Patriots

Unlike 2015, Patriots still have plenty of third-down options without Edelman

Unlike 2015, Patriots still have plenty of third-down options without Edelman

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.

Tomlin/Steelers vs. Belichick/Patriots: Different strokes for different folks

Tomlin/Steelers vs. Belichick/Patriots: Different strokes for different folks

FOXBORO -- Mike Tomlin has been Pittsburgh’s head coach since 2007, named to the post at the ripe old age of 35. A year later, he and the Steelers won a Super Bowl.

More Lombardi Trophies seemed certain to follow, but -- despite a half-dozen seasons of 10 wins or more -- Pittsburgh and that stacked roster has come up short ever since, including an AFC Championship Game loss at New England last season.

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You might think that would dim Tomlin’s confidence. No chance. He may be a decade older, but he still has oodles of swagger. We saw that earlier in the year when during an interview with Tony Dungy prior to Sunday Night Football, he admitted to looking ahead to the Steelers’ matchup with the Pats.

"I'm going to embrace the elephant in the room. (The game) going to be fireworks," Tomlin said in that conversation. "And it's probably going to be Part 1. That's going to be a big game. But probably, if we're both doing what we're supposed to, the second one is really going to be a big game. Then what happens in the first is going to set up the second one, which is going to determine the location of the second one."

You’d never hear Bill Belichick go that route and he’s won five Super Bowls here in New England. We are now conditioned to believe that’s not only the right way but the only way to do business. I would tend to agree. History doesn’t lie.

Tomlin, however. isn’t adopting Belichick’s public approach. He says he’ll be forthright with the media because he’s doing what he’s supposed to do in his job. Perhaps that’s a little jab at Belichick and the Pats, who have long been less than forthcoming.

“I don’t know if any of us were looking ahead, to be quite honest with you," he said "That was the way it was described by (the media). We were simply answering questions. We were doing our professional due diligence. When we do interviews and people ask us about potential big games down the road, we’re going to politely answer questions and do so honestly. That’s not us down the road, that is us simply performing our professional duties.”

An exuberant fellow, Tomlin thinks it’s foolish to not admit there are larger things at play during the course of a season.

“If you set out on the season to be world champs, obviously you’re going to play in significant games along the way,” he said. “The road gets increasingly narrower. That is part of being [on] the pursuit of a world championship play. It’s ridiculous to goal set and not to acknowledge natural things that occur along the way if you are committed to the pursuit of your goals.”

To reach those goals, Tomlin’s Steelers usually need to go through the Patriots. This season is no different. Right now, Pittsburgh is the top seed in the AFC. The Pats are number two but can reclaim that spot with a win Sunday afternoon.

The Patriots may not have a real rival in the AFC East, but what they have with the Steelers is real.

“It's an awesome thing to be a part of," said Tomlin. "Not something that I or we take for granted. To be in significant games is just part of chasing what it is that we're chasing and to have a routine dance partner that just speaks to their commitment and achievements in similar ways. We're excited to be a part of it. We don't take it for granted. We realize that these type games are just part of what we desire to be.”

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Cannon on season-ending IR among Patriots moves

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Cannon on season-ending IR among Patriots moves

Patriots starting right tackle Marcus Cannon was placed on season-ending injured reserve on Wednesday in a series of roster moves announced by the team.MOR

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As had been reported Tuesday, wide receiver Kenny Britt, released by the Browns last week, was signed. Also, defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois was re-signed (he had been released Dec. 2) and linebacker Jonathan Freeny and wide receiver Bernard Reedy were released.

Cannon, 29, has missed six games, including the past five, with an ankle injury. The veteran offensive lineman had his best season in 2016 and was rated by Pro Football Focus as the top right tackle last season. LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming have been filling in for him.