Patriots

Curran: Injuries to Edelman, Hightower an early dose of adversity for Patriots

Curran: Injuries to Edelman, Hightower an early dose of adversity for Patriots

If we made a list of the non-Brady Patriots that New England could least afford to lose, Dont'a Hightower and Julian Edelman would have been in the top five joined by Devin McCourty, Nate Solder and Malcolm Butler. You could also Gronk here if you want to.

Regardless of the order you’d place them in – or if you’d want to offer someone else – the fact Edelman’s down for the season and Hightower’s MCL is almost guaranteed to keep him out of Sunday’s game in New Orleans (that’s just spitballing on my part given the grotesque way his right knee bent), is an early dose of adversity the team just has to suck down and try to stomach.

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The “they did it before, they can do it again” mindset is fine. The Patriots will inevitably figure it out to a degree that keeps them in the league’s upper firmament. But it’s not going to be pretty. It’s worth getting your head around that now. The 2016 team that was downgraded for style points during a 14-2 that ended with a Super Bowl win may not be winning by knockout any time soon.

I’ve already pummeled the Edelman Factor into submission. He’s been the oil in the engine of the Patriots offense. Without him – or anyone to challenge the middle of the field at the linebacker level even when there’s traffic – the ride will be bumpy until Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady arrive at what works best most often.

But the Hightower loss is just as significant because of the new parts on defense and the fact the Patriots are a game-plan team. If New England ran a “do what we do” defense like Pittsburgh or Seattle, losing the most influential member of the front-seven may not be as big a deal. You’d just plug the next man in, deal with the dropoff in talent and go. But Hightower has the most institutional knowledge of anyone in the front-seven. He’s got the most authoritative and trusted voice.

Even before Hightower was forced from the opener in the second half with his injury, the team was having issues getting things communicated with Kyle Van Noy in the middle as the defensive signal-caller and Hightower at left defensive end.

Hightower went out with 7:08 left in the third with Kansas City leading, 21-17. The final was 42-21. Some of the big plays were related to communication issues. Would his mere presence have made a difference in the way things got mapped out before the snap? No guarantee. But Hightower’s exit and the Chiefs’ explosion do dovetail neatly.

Van Noy isn’t incapable of communicating the defense. He’s not a dummy. But he was taking his first stab at it against a Chiefs offense that uses formation and personnel groups as well as any team in the league to mess with a defense’s head. The Saints – Sunday’s opponent – are similar. Alongside Van Noy for a big chunk of the game was safety Jordan Richard who is getting his first extended run in the regular defense. He is on the hook for relaying communication as well because of where he is on the field.

So that’s a problem. What’s the solution? On Quick Slants the Podcast, former Patriots captain, linebacker and lead communicator Jerod Mayo had this to say.

“I’m more concerned with the communication than the personnel. The communication was brutal. The thing about having Hightower at the line of scrimmage – it’s great – but you can’t talk to the entire defense playing defensive end. You’re so far removed. That’s why having a middle linebacker in there who can turn around and say (to safety Devin McCourty), ‘Devin, we’re doing this.’ And can say to (defensive tackle Alan Branch), ‘Alan, we’re doing this.’ That’s the missing piece. You’re not going to have a Jordan Richards making calls. It’s just not gonna happen. This will be interesting, especially going against the Saints, for Matty P (Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia). They’re gonna formation you to death, you have to know what back is in the game at all times. They have three backs with three different skill sets. So how do they trim the fat from the game plan? How do you trim the fat and make the calls easy so a guy like Jordan Richards can make calls with confidence. It’s all about confidence. Jordan Richards went to Stanford. He’s probably one of the smartest kids on the team. But it goes to confidence.

“I remember being benched in 2008 when I was rookie of the year. Bill benched me. We were preparing to play San Francisco and I was calling the pass-rushing schemes on the field and you could legit smell the smoke coming out of my ears trying to process everything he was telling me to do. But doing that, you gain confidence. Now, for Jordan Richards, he’s got to tell Alan Branch to get his ass down in the B-gap? It’s just not gonna happen (because of his experience level). It’s hard for Hightower to do it on the outside. Someone has to say, “Everyone shut up. This is what we’re doing. We’ll get to the sideline and figure it out.”

Mayo, by the way, pointed out that he now weighs 225 and is quite happy doing exactly what he’s doing with his life so he’s not coming back. But his point still carries weight.

Without Hightower in the middle – or even on the field – getting all 11 defensive players on the same page and doing their jobs without having to wonder if everyone else will be doing theirs is going to be a chore. 

And the Saints know that too. So that’s the chess game to watch on Sunday.

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Tom Brady on pace for huge numbers, so why is he down on his play of late?

Tom Brady on pace for huge numbers, so why is he down on his play of late?

FOXBORO -- Tom Brady is on pace for 5,224 yards passing in 2017, just a shade under his total from his career-high in 2011. He's on track to have 34 touchdowns and just five picks. Barring a continued run of ridiculous efficiency from Kansas City's Alex Smith, those numbers would be MVP-caliber in all likelihood.

But Brady's not thrilled with the way he's played of late. What gives? 

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In his past two games, he hasn't thrown the football as consistently as he would have liked. After starting the season with a 10-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio, he's 3-to-2 in the last couple of weeks. His accuracy has been at times pinpoint (as it was on his 42-yard completion to Brandin Cooks to help set up a Rob Gronkowski score against the Jets), but it has also been uncharacteristically erratic.

He was picked deep down the middle of the field by Buster Skrine last week, but the more concerning throw may have been the quick out-route to Gronkowski that Skrine dropped for what should have been an easy interception. Brady missed Phillip Dorsett on what looked like it could have been a long touchdown with Dorsett running free behind the defense. He threw behind Chris Hogan twice in the game, one of which opened up Hogan to a rib-shot that landed him on the injury report this week.

Against the Jets, Brady was not sacked and he was hit only four times -- a light day for him compared to other weeks this season when he's been battered. Yet he still completed just under 53 percent of his passes for 257 yards and a season-low 6.76 yards per attempt. 

"Well, I've got to hit the open . . . If the throws are there I've got to be able to make them," he said on Friday. "It's disappointing when I don't. To me, it just comes back to technique and fundamentals and making sure everything is working and that's the consistent daily thing that you're working on. I'm always working on my accuracy.

"I wish I hit them all. I'm capable of hitting them all and I need to be able to do that. I said last week that some of these games wouldn't be as close if I was playing better in the red area. I think some of those missed opportunities in the pass game with me hitting guys would really help our team. Hopefully, I can do a better job for this team."

Brady is no longer listed on the Patriots injury report, but he dealt with a left shoulder injury against both the Bucs and the Jets, and it's worth wondering if that somehow impacted how his passes traveled in those games. Balance is key in Brady's world, and even though he can make flat-footed throws look easy, perhaps an injury to his front side limited his ability to place the ball where he wanted. 

Keeping Brady upright could go a long way in helping the 40-year-old regain his form from Weeks 2-4 when he didn't dip below a 104 quarterback rating. Bill Belichick said earlier this week that part of the reason the Jets pass-rush wasn't quite as effective as others they'd faced this year was his team's ability to run the ball. Productive rushing attempts on first and second down mean manageable third downs, which mean shorter pass attempts. Those of course, in theory, lead to less time standing in the pocket and a healthier quarterback.

"It's great," Brady said of his team's recent surge running the football. "I mean, to be able to run the ball consistently in the NFL is important for every offense. It does take a lot of . . . I wouldn't say pressure, it's just production. If 400 yards of offense is what you're looking for and you can get 150 from your running game, the 250 has got to come in the passing game. If you're getting 50 yards in the rushing game then it means you've got to throw for more.

"I don't think it's pressure it's just overall you're going to get production in different areas and the backs are a big part of our offense and handing the ball off to them is an easy way for us to gain yards if we're all coordinated and doing the right thing. But those guys are running hard. The line is doing a great job up front finishing blocks and so forth."

Against the Falcons and their talented -- though underperforming -- offense this weekend, the running game could be key. First, it could help the Patriots defense by controlling possession and keeping Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman off the field. Next are the obvious advantages for the signal-caller who could use a stress-free day in the pocket to help him solve his recent accuracy issues. 

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