While Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos continue to throw up gaudy offensive numbers week after week, the New England Patriots just keep churning out victories with the young, developing offensive weapons at Tom Brady's disposal. And after Sunday's 30-23 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, Brady and the Patriots look to have taken a giant step forward with their young playmakers.
It's been nearly impossible to shield yourself from the show Manning and the Broncos' offense have been starring in through the first four weeks of the season. But the less talked about and potentially more interesting storyline has been the sudden development between Brady and his young offensive weapons.
With Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola on the sideline, injured and unavailable, Brady and the duo of Kenbrell Thompkins and Julian Edelman hooked up for a combined 13 catches for 245 yards and a touchdown on Sunday.
First thing you might ask yourself is: Who is Kenbrell Thompkins, and how did one of the top quarterbacks of All-Time, in his prime, end up with him as one of his top receiving targets?
"I’m just out there playing football. I’m just trusting the older guys to put me in the right spot and trusting the plays that are being called,” Thompkins said. “I’m just trying to go out there and make a play for my team.”
It's a good answer from a young player. But how the Patriots ended up in this situation, even with the injuries to Amendola and Gronkowski and with the departure of Wes Welker, have been debated ad nauseam.
Right now the Patriots top receiver is Julian Edelman, and the sixth-year player from Kent State is just 41 yards shy of a career high in receiving yards (359). The second- and third-leading receivers are Thompkins and Aaron Dobson, another rookie that was a second-round pick out of Marshall this past April.
After three games plagued by inconsistency, Brady and the Patriots' young wide receivers seemed to hit a stride in the win over the Falcons—especially Thompkins, who finished the game with a team-high 11 targets.
After the game, Brady spoke about the the young receiver to Guregian:
“He’s really been an impressive young player. His attitude, his willingness to work, whatever it takes, he’s been great,” Brady said following the win. “It’s really rare to see that, having a young player step in with the kind of confidence he has. He played great tonight.”
The great news for the Patriots is that this developmental period didn't cost them games. They weren't having to "figure it out" while losing, which can't be overstated. The young receivers are only going to get better and more comfortable with Brady, and the return of Gronkowski and Amendola are only going to improve the offense.
Pro Football Focus has Thompkins as the sixth-worst receiver in the NFL in regards to percentage of passes caught that were intended for him—he's at 39.5 percent, according to their numbers. But following the victory over the Falcons, Brady should have confidence to keep throwing it to Thompkins.
Despite the numbers, Brady saw two different instances where Thompkins showed an ability to make great plays in big situations.
The first play was towards the end of the first half and came on a play-action pass on 1st-and-10:
Brady fakes the dive to Blount, then fakes the end-around on the ghost action from Edelman. He gets a one-on-one situation with Thompkins down the field and basically throws up a jump ball—and Thompkins comes down with it.
This is how your quarterback develops trust with a wide receiver. Brady gave his receiver a chance in a one-on-one situation, and the rookie showed him that he can come through in those situations. Thompkins may have some frustrating drops, but he's also got the ability to make plays just like this one.
The second play is on a crucial 3rd-and-19 to start the fourth quarter. The Patriots were up 13-10 at this point in the game and were deep in their own territory. The pass completion to Thompkins went for 26 yards, and the 15-yard penalty called on Falcons safety William Moore for going after the head added even more.
The Patriots actually scored a touchdown on the very next play thanks to a 47-yard run from LeGarrette Blount.
Thompkins showed Brady that he's not afraid to go across the middle and elevate to make a catch, even if there's a threat of taking a big hit in order to do so.
Both of these plays show that Thompkins has the ability to be a big-time playmaker for the Patriots offense, and while the eventual return of Gronkowski and Amendola may take away some targets for Thompkins moving forward, he's already shown the best of what he can do for the Patriots' offense.
Brady and Thompkins took the next step in their development against the Falcons, and the additions of these other playmakers will only give them more opportunities for much of the same heading into the final 12 games of the regular season.