Another week, another test in which the New England Patriots must prove that their offense can continue to get by without Aaron Hernandez.
The tight end, who went down with an ankle sprain in Week 2 against the Arizona Cardinals, was absent from practice again this week, according to the Boston Herald. The timetable for his return is still unclear.
His absence has clearly taken a toll on a Patriots offense that has heavily relied on its duo of tight ends—Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski—to carry much of the load since the beginning of last season. In 2011, Gronkowski and Hernandez were right behind Wes Welker with the most targets and the most yardage on the New England receiving corps.
Without Hernandez yet again, what can we expect of this unit against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday?
First and foremost, we can expect New England to go with a pass-heavy attack against a Buffalo team that is much stronger against the run (100.3 yards allowed per game) than the pass (248.3 yards allowed per game). That means good things for Welker, Gronkowski and Brandon Lloyd.
Let's start with Welker.
Prior to last week's loss at Baltimore, much was said about the idea that Bill Belichick was phasing out the former top target in favor of Julian Edelman. Given the fact that Edelman left Sunday's game with a hand injury and his status is unclear for this week's game, that leaves even fewer targets for Tom Brady.
And thus, more work for Welker.
Against the Baltimore Ravens, Welker led all receivers with 142 yards, but he still has yet to grab a touchdown this season. That could very well change on Sunday against a defense that isn't as tough as Baltimore's, on an offense that really has no choice but to utilize him to his fullest.
Of all the remaining (healthy) receivers on this team, Welker is the most experienced and Brady trusts him the most.
This could be Welker's best week yet.
Fellow wideout Lloyd also emerged against the Ravens. In Week 2 against Arizona, Lloyd made eight catches. However, in Week 3, he made nine for 108 yards—his first 100-plus-yard game of the season—but like Welker still needs that elusive first touchdown. This thinning wide receiving corps should create more opportunities for him in Week 4.
Gronkowski has always been one of Brady's favorite targets, but he wasn't a substantial factor in Sunday's loss, making just two catches on three targets for 21 yards. Given the Bills' weakness against the pass—and given the fact that Gronkowski got 108 yards and two touchdowns when these two teams last met—those numbers should improve substantially.
Brady is going to be primarily looking to these three guys this week against Buffalo, even more so if he doesn't have Edelman. Especially given the way the Patriots' rushing attack was neutralized last week against Baltimore, it's going to be up to these three to carry the offense.
Welker: 8 catches, 120 yards, 1 TD
Lloyd: 6 catches, 80 yards
Gronkowski: 7 catches, 85 yards, 1 TD