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Passing game needs identity

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff  October 25, 2013 09:45 PM

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(Isn't it nice to know that at least he's better than Eli Manning here? Or is it? Never mind.)

Consider that last year, with the same adjustments taken into place, he was completing 74.8 percent of his passes. The same in 2011 (74.1). He led the league in 2010 with a mark of 77.9 percent completion percentage. Those were fond days when the offense was firing on all cylinders with then new tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

Nowadays, the same dynamic athleticism that was so bountiful on the field (enough to jettison Randy Moss) is rather limited, thanks to injuries and extreme circumstances (goodbye accused murderer). The talent is there, particularly with Danny Amendola and rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, but the leap from having a potential crop of top tier wide receivers to a veteran and skillful group is a long one, one in which gains are incremental and growth is all too slow.

This group, Brady and his receivers together, need time to find an identity. It was easy when Amendola was plugged in, running the same routes as Welker, but he's been banged up. Through seven games, he's already missed four and he's questionable for Sunday's game against the Miami Dolphins after suffering a concussion. His durability will continue to be a question mark hanging over this team, a huge hindrance for Brady in terms of dependable receiving threats. Amendola is as good a route runner over the middle of the field as anyone in the league, which is why he was coveted. It just so happens to be that the middle of the field is where Brady does his best work.

Meanwhile, Julian Edelman has tried to fill in dutifully, catching 46 passes for 455 yards and two touchdowns thus far; 44 of his 66 targets and 35 of his receptions are in the middle of the field. Brady has a 92.7 quarterback rating when throwing in his direction. But he doesn't dominate the space like Amendola does when he's available or like Welker did when he was here. The Patriots have had to adjust, opting for screen passes and throws outside of the numbers to move the chains. And when Gronkowski returned after a nine-month layoff to recover from back and forearm surgeries, the team self-adjusted again to take advantage of the matchup problems he creates.

The all-pro tight end had 17 targets in last week's 30-27 OT loss to the New York Jets, suggesting once again that Brady likes to target the middle of the field. He threw 19 of his 46 passes to the middle. Of Gronkowski's targets, 10 were within the numbers. That paints a pretty good picture of where Brady likes do his work.

As the season goes along, and the the team settles into a steady group of receivers that contribute, Brady will likely be better served by the consistency brought on by the entire unit. Losing one, like Amendola, without having another, like Gronkowski, has proven to be more than just a minor impediment to the offense's progress. But what's more, it's obstructed the team's hopes of creating a balanced identity, where the middle of the field is the bread and butter and the guys on the exterior are the jelly and jam. One group will not work well without the other. That much is clear.

From here on out, with Gronkowski back and Amendola saying he's ready to play, there should be no more excuses.

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What do you think?


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Dolphins in a nutshell

Ryan Tannehill has been sacked 26 times this season.
(Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images)
While we're going hard on stats, there's two that speak pretty poorly of where the Miami Dolphins stand as a team over their past three games. Miami has allowed 26 sacks this season in six games. In the last three, all of which are losses, they've allowed a whopping 12. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars (28), Cleveland Browns (27), and Oakland Raiders (27) have allowed more. Those teams are a combined 5-15 on the season.

But more than that, the pressure put on Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill has affected the way the team has been able to convert third downs. Last week against the Buffalo Bills, the Dolphins converted 3 of 13 third downs, a telltale sign of broad dysfunction.

"We actually started out very productive on third down early in the season," said Dolphins coach Joe Philbin in a conference call with the media on Wednesday. "As of late there's been a variety of factors that have contributed to the lack of production on third down, some of it being protection, some of it being our receivers adjusting to particular coverages, some of it being the quarterback reading the right progression, staying true on his progressions, and some of it has been accuracy.

"When things break down, it's usually more than one thing. It's not like one guy has dropped seven balls, or one offensive lineman has given up eight pressures, or the quarterback has missed every throw. It's been a little bit of this and a little bit of that."

For the Patriots, exploiting that pressure on the quarterback should be a boon on Sunday.

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Best fourth quarter quarterback?

The folks at TicketCity have put together a new algorithm to determine which NFL quarterback is the best in the fourth quarter. The algorithm, which accounts for game-winning drives and touchdown passes, fourth-quarterback comebacks, and touchdown passes thrown against interceptions in the fourth quarter and overtime, has a surprising leader: Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo. He rates as an overall 100 on the scale, which only allows for quarterbacks with at least 32 starts and doesn't take into account postseason play.

Patriots quarterback Brady, who orchestrated is 38th career comeback two weeks ago against the New Orleans Saints, is rated third overall (92.44), while Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan (98.51) is second.

Romo's 18 comebacks in 99 career starts is weighted evenly among the other metrics.

According to TicketCity, if you counted players who had less than 32 starts, Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck would jump up to Nos. 1 and 2.

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Read this, link that

Ed Ryan alerts us that Tom Brady is no star in fantasy football.

In Ben Volin's On Football column, he notes that the Jets and Cincinnati Bengals have now created a blueprint for stopping the Patriots.

In his Going Deep blog, Erik Frenz breaks down the matchup between Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake and Patriots right tackle Sebastian Vollmer.

My Week 8 NFL picks.

Outside the Boston Globe and Boston.com bubble, BostInno has a nice recap of wide receiver Julian Edelman's visit to Emerson College.

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Tweet of the week

NFL players get all kinds of giveaways. Some are better than others. And then there are some that are just … different. Defensive back Marquice Cole's latest gift reminds us that not all body washes cover everything.

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Input this

Mark Caron writes in an e-mail in response to 5 takeaways from the second Patriots-Jets game:

I have to say that I found your "concerning trend" comment in this weeks "5 Takaways" column a bit humorous.  The only time that Tom Brady has had any significant success on the long ball was essentially the first 12 games of the Moss era and that was not because Moss could stretch the field vertically, but because he did not have to be accurate.  For the first 12 games of the Moss era, Randy would go up and fight for every ball and come down with most.  It has was then and still is my opinion that Randy decided he had proven himself great again and let his effort, along with his domination, slip.  From that time on Brady's long ball presence fell back to earth.

Don't get me wrong, I love Brady and think he is a great quarterback, but Brady and the coaching staff just can't grasp that fact that the long ball is not one of Brady's strengths.  In my opinion, Brady should not be throwing long unless he has a wide open receiver with plenty of room for error.
Obviously you need to take a couple of shots a game to keep the defense honest, but he should stick to his strengths which is an accurate short game.

It's hard to argue with Caron, given Moss's greatness and how the numbers, quite frankly, prove his point. However, the difference now appears to be a matter of production rather than just accuracy. The last time Brady was successful throwing the deep ball was in 2011, a year after Moss had been jettisoned from the team. In that season, Brady was 23 of 73 (31.5 percent) for 746 yards, 10 touchdowns, and four interceptions when throwing 20 yards or farther downfield. He wasn't wildly accurate, but he was productive. On his current pace, he projects to finish 21 of 85 for 588 yards, three touchdowns, and five interceptions. There are a number of factors that play into these numbers, both involving the talent and health surrounding him. But this is a distinctly downward trend.

I don't think I'd ever limit Brady or the team to just the short game, especially considering they have two talented receivers in Dobson and Thompkins who can stretch the field. Again, you may have heard this, but it's a matter of these parties getting on the same page.

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What’s to come

- Patriots and Dolphins kickoff at 1 p.m. at Gillette Stadium.

- Prior to the game, Verizon FiOS will be holding a "tail-gaming" event, with eight Patriots fans playing in a video game tournament at Gillette Stadium. The winner of the tournament is getting two free tickets to an upcoming Patriots game.

- On Oct. 29, Danny Amendola, Matthew Slater, Nate Solder and members of the New England Revolution are going to help kick off "Movember" by doing a "shave down" event at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots players, joined by Kevin Alston, Diego Fagundez, and Chris Tierney of the Revs, will have to be stubble free before growing their mustaches out in the month of November to raise awareness for men's health issues. Gillette, the razor-brand company, will donate $1,000 in the name of each athlete.

- The Patriots will host the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday Nov. 3 before taking their bye week in Week 10.

- Alfonzo Dennard is due back in a Nebraska courtroom Nov. 13 after admitting to violating his probation for a suspected DUI.

Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry and on Google+.

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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