Patriots

Patriots Point/Counterpoint: Will Tom Brady and Antonio Brown ever get really in sync?

Patriots Point/Counterpoint: Will Tom Brady and Antonio Brown ever get really in sync?

Every Friday during the NFL season, Tom E. Curran & Phil Perry will go head-to-head and offer their own takes on a Patriots or NFL-related question. Today, they discuss whether or not Tom Brady and Antonio Brown will ever really develop chemistry.

Will Tom Brady and Antonio Brown ever really develop chemistry?

A couple years back, Tom Brady was talking about the telepathy he’d built with Rob Gronkowski. Gronk could be running a route full speed, back turned to the line of scrimmage, and Brady could read Gronk’s intentions by watching his gait. The way he dipped a shoulder. Leaned his head. And because of those tiny visual breadcrumbs Brady learned to recognize through nine regular seasons, eight postseasons, nine training camps, nine passing camps (or so) and who knows how many trips to Montana or Southern California or Brookline to throw and catch, the two were the greatest QB/TE combo in NFL history.

Antonio Brown has outlier skills similar to Gronk. But all you had to do was watch the second half of last week’s game to see how hard it is to fully build the rapport needed for Brady and Brown to be anywhere close to their potential this year or maybe ever.

On a second-and-5 from the Miami 19 early in the third, Brady shot a ball to the right side of the end zone that bounced near the boundary. Brown was turned the other way.

Three plays later, on second-and-7 from the Miami 10, Brown was running a slant. Brady fired almost a half-second before Brown even got his head turned and the pass glanced out of the end zone.

On the next play, Brown beat his man at the line and Brady underthrew him in the end zone, the quarterback taking the rap for not reading it right.

Brown started the day catching all four passes he was targeted with for 56 yards. Brady couldn’t hook up with him on any of the next four targets. This stuff is hard even for brilliant players.

Brown will be productive for the Patriots as long as he lasts with them. There will be moments he and Brady are not just on the same page but reading the same letter in the same word. And other times, Brown won’t even be in the same library. They just won’t have the time to truly tap the potential for absurd on-field effectiveness.

I'll agree with you on this, TC: There is no chance that Tom Brady and Antonio Brown will even sniff the type of connection that Brady built with Rob Gronkowski. But that was developed over almost a decade. Is it possible to get "REALLY in sync" and yet still not be on the level of one of the greatest quarterback-receiver duos of all time? I think so.

We've seen Brady connect with first-year Patriots many times over to have productive -- sometimes wildly productive -- seasons. The connection might not be what it's been with some of Brady's all-time favorites. But in sync? Sure.

Brandon Lloyd caught 911 yards worth of passes from Brady in 2012 and was a true outside-the-numbers option. In 2014, Brandon LaFell brought a more physical presence to the "X" receiver spot and reeled in 953 yards receiving en route to a Super Bowl title.

In 2016, we might not give Brady enough credit for what he did with new faces on the way to Lombardi No. 5: Chris Hogan (680 yards), Martellus Bennett (701 yards) and Malcolm Mitchell (401 yards) all ended the season with a rapport with their quarterback that could certainly be described as "in sync." The following year, Brandin Cooks showed up and broke 1,000 yards as a gifted down-the-field receiver.

Last year it was Josh Gordon. I don't think he'd fall into the in sync category . . . but he still had 720 yards in 11 games and led the league in yards per catch. Plenty of teams around the league would kill for that type of "out of sync" presence.

Those examples don't even mention the obvious first-year wonders that were Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth in 2007.

Of course there are one-and-done duds. Chad Ochocinco never got it. Clearly. Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins were the best the Patriots had for a brief stretch, but that didn't mean they really worked out.

There are two things clearly working against Brown: No. 1 he didn't have an offseason with Brady; No. 2 he might be yanked off the field at any time. But if he continues to play, he'll contribute at a level that's approaching Lloyd or LaFell. Though he lacks in preseason Patriots reps compared to those two, he easily surpasses them in terms of talent. They'll have instances of miscommunication sprinkled throughout the season. Maybe all year. But if Brown plays 15 games with this team, or something close to that, we'll look back at the numbers at the end and say, "Man, he and Brady developed chemistry quickly." Brady's done it too many times with lesser talents to expect anything different.

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Tom Brady oozes disappointment after Patriots offense struggles vs. Eagles

Tom Brady oozes disappointment after Patriots offense struggles vs. Eagles

PHILADELPHIA — Tom Brady’s temporary home at Lincoln Financial Field was on the far wall of the visitor’s locker room, last spot on the left.

When we media slithered into the locker room at about 7:58 p.m., there was a travel bag perched on the folding chair in front of his locker but no Brady. Not terribly unusual. Sometimes he’s there, sometimes he’s not. Eventually, though, he’ll wander through, pluck his stuff and head for the interview room.

Except, this time he didn’t. In the 20 minutes we were wandered around collecting insights from his teammates, there was no sign of him.

When Brady stepped to the podium at 8:29 p.m., he barely had any expression on his face at all. Eyebrows slanted down, mouth set, eyes slowly surveying the room to field questions he answered in a voice barely above a murmur after the Patriots 17-10 win.

Despondent Tom and the Otherwise Happy 52. Brady answered questions without elaboration. There were no, “Good to be 9-1…” “Tough to win on the road…” platitudes. He wasn’t looking to put a dollop of whipped cream on an offensive performance that he likely felt looked like crap.

This is the transcript of Brady’s media session provided by the Eagles media relations crew.

Q: On struggles in the red zone:
TB: “Yeah, yeah. I don’t have anymore. I don’t know.”

Q: On whether there is a way to remedy it or if it’s just about practicing and execution:
TB: “Yeah, I think that’s right. Practice and execution.”

Q: On the offense at this point of the year:
TB: “Up and down. That’s what it looks like to me. We could probably do everything better.”

Q: On how he would describe their defense:
TB: “They are doing a great job. Keeping us in every game.”

Q: On whether he is discouraged:
TB: “Well, we just played for three hours. So I think everyone is a little tired.”

Q: On battling and games like this late in the season:
TB: “Yeah, it’s good to win. It’s good to win. Go on the road and win is always tough. They all count the same. But anytime you go on the road and beat a good team is a good feeling.”

Q: On whether he is concerned about the offense or if it’ll work its way out:
TB: “I don’t think it matters what I think, it matters what we do.”

Q: On how much WR Julian Edelman reminds him of his [Edelman’s] passer rating:
TB: “Not much. It was a good throw. So thank you guys.”

The Patriots were 5 for 16 on third down, 1 for 3 in the red zone and punted eight times. Brady threw 47 times for 216 yards. That’s 4.6 yards per attempt. He's only been under 5 YPA three times since the start of 2014, and it's happened twice this year — at Buffalo and at Philly.

A would-be touchdown pass was dropped by Julian Edelman. A couple of would-be picks were dropped by Eagles defenders including one where Brady airmailed James White on a screen pass.

For the third time this season, Brady completed less than 56 percent of his passes. He hasn’t had more than three games with a completion percentage lower than 56 percent since 2006. He’s got six games to go with an offense that’s spinning its wheels when it tries to run and has to work way too hard to get anything done through the air.

The last time Brady went against an Eagles defense he threw for 505. Five. Oh. Five. Seems like a long, long time ago.

The Patriots won this game thanks to defense, special teams, field position and their ability to avoid penalties and turnovers.

Brady’s bound to come in for a pile of criticism this week for being bummed out after a win. On one level, that makes sense. A whole lot of his teammates played great and the team’s most important player looks like his dog got run over.

On the other side of it, after 20 seasons, Brady knows what good offensive football looks like. The Patriots aren’t playing it now and barely have all season. There are no signs that they are about to become potent. Brady knows that games when an opponent is going to be full strength and capable of hanging 30 on his defense are inevitable. Can he help them keep pace? He’s said in the past he’s at the stage where he now feels he has the answers to the test. Only problem is, with this offense, he’s taking the test without a pencil.

They’re running sprintout passes to the right to keep Brady away from blindside pressure from the left. They averaged 3.4 yards per carry on the ground (22 carries, 74 yards). It’s the ninth time in 11 games they averaged 3.5 yards per carry or less. Brady completed 10 passes that were at or behind the line of scrimmage. He completed 13 that were between one and 10 yards past the line of scrimmage.  

As the Patriots left the field, Bill Belichick called to Brady to “laud him for doing a good job” and clapped Brady on the chest, according to Mike Giardi of NFL Media.

As Brady left the interview room, he pulled up the hood on his sweatshirt. He walked past rubbernecking security and stadium personnel. He never broke stride as people called his name. Head down, he silently marched straight toward the Patriots bus and out of Philadelphia.

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'He was crying' to officials: Patriots, Stephon Gilmore frustrate Eagles' Zach Ertz

'He was crying' to officials: Patriots, Stephon Gilmore frustrate Eagles' Zach Ertz

PHILADELPHIA — Zach Ertz's numbers looked good. And Ertz fantasy owners were likely very pleased with what Ertz provided on Sunday, catching nine passes on 11 targets for 94 yards.

But, as one of the only viable receiving options in the Eagles offensive huddle, the Patriots rendered Ertz's contributions largely meaningless. Without starting receivers Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson, the Patriots were able to focus on Ertz and help stymie the Philadelphia passing game. Carson Wentz completed 20 of his 40 attempts for 214 yards and a touchdown. Including the five sacks he absorbed, Wentz averaged just 3.9 yards per dropback.

Despite the injuries to his offensive unit, Eagles coach Doug Pederson believed they'd be able to muster more than that paltry figure in their 17-10 defeat. 

"We feel like," Pederson said, "with Zach and Dallas [Goedert], we can do some things . . . Listen, give them credit. They did a nice job on defense kind of taking those players away. We knew that coming into this game, and we just didn't make enough plays."

Ertz, in particular, was kept quiet early on. 

He caught three passes for 16 yards, none of which resulted in first downs, through the first quarter. He helped get the Eagles out of the shadow of their own end zone during their long first-half touchdown drive, but didn't touch the football beyond his team's 26-yard line on that series.

In the second quarter, Ertz caught back-to-back passes for 20 yards, but the Eagles punted two plays later. Ertz caught one pass in the third quarter for one yard, bringing his three-quarter total to six catches, 37 yards.

At one point, it looked like Patriots coverages were starting to get to him. 

On Philadelphia's final third-down snap of the third quarter, Patriots corner Stephon Gilmore provided physical one-on-one man-to-man coverage. Wentz went elsewhere with the football, the pass fell incomplete, and Ertz appealed to the closest official for a penalty flag. He didn't get one, and then he and Gilmore exchanged words as the Eagles punt team took the field. 

"He was crying," Gilmore said. "He do that on film a lot. If you get into him. If he don't get the ball or he don't get a call, he'll cry. But he's a good receiver. He's a good tight end. He's a great player . . . He's a great player, but when he don't get his way, he'll complain to the ref. But who don't do that?"

The Patriots plan for Ertz was, essentially, to have Gilmore take Ertz when he was clearly going to be a receiver — second-and-long, third downs, obvious passing situations late in the game with the Eagles trying to come back. Gilmore had Ertz in man-to-man on a second-and-eight play early in the game, but then Ertz was bracketed on the subsequent third down and Gilmore took receiver Jordan Matthews. Jonathan Jones took Ertz on a first-down snap early in the game. Safeties Devin McCourty and Terrence Brooks had Ertz at different points in the game as well.

It was a varied plan, one that the Patriots were able to execute thanks to their polished system of communication.

"It's from coaching down," Gilmore said. "Sometimes I was gonna be on him. Sometimes the safeties was gonna be on him. You can't line up in one thing the whole time. You gotta keep them thinking. That's one thing we did today. He didn't know who was gonna be on him at certain times. It helped out a lot."

Gilmore also had the benefit of getting the occasional chip at the line of scrimmage on Ertz. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower, playing on the edge, knocked Ertz off of his route immediately during a third-and-nine play and Gilmore took him from there. 

Though Ertz is essentially a 6-foot-5, 250-pound receiver in certain situations, Gilmore said he couldn't play him like the receivers he typically shadows on a weekly basis. 

"I gotta slow myself down a little bit because they're so slow," Gilmore said of covering tight ends. "But they're big and they push off a lot. Just gotta slow myself down a little bit because I'm used to covering faster guys. If I do that, I can play them pretty tight . . . "

"You can see it on film. Ertz is a fast guy, but like I said, I've guarded faster guys. I gotta really slow down and not get on top like I play receivers. Let him beat me a little bit. If I play on top he'll push me off. That's the game plan I had."

Ertz came alive late in the game, catching three of five targets in the fourth quarter for 57 yards and three first downs as the Eagles pushed the pace. Philly had a chance to tie it late with a heave to Nelson Agholor on fourth down, but it bounced off of Agholor's hands and to the turf. 

The fact that Ertz wasn't the one to be the target with Wentz looking for a critical strike meant that, in some respects, despite what the box score would tell you, the Patriots did what they wanted with Philly's top offensive weapon. 

Brooks, who played for the Eagles in 2016, said having some experience seeing Ertz in practice years ago might've helped him Sunday. He played 35 snaps on Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus, which was his second-highest total of the season. With Patrick Chung inactive due to injury, Brooks stepped into an increased role.

"That comes with film study and practice reps and things like that and for the most part confidence," Brooks said of taking Ertz. "You gotta be confident that whoever lines up across from you, you can take him on. I was up for the challenge, man. I was excited about it. That's one of the best tight ends in the game. I was very happy to get that chance to keep going against him . . . 

"He made some nice catches, other ones with tight coverage. But I give it to him. I got a lot of respect for that guy and what he does in this league, but I feel like it's on me, whoever I line up across, to shut them down. That's my mindset every time."

Ertz wasn't totally shut down. His final stats would suggest as much. But he was shut down on third down (zero catches) and in the red zone (zero catches). He didn't have a catch in Patriots territory. 

Whether it was Brooks in coverage or Gilmore or McCourty, or someone else, the Patriots took Ertz away when Wentz needed him most and won. No matter what the box score says, they'll take that.

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