What Will It Take to Lift Tom Brady, Patriots Offense out of Season-Long Slump?

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What Will It Take to Lift Tom Brady, Patriots Offense out of Season-Long Slump?
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

This is not the New England Patriots offense of old. Anyone paying even the slightest amount of attention could have told you that from all the offseason losses the Patriots enduredor simply watching any of the Patriots' seven games this season.

Everyone shares in the blame, from the coaching staff to the receivers to the offensive line, and yes, even to quarterback Tom Brady.

Prior to the 2013 season, it seemed almost as if he was above criticism. Now, he's staring weeks' worth of criticism square in the eye. For the third time this season, he completed less than 50 percent of his throws. That's the most games ever in one season in Brady's career.

The Jets and Bengals deserve plenty of credit for frustrating Brady and holding the Patriots offense in check, but the Patriots' play on offense has been uninspired all season.

Patriots offensive rankings
Year 2011 2012 2013
Points 3 1 20
Yards 2 1 16
Third down % 4 1 28
Red zone % 4 3 25
Yards/pass attempt 2 10 31
Completion % 4 11 29
Passer rating 3 7 26
Drops 30/36 35/38 36/37

ProFootballFocus.com; Pro-Football-Reference.com

Pick your poison, any categoryit hasn't been good.

That's not even just by comparison to the Patriots teams of the past five years. That's by comparison to the rest of the league this year.

Stats tell part of the story, but they don't tell the whole story. What does the Patriots offense need to do in order to finally hit stride?

It starts with practice.

It sounds obvious, but it's really the first and foremost thing the Patriots have to do to get better. If they're not on the same page in games, it usually means they're not on the same page in practice. 

"It was close, and we're close a lot," Brady said after the loss to the Jets. "We just have to start making [those plays], all of us. The balls have to be better thrown. Everyone has to look at themselves and do a better job, because what we're doing right now isn't good enough."

Close doesn't put points on the board.

On this play, tight end Rob Gronkowski had a step on safety Antonio Allen. With about another foot of air under the ball, it would have been right in Gronkowski's mitts and over the head of the safety for a big completion.

Instead, it's just another football to harmlessly hit the turf in a day of 24 such footballs thrown by Brady.

Patriots receivers dropped three passes on the day, one each from Gronkowski, wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins and running back Brandon Bolden. A number of other passes were debatable as to whether they were drops by the receiver or bad throws by Brady, but in any case, the practice field holds the key to turning those incompletions into completions.

Three months into the new offense experiment, we're still left wondering whether the blame falls more on the receivers or on Brady. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between. 

There were a lot of opportunities left on the field by a lapse of focus on offense, whether it was a player dropping a pass, not getting both feet in-bounds, bad protection from the offensive line, a poor pass from the quarterback or some combination of all of the above.

Gronkowski was on the wrong end of a couple of those plays, including a drop of what would have been a huge catch to put the Patriots in the red zone late in the game. Had Gronkowski hauled this in, the Patriots would have had at least a few more cracks at the end zone and may have taken the lead for good.

In trying to reel it in with one hand, however, Gronkowski seemed to just lose his focus. 

That happened earlier, too, on a deep shot to the end zone. 

Gronkowski got past his defender and had a chance to make a catch in front of the end zone on what could have been a touchdown, but he either lost the ball in flight or thought he was going to draw a penalty flag that would give the Patriots the ball at the 1-yard line anyway.

Either way, these were missed opportunities that provided pivotal swings in the game. 

With more game reps, Gronkowski and Brady will find their stride.

Brady also seemed to lose his focus at times. He started 11-of-18 in the first half but went 11-of-28 the rest of the way. The Patriots offense has struggled to put points on the board coming out of halftime, and they have scored just nine points in the third quarter in their seven games so far.

The Patriots aren't making the right adjustments in the locker room, and that's allowing their opponents to catch up.

"No, I don't think [they changed their approach]," Belichick said of the Jets' ability to shut the Patriots down in the second half. "I mean they mixed it up, but it was kind of the same. It was the same mix, saw a lot of dime on third down. I'll look on the film to see if there is anything I missed. They mixed it up in the first half and they mixed it up in the second half. It was pretty much the same calls."

One of the key changes in the third quarter was that the Jets' pressure finally started to get home.

Brady had a comfortable pocket for much of the first half, but he was sacked three times in the third quarter, including on the first play of the game, where Quinton Coples got around the edge and stripped Brady of the ball. 

On this sack, defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson got by left tackle Nate Solder rather easily, being brought down in 2.46 seconds after the snap. Solder has been a hallmark of consistency for the most part this season, but he has been on the wrong end of four sacks in the Patriots' two losses so far.

On those three third-quarter sacks against the Jets, Brady had 2.42, 2.48 and 2.46 seconds, not exactly enough time to make a read.

For the most part, however, Brady has had more than enough time in the pocket. According to Pro Football Focus, he's been pressured on 32.2 percent of his dropbacks. That's the ninth-lowest percentage for any of the 37 quarterbacks to play significant time this year.

It's hard to ask much more of the offensive line, but Brady's accuracy when under pressure has not been sharp. 

Like any quarterback, Brady comes back down to Earth a bit with the rush closing in. This year, though, his struggles have been thrust under the spotlight because of his poor play in other areas—and also because he's the sixth-least accurate quarterback when pressured. 

Make no mistake: His human-ness isn't showing just when the pressure gets home. All four of his incompletions in overtime were off-target throws, three of them with a clean pocket.

Tom Brady, when throwing deep
Year 2010 2011 2012 2013
Attempt % 9.1 9.8 13.2 13
Accuracy % 44.4 41.7 40.5 35.1

ProFootballFocus.com

The Patriots have also been undone, at times, by their new philosophy of incorporating the deep ball into their offense.

According to Pro Football Focus, Brady's deep accuracy has dipped over the past four years. He's never been elite in that area, but he is now officially well below average.

Is part of the blame due to receivers not being in the right spots this year? Sure. Is part of it on Brady simply not putting the ball in the right spot? Saw an example of that earlier.

Brady's deep attempts have also gone up for the most part, although scaled back ever so slightly this year. Still, without the highly efficient "death-by-a-thousand-papercuts" chain-moving offense of years past, those miscues are more in focus.

Tom Brady, 2013
Half Comp. Att. Cmp % Yds YPA TD INT Rate Sacked
First 80 137 58.4 812 5.9 6 1 87 11
Second 78 148 52.7 896 6.1 2 4 64.5 9

Pro-Football-Reference.com

As Brady goes, so goes the Patriots offense. They were cruising against the Saints, scoring 17 points in the first half, before Brady went 3-of-7 for 32 yards in the third quarter. They were up 21-10 on the Jets at halftime, but with Brady going 3-of-6 for 21 yards, a pick-six and being sacked three times in the third quarter, the Jets had an ample opportunity to climb back into the game.

"We had a great opportunity to take control of the game and we didn't," Brady said after the loss. "We fought our way back. We had plenty of chances. We just didn't get it done."

Performances like the ones the Patriots put forth against the Jets won't get it done this season. 

The injuries to several key players on defense have put pressure on the guys on that side of the ball to step up, but it's also put more pressure on the offense to score points consistently. If the defense is going to give up 30 points with any regularity, the Patriots offense has to hit stride quickly.

It's important to also remember that the Patriots have yet to field a full complement of their top skill-position players—Gronkowski missed the first six games, wide receiver Danny Amendola has played just three games and missed the Jets game, and running back Shane Vereen played in the first game of the season and has been nursing a wrist injury ever since.  

As bad as it looks on the stat sheet, and in spite of all the injuries, the Patriots still had more than their share of opportunities to take control against the Jets. With more practice, improved health, better halftime adjustments and overall execution, things could start to get better. 

If not, the Patriots offense could be in for a season's worth of the chicken-or-the-egg debate, where we wonder whether the problems are the fault of Brady or the receivers.

 

 

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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