Brandon Bolden

Tom E. Curran's Takeaways: Uneven offensive performance a sign of the times for Patriots

Tom E. Curran's Takeaways: Uneven offensive performance a sign of the times for Patriots

FOXBORO – When the Patriots started the final drive of the first half on Thursday night, their offense consisted of wide receivers Gunner Olszewski, Jakobi Meyers and Julian Edelman. Their tight end was Ryan Izzo. Their left tackle was Marshall Newhouse. Their center was Ted Karras.

Injuries pushed several of those players into the spots they were in. Phillip Dorsett’s hamstring went last week and Josh Gordon’s ankle went while he was trying to make a tackle after Brady was strip-sacked. Newhouse is in because of Isaiah Wynn’s turf toe and Karras is in because David Andrews is lost for the year with blood clots. Tight end Matt Lacosse left with a knee injury in the first half and N’Keal Harry hasn’t played since the first preseason game because of a lower leg injury.  

But the why of it is somewhat moot. The Patriots offense hasn’t been charging up and down the field since the first quarter of the third game against the Jets.

On their first drive of the night, their drive stalled after they got stacked up on second, third and fourth down.

Later, after a Duron Harmon pick put them in business at the Giants 20, Brady found Meyers (who had an encouraging game) with a back-shoulder throw down to the Giants 2. It took three tries before Brandon Bolden crammed it in from the 1.

That Bolden was taking those short-yardage carries instead of Michel indicates that the more urgent and aggressive running style of Bolden is worth a shot since the more patient Michel isn’t a pile-moving back when there’s no room to operate.

And Bolden was getting offensive snaps, in part, because Rex Burkhead was out.

Brady wasn’t great. On the strip-sack, Izzo’s man made the play but he did the right thing running his man upfield and Brady probably could have stepped up a bit to avoid it. He also threw a pick on a pass intended to Edelman down the seam when he threw on the opposite side of the wide receiver.

The 2018 Patriots were – on both sides of the ball – incredibly healthy. That was one of the underappreciated reasons behind their run to the Super Bowl. Right now, they aren’t. The injuries are impacting the offensive performance and the offensive performance wasn’t so hot before that.

The Patriots are 6-0 but the offensive travails don’t have a chance to get better until some of their players get better. And even then, it may be a labor.

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The numbers for Brady – 31-for-41 for 334 with two rushing touchdowns (and five carries for six yards) wound up being decent but the way they were arrived at is not what the Patriots are looking for. They clearly came out hoping to show the same kind of effectiveness on the ground they showed last week in the second half against Washington but they just couldn’t clear room for Michel who – while despite all my protests that he’s not the issue – seems to be getting more and more tentative. Hence the reps for Bolden. But the ineffectiveness of the running game (17-for 53 in the first half) meant the Patriots had to use the short passing game to augment the ground attack. And that meant a ton of throws for Brady who was 25-for-34 by the end of the first half. 

In addition to the pick and the strip-sack, there were a number of misfires. One to Meyers on a screen that Meyers came up with. Another to Izzo on a little throw out to the flat. A low throw to Edelman. Wide throws to Edelman and Izzo on the first drive of the second half. Protection and separation. Without them, a quarterback looks kind of normal. That’s what the now-deposed coach of the Redskins, Jay Gruden, said in the days before they played New England. And that’s what Brady is experiencing as well which is causing him to be less decisive.

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Bill Belichick declared there was no room at the inn when the Patriots released Benjamin Watson. But watching Ryan Izzo get walked through with great frequency was alarming. The second-year tight end is barely a speed bump on some plays. The Patriots' third-down run early in the fourth when they tried a toss to James White around the left end was a perfect example. Safety Jabril Peppers discarded Izzo and dropped White for a 2-yard loss.

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Between the wind and the fact they had a new kicker, the Patriots decided to roll the dice on fourth down a couple of times. They got stuffed on their first attempt at the end of their first drive. On their first possession of the second half, an incompletion by Brady on fourth-and-7 from the Giants 29 was wiped out by a defensive holding penalty. When they moved five yards closer, they let Mike Nugent give it a go. His attempt from 40 hit the left upright. The laces were facing Nugent thanks to the hold from rookie punter Jake Bailey.

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A slew of injuries hit the team Thursday night. In addition to the ones mentioned – Lacosse and Gordon – Donta Hightower left with a shoulder injury, Patrick Chung hurt his chest, Jakob Johnson hurt his shoulder. All were down for the rest of the game. J.C. Jackson and Devin McCourty both missed some time but returned.  

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In his maiden voyage as a FOX analyst, Rob Gronkowski said he’d “leave the door open” on a return. That statement followed a comment by Patriots owner Robert Kraft who noted Gronk hadn’t filed his retirement papers and that “We can always pray and hope. There is hope for us still with Gronk.” 

The filing of retirement papers is a formality. It just starts the process of players getting their post-career benefits. On one hand, you hear Kraft stirring the pot about a Gronk return when the player was clearly at wit’s end by the time he called it quits seems tone-deaf. Leave the guy alone. But if Gronk’s going to keep pushing the notion he might come back – whether he’s serious about it or just doing it to keep people showing up when he holds a press conference – then all bets are off. For what it’s worth, sources have told me several times that Gronk is not coming back.

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Meyers and Gunner Olszewski combined to catch six of the seven balls they were targeted with for 88 yards. For Meyers, in particular, it was an encouraging performance. He may not have the offense down pat but the hands he showed in camp when everything near him he pulled in was very much in evidence Thursday night.

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After Julian Edelman’s highlight reel diving catch that set up the Patriots final score, Giants head coach Pat Shurmur ended up on the field for some reason. Edelman, seeing Shurmur well out near the numbers, pointed at the coach and gestured at him as if to say, “What are you doing out here?” Shurmur chirped back. Edelman returned fire. Shurmur chirped back … and then they wandered away from each other glancing over their shoulders at each other.

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Patriots injury updates: Bolden out, Cannon reportedly won't play

Patriots injury updates: Bolden out, Cannon reportedly won't play

The Patriots have downgraded running back and special teamer Brandon Bolden to out for the game Sunday in Miami and, according to multiple reports, offensive tackle Marcus Cannon also will not play.

Bolden has a hamstring injury. His absence could create an opportunity for rookie running back Damien Harris, a third-round pick from Alabama who was inactive last week, to get playing time. 

Also, running back James White, whose wife is expecting, made the trip to Miami.

Cannon landed on his shoulder in the Week 1 victory over the Steelers. Offensive lineman Marshall Newhouse was signed earlier this week by New England 

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Believe it or not: Patriots among the NFL's biggest spenders at running back

Believe it or not: Patriots among the NFL's biggest spenders at running back

FOXBORO — In the real world, Ezekiel Elliott's new contract with the Cowboys will line his pockets and ratchet up the expectations in Dallas. Online, it'll stoke the flames of football's most interminable debate: Are running backs worth it?

Are they worth high-end contracts like the ones given to Elliott, Le'Veon Bell and Todd Gurley? Are they worth being selected at the top of the draft when there are talented quarterbacks available, as Saquon Barkley was when he went No. 2 overall in 2018? 

The numbers would suggest that paying someone like Elliott $90 million over six years isn't the best investment strategy. The numbers would suggest that going with a running back at the top of the draft instead of taking a shot on a potential franchise quarterback is flawed.

But take a look at what the Patriots have done at the running back position. 

Even after Elliott got his new deal, it's Bill Belichick who's spending more cap dollars on his running back room than anyone else. According to Spotrac, the Patriots have $12.23 million in active roster cap space devoted to their five running backs this season, which is tops in the league. (Over The Cap points out the Patriots are the third-biggest cap-dollar spenders on the running back position this season behind the Niners and Texans, whose highest-paid backs are on injured reserve and not active. Either way, New England is heavily invested at that spot.)

But the Patriots have doled out their money in a way that breaks from other teams who are in the top-five when it comes to running back spending. Unlike the Rams with Gurley or the Jets with Bell, the Patriots have taken a many-hands-makes-light-work approach.

Last year's first-rounder Sony Michel counts $2.19 million against the cap this season. James White carries a cap hit of $4.63 million. Rex Burkhead's cap number is $3 million. Special-teamer Brandon Bolden counts $1.7 against the cap in 2019, and third-round rookie Damien Harris counts $716,534 against the cap. 

Despite having so much invested in running backs this season, the Patriots don't have a single player with a top-10 cap hit at the position. They do have three inside the top-25, though, as White ranks 13th, Burkhead 19th and Michel is 24th.

But why? In a league that has seemingly proven that running back production is replaceable — take a look at how well James Conner ran in Pittsburgh last season in place of Bell, or how well C.J. Anderson ran for the Rams — why would the Patriots be shelling out more to running backs than the rest of the league? 

Throwing numbers at that group makes sense for myriad reasons for Belichick. Given the injury rate at the position, given that Tom Brady is 42, and given that it's in the team's best interest to keep Brady upright, having several capable backs to carry the load for a run-heavy attack is logical. 

Still, this also seems like an instance of Belichick, an economics major at Wesleyan, finding another NFL market inefficiency.

Despite Barkley going No. 2 overall and Elliott getting paid top dollar, it looks like the league has generally agreed upon the fact that paying one back huge money isn't wise. Look at what happened to Gurley's health soon after signing and it's not all that difficult to see why the Chargers would hesitate to hand Melvin Gordon an exorbitant salary. The Jets fired general manager Mike Maccagnan after he inked Bell, and there were rumblings that new head coach Adam Gase wasn't thrilled that Bell was on his roster at that price.

Instead, what's apparently about to become more popular across the league is loading up on tight ends and deploying the "12 personnel" packages the Patriots fell in love with in 2010. In a copycat league, it would make sense for teams to try to do what Belichick did with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez a decade ago, or what the Eagles are doing with Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert, or what the Colts are doing with Jack Doyle and Eric Ebron. 

We'll see if that becomes reality in 2019, as the average cap dollars spent at tight end — when you look at those dollars as a percentage of the overall cap — haven't veered much in the last six years. (It's consistently hovered around 3 to 4 percent across the league.)

But if teams start using "12 personnel" more often, if they start adding bodies to their tight end rooms, and if they start handing their top tight ends bigger contracts, then it looks like the Patriots will be on the opposite end of that trend. At least at the moment.

With only Ryan Izzo and Matt LaCosse on the roster right now, the Patriots rank 31st in tight end salary cap spending for 2019. Even when Ben Watson returns from suspension, his $2.46 million cap hit will only bump the Patriots to 25th in cap spending at the position this season. They led the league in tight end spending last year and were fourth in 2017 with Gronkowski on the roster. 

So while the league might be leaning toward using tight ends more frequently and potentially paying them more as a result, the Patriots appear to have gone in the opposite direction post-Gronk. While the league has information that would suggest running backs are replaceable, the Patriots are investing in them more and more; they were seventh in running back cap spending in 2018 and fourth in 2017.

How things play out this season will tell us how Belichick's backs-over-tight-ends approach will work. But we can say this: At least he's consistent. He consistently changes his approach, even when he's had success. He consistently shifts gears in a league that has long been plagued by groupthink.

Zigging when others zag has worked for Belichick before. It worked when he turned to a 3-4 front in his early days with the Patriots. It worked when he hammered "12 personnel" more than most. It's worked as he's leaned on a fullback while the NFL has become obsessed with the spread. How he's allocating his resources at running back and tight end just seems to be the latest example. 

Pats to wear this SB LIII patch vs. Steelers>>>>>

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