Injuries Aren't the Only Thing Threatening New England Patriots' Title Hopes

Erik Frenz@ErikFrenzSenior Writer IOctober 21, 2013

Every team deals with injuries. Most teams, however, don't deal with this many key injuries.

In a span of three weeks, the New England Patriots lost two of their defensive leaders for the season. Wide receiver Danny Amendola, brought in this offseason from the St. Louis Rams, has played in just three games. Their star cornerback, Aqib Talib, is nursing a hip injury. 

The return of tight end Rob Gronkowski gave the Patriots offense a temporary lift, but that was never going to be enough on its own. It clearly didn't help on third down, where the Patriots went 1-for-12.

Make no mistake, the New York Jets defense stifled New England's offense. Again. Quarterback Tom Brady looked off. Again.

Patriots injuries
PlayerInjuryDurationNext man up
Shane VereenWristReturn Week 11?Brandon Bolden
Vince WilforkAchillesOut for seasonJoe Vellano
Tommy KellyKneeWeek to weekChris Jones
Danny AmendolaConcussionWeek to weekAaron Dobson
Aqib TalibHipWeek to weekLogan Ryan
Jerod MayoPectoralSeasonJamie Collins

These injuries are a problem the Patriots are going to have to deal with now and for the rest of the year, but they are not the only problem. Unless the offense gets its act together, the Patriots will once again fall short of the Super Bowl—the only acceptable finish to a season in Foxboro these days.

The Patriots haven't been without Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork at the same time since Mayo was drafted into the NFL in 2008, and they won't be again for the rest of this season. 

"I think everybody is going to have to, we're all going to have to pull that rope," said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick after Vince Wilfork was placed on season-ending injured reserve. "There's no Vince Wilfork, you just don't replace Vince Wilfork."

"He does a lot for us on the field [and] off the field," Belichick said of losing Jerod Mayo just 13 days after losing Wilfork. "But we're just going to have to move on."

There may be too much rope to pull in replacing Wilfork. They may not have yet moved on from Mayo. There was plenty of evidence to both of those points on Sunday.

It would seem the Patriots are well-prepared for the loss of Mayo, with first-rounder Dont'a Hightower calling the defensive signals and second-rounders Brandon Spikes and Jamie Collins thriving in running and passing situations, respectively.

Hightower finished with seven tackles, but he was on the wrong end of a couple of passes from Jets quarterback Geno Smith to tight end Jeff Cumberland, including the first play of the game. The Patriots linebackers were considered susceptible in coverage even with Mayo in the lineup.

If this game was any indication, though, their coverage on tight ends might be the least of their concerns.

The Jets ran for 177 yards on 52 carries. That's just 3.4 yards per carry, but that speaks to how teams might try to attack the Patriots in the running game for the rest of the season.

Not every team will run the ball 50-plus times against the Patriots, but rest assured, the rest of the NFL will take notes on the Jets' approach to knocking them off.

Defensive tackles Joe Vellano and Chris Jones have provided some surprising pass rush up the middle, but they are not stout gap-stuffing run-defenders up the middle like Wilfork. The eventual return of Tommy Kelly will help alleviate some of the ails in the middle of that defensive line, but the harsh truth is that Vellano and Jones will be thrust into the spotlight far more often than the Patriots planned.

The lack of depth at defensive tackle, a storyline all offseason, is coming straight into the forefront with those two injuries.

The fact is, the Patriots were relying on several injury-prone players to stay healthy this year. Gronkowski, Talib, running back Shane Vereen and Amendola and fellow wide receiver Julian Edelman all had an injury history. They couldn't have predicted losing all but one of those players for a period of time, but that's the reality they will live with for now and going forward. 

Teams have overcome injuries in the past to get to the Super Bowl. The Green Bay Packers set an NFL record by winning the Super Bowl with 16 players on injured reserve. It can be done.

That year, however, Aaron Rodgers had one of the best postseasons for any quarterback in NFL history by completing 68.2 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and a 109.8 passer rating. Tom Brady just wrapped up his third game this season with less than 50 percent completions and has finished with less than a 76 passer rating in four games. For reference, he had below a 76 passer rating in five games over the past three years combined.

The last time the Patriots played the Jets, the finger was pointed at the wide receivers for the offensive shortcomings. This time, the scrutiny will fall square on Brady.

"It's not that we don't do it," Brady said, "we just don't do it on a consistent basis. It's a team sport. As a team, we're just not there yet."

He was talking about third down. He could have been talking about the whole team.

The Jets made plenty of stops thanks to their own solid defense—there's enough evidence of that in the four sacks, the pick-six and Brady's worst performance since, well, the last time he faced the Jets—but the miscues can't be ignored. In a season where there may be more pressure on Brady than years past to play perfect, he is throwing long and short, wide and behind receivers. He had incompletions in all directions.

It won't be long before we're talking about Brady bouncing back—we can expect that much—but even a bounce back from the quarterback may not be enough. Not with the litany of injuries the Patriots have already suffered.



Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.


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