What adjustments do Tom Brady and Co. need to make?
Realistically, any reasonable New England Patriots fan had to see this coming.
Sure, the preseason results were encouraging and the upside of the young offense remains undeniable. But to expect the Patriots to immediately replicate their historic pace of the past several seasons was far-fetched. Thus, Pats fans may have to get used to the herky-jerky unit that looked nothing like the well-oiled machine of recent years.
This does not mean the Patriots offense will struggle so badly the entire year (a certain tight end's return will help), and New England has always prided itself on peaking late in the season. Panic may be abound among the Foxboro faithful this week, but as Bleacher Report's Matt Miller notes, a healthy dose of patience is necessary with so many new faces:
Unlike past years, the issues with the offense are on a much larger scale than usual (remember when fans fretted that Deion Branch was not an ideal No. 3 receiver?). That is to be expected, and the flaws are certainly correctable with experience and health.
These improvements will not arrive immediately, certainly not by Thursday night against the Jets. But with both Week 2 and the long-term picture in mind, here are three adjustments the Patriots offense must make based on their Week 1 showing.
Develop Trust on Timing Routes
This was perhaps the most glaring deficiency to emerge from the Patriots' Week 1 win. Tom Brady clearly felt uncomfortable throwing to anyone besides the trio of Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and Shane Vereen.
As you might expect with those three, that meant the Pats relied heavily on bubble screens and "rub" concepts in important situations. A good example of this came on Amendola's critical 3rd-and-9 reception during the game-winning drive. The Patriots often lined up in trips bunch formations—perfect for wreaking havoc on a defense's discipline and spacing. Notice how Edelman engages his man and keeps the passing lane open for Amendola to break into the middle of the field:
But while it's nice the Patriots have a couple pet plays they can turn to, they were totally unable to stretch the Buffalo defense on Sunday, echoing a problem of recent seasons. Out of Brady's 52 passes, only three traveled further than 20 yards, and just one was completed.
The short timing routes were fine, but anything down the seam or outside the numbers virtually didn't work. On this play, Brady tries a back shoulder throw to Kenbrell Thompkins. Unfortunately, the rookie never really stops running, turning far too late to separate from his defender or make a reasonable play on the ball:
Additionally, the Patriots tight ends were actually a liability in the passing game, as Michael Hoomanawanui and Zach Sudfeld combined for a minus-2.8 overall grade on the day. ESPN Boston's Tedy Bruschi had a particularly astute observation that illustrated how helpless the unit is without Rob Gronkowski in the lineup:
Right now, I think the bigger issue is that there is a lack of Gronkowski effect on this team. I noticed a play, a simple incompletion by Tom Brady at 11:03 -- a play-action pass in which TE Michael Hoomanawanui was trying to get into his route -- and you could tell Brady was waiting for him to get open. He couldn't wait any more so he started to scramble to his right and then threw an errant pass to Josh Boyce. That's a play where Gronkowski gets down to the middle of the field and it's a 25-yard completion. Maybe more. Right now, the concern is still this offense holding on until Gronkowski gets back.
The play Bruschi mentions is quite painful to watch, as Hoomanawanui stumbles badly out of the blocks and lumbers slowly downfield. No offensive line is going to protect long enough for the route to develop when this happens:
This is a little less concerning, as the problem will effectively go away when Gronkowski returns. Still, the Pats' franchise tight end will not be back this Thursday, and compounding the problem, neither will Amendola or Vereen.
With the passing game bereft of reliable targets for now, the Patriots will likely rely on the ground game against the Jets in Week 2. Unfortunately, even that unit is not without its questions.
Squash Any Running Back Controversy
Who should the Patriots start at running back?
This problem may already be solved for the Patriots, though in the least ideal way possible. With the news that Vereen will be out a few weeks following surgery on a small broken bone in his wrist, the Pats will likely heavily ride the duo of Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount.
Ridley is among the most confusing players on the roster. His talent is undeniable and proven, and ultimately he is probably the Pats' most talented running back. But with such a strong emphasis on turnover prevention, his dubious fumbling history is almost certain to keep him on a short leash.
I wrote about Ridley's fumbling issues this offseason, wondering if they were technique-driven or simply fluky. At the time, the evidence pointed towards a fluke, as the optimist could argue that Ridley was adjusting to a heavier workload and the NFL's physicality:
It's worth noting that in 306 collegiate carries, Ridley fumbled just three times, according to Matthew Geagan of CBS Boston. One theory could be that Ridley is simply adjusting to the NFL's far greater physicality, a notion supported when realizing that his fumbles tend to come later in games. Fatigue may have contributed to technique breakdowns like this and this.
Unfortunately, the picture is not really any clearer after Sunday. Ridley's game-changing fumble that got him benched was spectacularly fluky, but it is a troubling sign that simply falling to the ground jarred the ball loose.
If Belichick is still uneasy about trusting Ridley, his next option would likely be LeGarrette Blount. But Blount, who rushed for 15 yards on seven carries against Buffalo, would be a considerable downgrade in terms of explosiveness. Here are the results of all of Blount's carries on outside runs last Sunday:
It's a small sample size, but it's not pretty. Against a Jets team that had the best Week 1 run defense grade of any team, holding Doug Martin to 65 yards on 24 attempts, Blount will likely not be good enough.
If the Patriots are going to have success running the ball against the Jets, Ridley will likely be the solution. Whether or not he keeps his job likely depends upon Vereen's return is questionable, but for now, it seems the Pats will have to roll the dice with Ridley's suspect hands.
Shore Up the Interior Pass Protection
This continues to be an overlooked problem, perhaps because offensive linemen are overlooked by nature. While the issue is not yet catastrophic, there is legitimate reason to be concerned about the pass protection of the interior line, particularly Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly.
Neither player is a liability in a vacuum, but consider the changed circumstances of the Patriots' passing game. The play-calling last Sunday was designed to get the ball out of Brady's hands quickly, partly because the vertical routes are so unreliable and partly because their best options involved running short stuff.
Seeing that trend, the Bills countered by sending some complicated blitzes, generating five hits and 10 hurries. This third-down play from the second quarter was illustrative of the types of schemes Buffalo sent on the afternoon. Safety Da'Norris Searcy showed blitz early, and linebacker Kiko Alonso came late to bring the total to six blitzers:
Both blitz over the right side of the line, putting pressure on right guard Dan Connolly. This is a tough situation for Connolly, as he cannot block two players. But with Searcy declaring himself a blitzer early, it seems like a no-brainer to block the safety. However, Connolly instead chooses to block Alonso, allowing Searcy to run unimpeded through the right B gap and notch an easy sack on Brady:
This is not to pick on Connolly or suggest a lack of skill, but the play was indicative of an afternoon where the Patriots struggled to stop the Bills from generating interior pressure. In passing situations, extra blitzers up the middle often left Brady with no room to step into his throw, facing pockets like this:
Considering Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was with the Jets last season, it seems reasonable to expect the Pats will face similar schemes on Thursday. With the absences of Amendola and Vereen, Wendell and Connolly must hold up better than they did in Week 1, when the pair combined for a minus-2.9 grade in pass protection.
More than anything, the interior linemen embody the Patriots' offensive shortcomings at the moment. The linemen, much like the rest of the offense, are certainly not short on skill. But as much as Patriots fans hoped for immediate results, such turnover makes timing issues inevitable.
In a league where the margin between success and failure is so razor-thin, those extra beats can turn a historic offensive machine into an ordinary husk, as the Pats were in Week 1. Ultimately, while these large-scale issues may foster uglier football for now, the only real concern is whether or not the offense can gel in time to give New England a realistic shot at that elusive fourth Lombardi Trophy.
*All stats courtesy Pro Football Focus' premium section, and all photo stills courtesy NFL.com.