If Sunday's 24-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins is any indication, though, it may only be a matter of time before those shortcomings will spell the end of their season.
We saw some new looks and tendencies from the Patriots offense, but we also saw a few things that we've come to expect from Tom Brady, Josh McDaniels and company over the years.
Let's take a look back at the film from Sunday's game to see who stepped up and how the Patriots chose to respond to the loss of one of their biggest playmakers.
Gronkowski wasn't the only player absent for the Patriots on Sunday. They were also without rookie receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, who have alternated in the role of the third receiver on the field in the 11 personnel package.
As a result, it was Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola who were asked to shoulder the load for the offense.
|Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, vs. Dolphins|
|Rest of offense||20||11||94||8.5||42||1||3|
|Pro Football Focus; * = aimed passes, not counting spikes and throw-aways|
Lacking an explosive downfield threat, the Patriots were looking to make plays in the passing game in other ways—most notably with their use of screens. On the day, a whopping 145 of their combined 270 yards (53.7 percent) were earned after the catch.
From the very first drive, the Patriots went to the screen pass as a way to ensure that receivers would be open with a good chance to catch the ball. This screen went to Amendola for an eight-yard gain on 2nd-and-10.
With the left tackle, left guard and center all pulling out in front as lead blockers on the play, the Patriots had enough numbers to create a crease for Amendola.
A quicker step from center Ryan Wendell might have led to an even bigger play, as Dolphins linebacker Philip Wheeler was able to chase the play down from behind and force a third down.
The screen game worked, as Brady was ultra efficient in the first half with 77.8 percent completions before the Dolphins took a second-half lead and forced the Patriots to throw on nearly every down (29 of 33 offensive plays in the fourth quarter were passes).
Overall, much of the passing game was based on the short and intermediate passing game. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Brady only attempted one pass that traveled 20 yards or more downfield.
The screen game figures to be part of the plan from here on out, as well. Nine of Brady's pass attempts were behind the line of scrimmage. Last week against the Browns, that number was 10, but before that, Brady hadn't thrown more than six passes behind the LOS in a single game all season. We may be seeing the beginning of a new trend.
Sticking With What Works
With or without Gronkowski, the Patriots will find ways to get receivers open. One way in particular is with route combinations.
On the Patriots' opening drive of the game, they came out with one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers (11 personnel grouping) with the receivers lined up next to each other on the same side of the field (bunch formation).
With all the receivers close to each other, there are a lot of bodies that the cornerbacks must account for in a confined space.
Edelman started off running upfield on his first two steps, but quickly cut toward the outside while curving upfield (wheel route). As a result of the man coverage, the cornerback that was assigned to cover Edelman could not get through the traffic in time, allowing him to get open downfield for an easy reception.
This is a strategy we've seen from them in weeks past, with designed separation being the key on Edelman's touchdown grab and his two-point conversion against the Browns. Heck, this is even a play we've seen from them in the past, as Edelman caught a touchdown against the Broncos on the exact same route.
On Sunday, Brady was short on words to explain why the Patriots lost to the Dolphins.
On Monday, he really needed only two words: "red area."
Those are the two words that best explain why the Patriots offense looked as good as ever, but put up just 20 points Sunday.
"It felt like we moved the ball pretty good all day, we just couldn't get enough points on the board," Brady said Monday on WEEI.
In the Patriots'
first seventh game without Rob Gronkowski, it's not a surprise that the red zone was the area they struggled the most. It was a continuation of a trend that had developed already this season—before Gronkowski returned to the lineup, the Patriots were converting on just 40.9 percent of their red-zone opportunities; in six games with Gronkowski on the field, they converted 68.8 percent of chances inside the 20-yard line into touchdowns.
Against the Dolphins, the Patriots scored just one touchdown on four trips to the red zone.
The window doesn't get much tighter than the one on the touchdown catch by tight end Michael Hoomanawanui. There was some iffy contact by Wheeler downfield, but "Hooman" was able to fight through it and made the highlight-reel one-handed grab in the back of the end zone.
"Those are the kind of plays that we need, because we're not going to be open by five yards every play," Brady said. "Especially down in the red area, we've got to make tough plays in tight windows and come up with tough catches, take some hits—like Julian did last week against Cleveland where he took that big hit in the back of the end zone. That's football in the red area. We've got to be better in the red area."
Perhaps Brady was alluding to the above play when he mentioned not being open by five yards every play.
There was some more iffy contact by linebacker Dannell Ellerbe on another throw into a tight window in the end zone, but look at where the ball is in the second frame. That couldn't have been more on the money by Brady, and it's hard to argue that Gronkowski wouldn't have made that catch.
|Patriots top 10 receivers in the red zone, 2013|
|Austin Collie, Zach Sudfeld, Nate Solder||1||0||0%||0||0|
|Pro Football Reference|
Edelman has been the favorite target in the red zone, but he's also been the only one who's played every game. Interestingly enough, he's also the only one besides Gronkowski who has reeled in more than 50 percent of his targets in the red zone (aside from Stevan Ridley and Matthew Mulligan, who each caught the lone pass thrown to them inside the 20-yard line).
If the tight windows are truly the problem, Dobson and Thompkins could help make a difference in the red zone—at 6'3" and 6'0", respectively, they would immediately have a size advantage over the rest of the Patriots receivers—but the Patriots should try getting back to what's working for them between the 20's by creating separation for their receivers through play design.
Brady often talks about how there's no "silver bullet" to fix the passing game, third quarter, and general woes of the offense, but Gronkowski was the difference maker in the red zone. Without him, they'll have to find other ways to create separation when the windows get tighter.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.