. Brady completed just 15-of-29 passes for 128 yards, marking the sixth time in seven games he has been held below 56 percent completion.

Brady was being a bit difficult when asked whether he is frustrated with the state of the passing game.

“In what sense?” he said.

Well, the yardage and completion percentage numbers probably aren’t where you want them to be.

“Yeah,” he said, acknowledging some frustration. “But we won. So, happy we won. Wish we’d always do better. There’s always things to improve on even when you win. But, yeah.”

Belichick still sent Brady out on the field with 5:02 left, though the score was comfortably in hand. Brady even threw a deep pass on third and 3 that fell incomplete.

“I just go in there when they tell me to go in there,” he said. “I just like playing.”

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But Belichick seemed to be sending a message to Brady and the passing offense: You guys still need work.

Brady couldn’t get into a rhythm with Sanu, connecting on just 2 of 8 passes for 13 yards. Brady misfired badly to Sanu down the seam early in the game, then fired a rocket off Sanu’s hands on fourth down.

N’Keal Harry, the rookie playing in his fifth game, caught just two passes for 15 yards. Matt LaCosse only had three catches for 22 yards, and tight end Ben Watson and rookie receiver Jakobi Meyers were shut out.

The only receiver Brady has any rhythm with is Edelman, and he is badly hobbled with knee and shoulder injuries. Edelman only had two catches for 9 yards, his lowest production since 2016.

“Obviously, probably not where we want to be,” Edelman said of the passing game. “But I don’t think we ever are, so that’s how we feel.”

It’s not all the quarterback’s and receivers’ fault, of course. The offensive line struggled in the first half, giving up two sacks on third down with the Bengals rushing just four. Brady hasn’t had much time in the pocket all season.

And it wasn’t all bad for the passing game, either. The screen game has thrived all season, and produced the only two passes longer than 20 yards Sunday — passes of 22 and 23 yards to James White on the opening drive, the second of which went for a touchdown. Patriots offensive linemen Ted Karras, Joe Thuney, and Shaq Mason did a great job of clearing a path for White on his touchdown.

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Harry, the first-round pick who played just two snaps in last week’s loss to the Chiefs, also seems to be gaining Brady’s trust, at least a little bit.

Harry’s 7-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter came on a scramble drill, where Brady was able to buy time in the pocket, and Harry found space in the back of the end zone.

“He’s fighting,” Brady said. “He’s a very hard-working guy. It’s fun to see him make those plays.”

“I’m starting to get more confident out there, game by game, play by play,” Harry added. “Just starting to get my groove back out there.”

The Patriots need Brady and the passing game to find their groove soon, too. They don’t get to play the Bengals every week, and can’t always rely on their defense and special teams to bail them out.


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin