Patriots' Offensive Woes Run Deeper Than Absence of Rob Gronkowski
Flashes of brilliance have yet to be sustained, and the only thing the New England Patriots offense has has sustained is weekly reminders that there will be times where those flashes are dimmed significantly.
The eventual return of tight end Rob Gronkowski will help, but the problems with the Patriots offense run deeper than just the absence of their star tight end, and their return to prominence will require more than just the return of the Gronk.
"It wasn't our best day of execution today," quarterback Tom Brady said, via WEEI.com. "We certainly let some opportunities get away in the first half. We had too many times where we had negative plays and it took us out of field position. It wasn't very good execution. I give them a lot of credit. They have a great defense that puts a lot of pressure on you in many areas. Our execution needed to be good today, and it wasn’t."
Brady went 18-of-38 for 197 yards and an interception, marking the second time this season he's completed less than 50 percent of his passes and the first time in 52 games in which he has not thrown a touchdown pass.
"I'm bummed we lost," Brady said. "That's all that really matters."
The rain didn't help, playing a part in some dropped passes by wide receivers Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman. Neither did the lack of protection, with the offensive line allowing third-down sacks of Brady on the first two drives of the game and four sacks on the day.
Brady, himself, didn't perform up to his standards—a phrase that's becoming all too common in New England these days.
He was throwing balls too high, too low, too wide, too soon or too late all too often. As previously mentioned, the misfires led to his second game this year with less than 50 percent completions. Only once has he completed less than 50 percent of his throws in three games during the same season (2003).
The Patriots offense isn't going very far until Brady and his receivers get on the same page and stay there.
This week, there were two key miscommunications between Brady and wide receiver Aaron Dobson.
Once again, the two read a play differently that might have otherwise been a score when Dobson ran a deep post to the middle of the field, when Brady thought Dobson would continue on his path down the left sideline straight ahead to the end zone and threw the ball toward the left pylon.
On the interception to end the game, Brady threw the ball to a spot where there were no Patriots receivers and only Bengals defenders. The result was not shocking.
"I feel like we beat ourselves," Dobson said, via MassLive.com. "I feel like it's stuff that we can improve on. It's nothing they did. We just have to improve."
With mistakes still rampant in the passing game, they can ill afford setbacks in the running game.
Injuries to running backs Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley have left the Patriots thin in the backfield, with LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden as the top options to carry the ball. Blount, who started the game at running back, fumbled in the second quarter and was taken out of the Patriots' game plan from that point, carrying just three more times the rest of the way.
The running game has hit its stride at times, and really got things going against the Atlanta Falcons, but they never found rhythm running the ball on Sunday with 18 carries for 82 yards against a stout Bengals front.
There was also Bolden's dropped screen pass in the first quarter. Poor execution on easy plays like that is a simple way to remain stagnant on offense.
Make no mistake; the Patriots sorely miss Gronkowski, and his return will help their red-zone woes. They have scored touchdowns on just 37 percent of their red-zone possessions, and they ranked 30th in the league headed into Sunday's action. Gronkowski, meanwhile, has caught 32 red-zone touchdowns since joining the NFL in 2010, the most by any player in that span despite the fact that Gronkowski has missed 11 games.
They proved exactly how much they miss Gronkowski when Brady attempted a pass to left tackle Nate Solder in the end zone from the two-yard line. Solder has some experience playing tight end, but he hasn't caught an NFL pass yet, and according to football metrics website Pro Football Focus (subscription required), that was just the third time in his career he's ran a route as a pass-catcher.
Will the Patriots offense be back to normal when Gronkowski returns?
All that said, his return will not fix the running game. His return will not help the learning curve for the wide receivers.
His return will not fix all that is currently wrong with the Patriots offense.
It's up to everyone to step their game up—from Brady to the receivers to the running backs to the coaching staff and everyone in between.
The Patriots usually save their best football for November and December; they've scored 885 points (36.9 points per game) in the final eight games of the season over the past three years (24 games combined). Likewise, they're usually prone to a letdown early in the season; they've lost nine regular-season games since 2010, and eight of those losses have come in the first eight games of the season.
History tells us the Patriots offense will get better over the course of the season, but the absence of Gronkowski is far from the only thing that troubles them.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.
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