FOXBOROUGH — If the Patriots’ performance against the Oakland Raiders is to be considered anything close to the team’s best effort, there needs to be a careful rethinking of the roster, particularly on offense.
Only the special teams unit played up to its capabilities Sunday as the Patriots beat the Raiders, 16-9, in New England’s home opener, with Stephen Gostkowski contributing three field goals. Ryan Allen averaged 48 yards per punt. There were no miscues from long snapper Danny Aiken, a sign of a job well done. Matthew Slater had a stellar tackle on one punt. It was seamless execution all around.
The defense, which managed to shut the Raiders out of the end zone, struggled on third down (2 for 4 in the first quarter) before pinning Oakland down and eventually being bailed out (thank Vince Wilfork and Logan Ryan), marking yet another slow start. (Oakland finished 5 of 13 on third downs.) But the unit at least got the job done, allowing only 241 total yards, including 67 rushing.
Unsurprisingly, the Patriots offensive line struggled. Tom Brady did not look like he was commanding a Super Bowl contending offense, let alone appear as if he were a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback.
It’s all concerning, which is our focus in these five takeaways from the game.
1. The Patriots are having a hard time spreading the ball around — The Patriots had all of the offseason, training camp, preseason, and two regular season games to prepare for Sunday. That means they not only had the means to get on the same page as far as plays go, timing, and chemistry, but also had extensive time to determine which players could put them in the best position to operate at a high level, something akin to last year’s seventh ranked offense and 10th ranked passing offense. (News flash: They’re not anywhere near that now.) Despite this opportunity, one player coming back from a serious knee injury garnered six targets (three receptions), while underutilized players like Danny Amendola, Kenbrell Thompkins, and Tim Wright languished. Between those three, Brady targeted the group three times (one each), resulting in two completions for 26 yards. Amendola hasn’t had a reception since Miami in Week 1. It’s starting to get weird the way in which Brady eyeballs Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman while ignoring everybody else. I think we all understand that feeding both Edelman and Gronk is a good thing, but balance for the offense — which was discussed at length this week — should be the priority because it benefits the offense as a whole. Based on their snaps, the team believes Amendola, Thompkins and even Wright can help contribute to fixing the offense’s woes. Brady just needs to get them the ball, something he has acknowledged now on multiple occasions.
“I think we’ve always gotten better as the season has gone on and as players, gained more experience in what we’re doing,” Brady said. “We’ve got some new players. We’ve got different things that are happening. We’re all trying to get used to one another and used to the things we’re doing and trying to understand the things you’re good at. And then ultimately as the season goes, you work on the things that haven’t been going well and you try to stay real ahead of the things that you are doing really well at and then at the end of the year, you’re in a position to hopefully make the playoffs and do those types of things.
“Right now we’re building our team,” Brady continued. “We’re trying to make improvements. It hasn’t all gone right. It doesn’t go right when we have penalties or turnovers or negative runs. We’ve just got to do our assignment, do our job. We’ve got to do it better and then ultimately that’s going to lead to more scoring.”
This excuse that the Patriots are still building as a team, particularly among its skill players, is quickly wearing thin. The Patriots won’t be afforded the luxury of figuring it out in the weeks ahead when they face the Kansas City Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals.
2. The offensive line’s talent is unbalanced — Bill Belichick spoke enthusiastically about the benefits of using an extra offensive lineman and an unbalanced line, along with its history in football, on Wednesday. But after Sunday’s game, it appears the Patriots are using that extra offensive lineman to mask some serious deficiencies in the group. Nate Solder has seemingly regressed. Jordan Devey struggles in pass protection. Dan Connolly has made significant mistakes at center, including letting pressure right up the middle on Brady Sunday. Even with an unbalanced line at times, utilizing Cameron Fleming as a tight end, the Patriots have struggled to set blocks on the edge. (Fleming was overpowered by Oakland’s Khalil Mack.) So they turned to other gimmicks, running a hurry up offense at times to make the game difficult on the Raiders’ pass rushers. But there’s no escaping these problems and there’s no way the team can pretend like the loss of Logan Mankins, as well as Dante Scarnecchia, hasn’t been devastating.
3. Brady deserves some criticism, too — It wasn’t all the fault of the wide receivers for missed connections. It should be pointed out that Brady (24 of 37 for 234 yards and one touchdown) has struggled to connect with his wideouts, rather than the receivers struggling to get on the same page as him. As Brady’s foibles have become more apparent, both in his demanding nature and his preference for receivers with a clear understanding of the playbook, he’s opened himself up to criticism when he misses a wide open Gronkowski in the first quarter, out-throws Amendola on the goal line (a pass I would contend is not a drop because Amendola had to dive for it), and lays an egg at LaFell’s feet like he did in the fourth quarter. The bad throws are starting to come more frequently and it’s making it difficult for Brady defenders to continue this charade that mistakes in the passing game are a result of only the receivers. The blame is shared.
4. Gronkowski appears less than superhuman — The Patriots star tight end seems to lumber more often than not on the field, rather than show fluidity in his movements. His quickness and speed appears diminished, adding to a sense that his athleticism is no longer super human like. Of course, less than a year removed from a serious knee injury, this should be expected of Gronkowski. He is still recovering from an ACL and MCL tear he suffered Dec 8, 2013 against the Cleveland Browns. Yet his ability to affect the football game is still remarkable. Just consider how he bowled over three Raiders in the second quarter. While before he could just as easily outrun and outmaneuver many defensive backs, now his sheer size (6-6, 265 pounds) and skill as a tight end are his primary tools of the trade. The change has been stark, given his prior successes, and of particular note as he has gotten re-acclimated to game action these past three weeks. How long will it take for him to regain his form? We’ll have to continue to watch. But this Gronk is not the Gronk that caught 17 touchdowns in 2011. Not even close.
5. Darrelle Revis targeted in coverage — Raiders quarterback Derek Carr appeared to be successful when he threw passes in Darrelle Revis’s direction. The Patriots top cornerback gave up receptions to Rod Streater (before he was injured), James Jones, and Denarius Moore. While there is nothing to be alarmed about his defensive performance on the whole, it does appear that the aura of “Revis Island” is no longer one of feared reverence. If a rookie quarterback and a bunch of no-name receivers are going to take shots at one of the best corners in the game, zone or not, Patriots fans should consider that their expectations will likely have to be lowered accordingly. And that whole idea of having to defend only one half of the field appears to be kaput.