FOXBORO - Late December of 2015. The MetLife Stadium crowd was bearing down on the Patriots and Tom Brady. Trailing 20-13 in the fourth quarter, Brady and the offense needed a spark.
Where would they find one? Julian Edelman was out with a broken foot. Danny Amendola was out as well. When Brady broke the huddle, he sent Rob Gronkowski outside the numbers. Brandon LaFell lined up on the same side, in the slot. To Lafell’s right was former offensive tackle Michael Williams, now wearing No. 85 and attempting to play tight end. On the opposite side, the forgettable Keyshawn Martin was deployed as a slot receiver, while James White lined up practically on the Jets bench. Not exactly the greatest show on turf.
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Brady had been under siege from that Jets front seven all afternoon and this play was no different. Right tackle Marcus Cannon appeared to sneak a peek inside and in doing so, pressure came quickly off the front-side tackle. Brady didn’t even have time to see Gronk break free, despite having his jersey tugged at. Instead, the Pats quarterback tried flat-footed to Martin, running a sharp out a yard short of the sticks. The ball was delivered low and Martin was unable to reel it in. Enter the punt team, again.
"A lot of guys have been in and out of the lineup,” said Brady after the game. “We have a lot of guys coming in off the street trying to play."
Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels almost made it work. They forced overtime in the Jets game before choosing to kick and not receive. We know how that went. Eventually, both Edelman and Amendola returned, and the Pats found themselves a play or two away from winning the AFC title game in Denver. But the absence of Edelman for seven full games that season revealed some troubling trends.
The Pats became a much different team, especially on third downs. Without his ride-or-die slot receiver, Brady became more and more reliant on the untested James White (15 third-down targets over that stretch) and the oddly disengaged LaFell (13). Amendola tried to pick up the slack, but he was damaged goods (12 targets). The overall results were stark. Of Brady’s 70 third down throws in that stretch, 46 failed to extended drives.
With Edelman now lost for the 2017-18 season thanks to the torn ACL, might the Pats find themselves in that same spot? Stop before you start. Here in late August, this team is far more equipped to handle Edelman’s injury than ever before.
The additions of Brandin Cooks, Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee provide alternative options, as does the growth of Chris Hogan in his second year in the system. All you have to do is look at last season's offense to see how diversified the offense was on third downs, and how the new skill-position players project to fill that void.
Edelman topped the team in third-down targets a season ago, with 57. He also led the team in third-down receptions with 38 (66.7 percent). But Brady and the rest of the quarterbacks had no issues looking elsewhere. Five different receivers caught 10 or more passes on third downs: White (23 of 33), Amendola (16 of 23), Hogan (14 of 20), Martellus Bennett (12 of 14) and Malcolm Mitchell (11 of 18). Four of those five equaled or topped the overall percentage of throws in Edelman’s direction, and had to do so without another critical third-down piece - Rob Gronkowski - missing half the season and the entire postseason. Another valued contributor, Dion Lewis, didn’t return from his own knee injury until the second half of the season.
Of the names on this list, only Bennett is not back with the team.
“Guys are going to have to step up,” said Hogan earlier this week. “They're going to be asked to do different things. We're going to work on it during practice. It's the next man up mentality. There's a lot of guys on our offense with a lot of talent in that locker room. Guys will step up and have to make some plays…”
“Last year doesn’t matter,” said White. “It’s a what have you done lately mentality. But guys are ready.”
That’s the right attitude and while it may require a slightly different approach, the Pats have the tools to make it work and eventually hum. 2015 this is not. Not by a long shot.