Bill Belichick was very open about it earlier this week when he relayed the issue with his receiver group going into Week 1 of the regular season.
"The whole receiver situation has been challenging all through camp with the limited availability of certain players," Belichick said. "I'd say most of the players have been limited at one point or another. So we just have to use the information we have and do the best we can with it. We'll have to see how it goes."
Building the roster at that position wasn't easy. Belichick ended up with six receivers. One of whom was told he would be released and then was brought back. Another was released and brought back. One was placed on injured reserve.
Now attacking a game plan will be a whole separate challenge in its own right. Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon were removed off of the non-football injury list in late August. Demaryius Thomas came off of PUP around the same time. Those could end up being the team's top three options at receiver when the Steelers visit Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
The team also has Phillip Dorsett ready to go as well as two undrafted rookies in Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski. Meyers didn't see real practice time with Tom Brady, though, until he'd established himself as one of the most impressive receivers through the early days of camp. Olszewski saw his first regular work with Brady only after the injury bug had wiped out a significant percentage of those at his position during joint practices with the Titans.
Add it all up and outside of Dorsett, there aren't many wideouts on the roster who've been in the huddle with Brady consistently throughout the course of the summer. Though Brady has built-in experience with players like Edelman and (to a much lesser extent) Gordon, there's going to have to be a period of time during the regular season in which he and his wideouts start to build some trust with one another.
Brady acknowledged that fact on Tuesday morning. Belichick did the same soon thereafter, indicating there's not much he and his staff can do to expedite the confidence-building process between his quarterback and receivers.
"I wish there was," Belichick explained. "I wish we could just wave a wand and all that would happen. But unfortunately I don't really see how that would happen.
"We'll have to do whatever [guys] that have been here for a number of weeks have been doing. Go out here, get the reps together, get our timing, develop that consistency and continuity and confidence on the field.
"I don't know how you can... I don't know how to create that by just wishing it or talking about it. At some point you gotta go out there and be able to execute it. We've done some of it. We'll do more and we'll continue to do more and we'll see where we're at."
One would expect that for a player like Gordon — who adapted relatively quickly to what the Patriots did offensively and had nine catches in his first three games with the team last season — that his physical skill set is such that missed practice time might impact him less than others. They could keep it simple with go routes, slants and deep overs, and he'd still be a factor even if the defense had a good idea of what was coming. He averaged 18.0 yards per catch with the Patriots last season running those types of patterns.
Perhaps the same will be true for Thomas. Perhaps the same will be true for Meyers, who showed throughout training camp that he can be a contested-catch threat as well as a nifty route runner who uses subtle moves at the line of scrimmage and at the tops of his routes to create separation.
But there are no easy calls for Brady or Josh McDaniels that will hasten the painstaking process of building trust between the guy throwing the ball and the guys catching it.
"Timing and anticipation," McDaniels began when he listed the critical factors to a successful passing game Tuesday. "Trust. Execution. Discipline. There's a lot that goes into all of those things. It doesn't really matter what the route it. All of those things are in play. We're continuing to work with guys that have come off of different [injury] lists and those types of things. But again, there's not excuses for that. It's our job to find what we do well now. It's also our job to improve upon that group of things as we move forward."
The Patriots know what they do well with Edelman. They know what Dorsett can handle. Even with Gordon, last year they discovered pretty quickly that they could be successful when they found ways to exploit his power at the catch point in one-on-one matchups with back-shoulder throws and slants. They also allowed him to make the most of his run-after-catch ability at times with shorter quick-hitting passes near the line of scrimmage.
Maybe that understanding of what that trio can execute will be enough against the Steelers. It might have to be. Ryan Izzo is now the one running out of the tight end spot, not Rob Gronkowski. And even though Patriots running backs are expected to be a significant part of the passing game, the Steelers match up well thanks to one of the most athletic linebacker corps in the NFL with Mark Barron and first-round pick Devin Bush roaming at the second level.
This receiver group hasn't done much at all over the course of the last month. Some are still waiting for their first competitive snaps of the year with Brady against another team. But the pressure will be on Sunday for them to perform, despite having maybe a fraction of the timing and anticipation that Brady so craves.
"We have a really, really tough task in the Pittsburgh defense ahead of us," McDaniels said. "We have things that we have confidence in. Those are the things we're gonna do. We're gonna continue to work throughout the course of the season to build on those things and expand on them in whatever ways we feel is best for the team. That's no different than any other team. Every other team is dealing with injuries, guys coming off PUP, etc., who might not have as many reps, timing, days of practice etc. That's just the National Football League."
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