Asserting their will: Patriots offensive line makes a statement vs. Falcons

Asserting their will: Patriots offensive line makes a statement vs. Falcons

FOXBORO -- The Patriots offensive line got what it wanted late on Sunday night: Four-minute offense. Two-score lead. This was their chance to salt away the game, a chance to bury an opponent when everyone in the building knew what was coming.

Five rushing attempts and 32 yards later . . . victory formation.

"The weight is on our back as an offensive line, and that's when we gotta pull through," Nate Solder said following his team's 23-7 win over the Falcons. "That's what we work at. That's what we are constantly striving to do and when we have that opportunity and we come through, that's something we can build off of."

Early in the year, the moments in which Dante Scarnecchia's group asserted its will as it did against Atlanta were seemingly non-existent. For the first five weeks of the season, short-yardage conversions were a problem, and Tom Brady was on pace to be hit more than ever before in his career. There were questions as to whether or not the 40-year-old quarterback would last if he continued to take the kind of punishment he'd been subjected to, and all eyes were on the blockers in front of him. 

Over the course of the last two weeks, though, the Patriots offensive line appears to have found a toe-hold. Against the Jets in Week 6, they helped create room for running backs to pick up 118 yards on 25 carries (4.7 yards per attempt). Against the Falcons, they churned out a season-high 162 yards on 36 carries (4.5) and helped their offense maintain possession for over 34 minutes. 

The trickle-down effect has been staggering. A greater level of efficiency in the running game has meant more play-action, better protection for Brady, and sustained drives that help keep offenses like Atlanta's off the field. 

The improvement in pass-protection has been perhaps the most obvious change. Brady's been sacked just twice in the last two weeks and hit just six times. Both sacks came early against the Falcons, and neither appeared to be due to obvious offensive-line mishaps. On the first, De'Vondre Campbell rushed in off of Brady's blindside untouched by Rob Gronkowski and Mike Gillislee. Brady never seemed to account for him. On the second, Brady was brought down from behind by Vic Beasley about four seconds into the down. 

Through five weeks, after taking a handful of jarring shots from the Buccaneers, Brady was on track to be sacked more than 50 times and hit over 100 times -- both career highs. It was not sustainable. He's now on pace to be sacked 41 times. 

Would his personal protectors like to see that number continue to shrink? Of course, but at least it's headed in the right direction. 

"We knew we could play like that and just hadn't been," Patriots center and captain David Andrews said. "It's frustrating, but it's good to come out and put up a performance like that."

What made the early-season struggles so maddening was that this group was made up of the same five that went almost wire-to-wire as the starters last season on their way to a Super Bowl. It's a relatively young unit -- Andrews and right guard Shaq Mason are in their third years, while left guard Joe Thuney is in his second -- but it's a line that has a wealth of experience together and expected to start stronger. 

There was not one look-in-the-mirror conversation or emotional positional meeting to get things turned around. "It's not a magic spell or anything," Thuney said. 

But there was an admission of mistakes being made and a commitment to fix them in a hurry.

"We got a great group, mature group," Andrews said. "Even though we've got a bunch of young guys, we've all played a lot of football. There was no rah-rah speech or intervention or anything like that. It was just, 'Here are the facts: We gotta do better. We know we can do better. We know what the results can be.' For us it's just going to the grindstone each week, getting better, practicing hard and that leads to good things."

The Patriots ran the ball on 54 percent of their offensive plays Sunday night, and Brady threw just 29 passes. It was the first time this season he’s attempted fewer than 35 and just the fifth time in the last three-plus seasons he’s thrown fewer than 30 in a regular-season game.

It would seem as though Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels trust their offensive line and their running game as much as they have all season. Still, Belichick was reluctant to heap too much praise on the trench hogs that have recently found their footing. 

"The more runs you have, the more yards you’re going to gain," Belichick said. "We played this game from ahead, which that was a switch. We hadn’t done a ton of that this year, so that gives you an opportunity to run the ball more. 

"We ran it in the fourth quarter which is another time where you can pile up some runs if you can make first downs. We weren’t able to do that against Tampa. We weren’t able to do it last week against the Jets. We did it tonight. It was good to get those yards when they knew we were going to run, and when we needed to run, we got the yards."

Those kinds of opportunities will surely present themselves again next week against the Chargers, two weeks later against the Broncos and every week thereafter. 

Consecutive games of solid play from the offensive line won't mean much then, and the Patriots know it. But to feel like they've got something to build on after looking lost for the better part of the first third of the season is encouraging. 

"We're not where we want to be," Andrews said. "We're improving so that's good. But the ceiling is up here, and we're way down here. We just want to keep improving, keep improving. It's never going to be good enough. There's always something to work on."

Door is open for N'Keal Harry to make impact for Patriots after Josh Gordon lands on IR

Door is open for N'Keal Harry to make impact for Patriots after Josh Gordon lands on IR

FOXBORO — The Patriots had a looming glut at their receiver spot, but they cleared it up well before they had to.

According to ESPN's Field Yates, the Patriots have placed Josh Gordon on injured reserve. Gordon was listed as a non-participant on Wednesday's injury report due to knee and ankle issues.

The team has used one of its return-from-IR designations — every team in the league gets two — on N'Keal Harry when they brought the rookie first-rounder back to practice last week. Bill Belichick could, in theory, use the second return-from-IR designation on Gordon, but the expectation is that left tackle Isaiah Wynn will be the second player they bring back from IR.

How does this leave the Patriots depth chart at receiver?

Julian Edelman remains the team's top option. He'll now be joined by Harry, recently-acquired Mohamed Sanu, Phillip Dorsett, Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski.

Sanu-for-Gordon is not a one-for-one swap, though that's how the timing of the moves makes it seem. Sanu provides depth across the receiving group for position coach Joe Judge and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, but he is a very different player than Gordon. Both have big frames for the position, but Sanu is primarily a slot receiver while Gordon — who played in the slot occasionally for the Patriots — has made his living on the outside.

Gordon being placed on IR now opens the door for Harry to make an immediate impact. It's a tall order for a player who missed all but one preseason game and most of training camp. (And even in the preseason game he was limited after suffering a leg injury.) But Harry and Gordon have similar physical skill sets and it would come as little surprise if Harry manned the "X" position in the Patriots offense that Gordon held when available.

Harry and Gordon actually had remarkably similar physical measurements before entering the league seven years apart, and Harry's frame and body control should allow him to run the same fade, slant and back-shoulder routes Gordon did.

Asking Harry to do everything Gordon has done is a lot to ask. Especially in a complicated offense with a demanding quarterback who has let it be known many times that veteran players are more likely to contribute than rookies in New England because of the communication it takes to keep things running smoothly.

But Belichick made his choice. He could've — even after using a return-from-IR designation on Harry — opted to keep the rookie on IR and end his season. That would've left Gordon's role open for whenever he got healthy and kept the number of active receivers at a manageable level. Instead, the team will try to bring back the big-bodied bail-out option who's in his first year rather than try to get Gordon going again.

This move is also a vote of confidence for another rookie wideout. Jakobi Meyers was an undrafted player who ran a 4.6-second 40-yard dash coming out of NC State, someone who only had a handful of years at the receiver position after going to the Wolfpack as a quarterback. But he impressed in training camp and has slowly worked his way into a more regular role by taking advantage of opportunities provided to him as others at his position have dealt with injury. He's caught 13 of 15 targets sent his way this season for 167 yards, and he's made an impression on his hard-to-impress quarterback.

"He’s done a great job taking advantage of his opportunity," Tom Brady said after Meyers caught all five targets sent his way Monday night. "I’ll keep throwing it to him. He does a good job of getting open. I’ll just keep trying to go to the open guy."

Meyers, McDaniels told reporters recently, is more of an interior option however. That means in Gordon's absence, Harry will likely be looked to to play a real role.

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Josh Gordon has 'interesting' response to NFL's post about his IR designation

Josh Gordon has 'interesting' response to NFL's post about his IR designation

The Patriots placed Josh Gordon on injured reserve Wednesday, but the situation is a lot more complicated than it sounds.

After initial reports suggested Gordon would not return this season, it now appears that may not be the case. NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reports while Gordon's Patriots career is "likely over," the 28-year old could wind up playing for a new team this year if and when New England releases him.

Adding to all of the confusion was Gordon's response on Instagram to the NFL's announcement of his IR designation. "Interesting," he commented.

Look below. . .

As for what Gordon finds interesting, your guess is as good as ours. One thing is for sure: this situation seems like it's going to take a few more twists and turns.

With Gordon's tenure as a Patriot possibly coming to an end, here's an updated look at the Patriots' WR depth chart.

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