Patriots

Without Sony Michel, Patriots offense was handcuffed by Bills defense

Without Sony Michel, Patriots offense was handcuffed by Bills defense

If you had any doubt whether the 2018 Patriots had grown to rely on a potent ground game and, in particular, Sony Michel, then the offensive output against the Bills should douse it.

The Patriots ran 26 times for 76 yards and nearly one-third of those came on a 22-yard burst by Cordarelle Patterson in the fourth quarter.

It was a key run, to be sure, as the Patriots scored their lone offensive touchdown of the night on that drive but, again, it was a wide receiver running it. From the running back spot. And it wasn’t a novelty act.

Patterson led the team with 10 carries while running backs James White and Kenjon Barner combined for 10 carries and 19 yards.

WHAT WE SAID BEFORE THE GAME

Michel’s absence and the lack of a play-action passing game that the Bills had to take seriously doesn’t explain wholly explain the Patriots offensive struggles.

The Bills defense when the Patriots got deep was as difficult to maneuver against as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady advertised all week.

Seven of the Patriots first nine drives crossed midfield. They stalled at the Buffalo 7, 22, 20, 32, 46 and 7. They punched it in on the seventh one on a James White run.

“They made us grind it out, grind out every yard,” said Belichick.

"They made it tough on us," said Brady, who finished with 324 passing yards on 29-for-45 passing but no touchdowns, the first time since Week 3 in 2005 that he passed for 320 or more yards with no TDs. "We’ll take the win however we can get it. They don’t give up any big plays. We'd get in the red area but couldn’t get in the end zone. If we scored those touchdowns we’d feel a lot better but they’ve been playing good all year."

MORE HARD TRUTHS

Despite his lack of punch as a runner, White once again was the most effective part of the offense. He finished with 10 catches on 13 targets for 79 yards. The game’s key play was made by White -- as it so often has been this season. On a third-and-8 from the Patriots 47 with 12:03 left and the Patriots ahead by the still-meager margin of 12-6, Brady hit White in the left flat and he gave a shimmy that left linebacker Julian Stanford grasping at air. After that came the Patterson 22-yarder and a back-shoulder throw to Chris Hogan down to the Bills 1. White went in from there.

White now leads the AFC with 55 catches (he’s sixth in the NFL). His six touchdown receptions are tied for fourth.  

This was Julian Edelman’s best game as well. He went over 100 yards receiving (10 catches for 104) and had a big 26-yard gain earlier in the Patriots touchdown drive. Edelman also carried twice for 13 yards.

The Patriots are now pointed toward a Sunday Night Football showdown with the Packers. Green Bay will score. The Patriots – who put up 38, 38, 43 and 24 on offense in their past four games will need a bigger output than the 18 they put up Monday night.

With Marcus Cannon missing another game at right tackle, Shaq Mason being driven from the game with a calf injury and Michel dealing with his knee injury, the Patriots offense won’t be working at full strength on the ground again against the Packers.

Green Bay has its own issues to deal with after a demoralizing loss to the Rams and some anonymous locker room finger-pointing after the loss.

But the Patriots will need to get more on the ground. Since Michel went down, they’ve managed 154 yards on 49 carries (3.14 average) and 35 offensive points in the last seven quarters.

Even if this prompts a trade deadline move at the running back position, whoever they sign would have to fly into Foxboro and get on a moving train during a short week.

In short, they miss their running back.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

How will the Patriots tight end puzzle come together in training camp?

tight-end-puzzle-2019-patriots-camp.jpg
File photos

How will the Patriots tight end puzzle come together in training camp?

Leading up to the start of Patriots training camp, we'll try to answer one question every day as a way of giving you a better idea of where we'll have our focus trained when practices begin. Today we start at tight end, where Bill Belichick will have his work cut out for him trying to figure out what to do following Rob Gronkowski's retirement. 

Rob Gronkowski is retired. For now. And if you're one to read into Instagram posts — who isn't? — then you might be coming around to the idea that he's going to stay retired for a while.

That means there are no quick-and-easy answers to the questions surrounding the tight end spot at One Patriots Place. 

Austin Seferian-Jenkins is no longer in the mix. Ben Watson will be on the field when training camp begins next week, but he'll be suspended for the first four games of the regular season after violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy. 

It's looking like the starting gig could come down to two players who combined for 24 catches last season. Matt LaCosse had a career-high 24 catches last season with the Broncos. Ryan Izzo, a seventh-round draft pick in 2018, is still waiting for his first regular-season snaps after spending his rookie year on injured reserve.

The Patriots have typically employed tight ends who can do a little bit of everything. That's what made them valuable in New England's offense. That's what made the position so difficult to pick up at times. But whether it was Gronkowski, Martellus Bennett, Watson during his first run with the team, Christian Fauria or Daniel Graham . . . Bill Belichick has long had players who can move large humans in the running game and serve as capable (or better) pass-catchers.

Yes, there have been tight ends like Jacob Hollister, Dwayne Allen, Matt Lengel, A.J. Derby, Michael Hoomanawanui, Matt Mulligan, Michael Williams, Aaron Hernandez and Alge Crumpler who've played specific roles within the Patriots offense. But having a do-it-all threat made it easier to change on the fly. It made the offense a little more unpredictable. 

For the first four weeks of the season, it's looking like the Patriots won't have that luxury.

"That's gotta be a position of strength," Tom Brady said during minicamp, "even if it's not one player but multiple players doing different roles. There were times in my career before that where we've had similar approaches."

This feels like one of those times. LaCosse — who ran with Brady during minicamp alongside other projected offensive starters — may serve as the team's top pass-catching option. Izzo, a hearty blocker at Florida State who showed flashes as a receiver last summer, may end up the top run-blocking option.

That could change, of course. This is why camp matters. 

When the pads come on after a few days of practice, will LaCosse show that he can clear space as an in-line player? He's listed at 6-foot-5, 255 pounds. It's not out of the realm of possibility that he will effectively be throwing his weight around if given the chance. 

What about Izzo? What if he consistently comes down with what's thrown his way? What if his flashes as a receiver are sustained this summer? Could he be a true every-down option . . . at least until Watson is back? The good news for Izzo is that this was a run-heavy offense late last year. If that's the plan once again, then the better blocker in camp may have a path to more playing time.

Andrew Beck, the undrafted rookie tight end out of Texas, looks more like a fullback. He took reps with James Develin and Jakob Johnson throughout minicamp and could be valuable insurance for Develin in a system that values its lead blockers out of the backfield. 

Stephen Anderson, meanwhile, looks like a "move" tight end only who could face an uphill battle at a roster spot. At 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, he's listed as having almost the same measurements as rookie receiver N'Keal Harry at this year's NFL Scouting Combine (6-2.5, 228 pounds).

The reality is, however the Patriots attempt to replace Gronkowski, there will be no replacing him. They'll need to get more production from their backs and their receivers — particularly when all options are covered and Brady needs to be bailed out — in order to help make up for what's been lost in the passing game. They may have to turn to an extra offensive lineman at times for a reasonable facsimile of what Gronkowski provided as a blocker.

Someone is going to have to man the position, though. And while Belichick's top two options for the first month of the season are seriously lacking in-game experience, they'll have an opportunity to prove they belong over the course of the next month.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.

Great Patriots Debate: Who was the toughest quarterback: Brady, Bledsoe or Grogan?

Great Patriots Debate: Who was the toughest quarterback: Brady, Bledsoe or Grogan?

It's not a position that usually lends itself to the goriest of war stories. The quarterback spot — especially nowadays when it's protected by the rulebook better than ever before — isn't the first that springs to mind when the topic is toughness.

But the Patriots have had their share of resilient passers over the years, commanding the respect of teammates and fans alike for their ability to play on. Three in particular have to be mentioned in today's Great Patriots Debate.

Who, in your opinion, was the toughest quarterback in franchise history: Tom Brady, Drew Bledsoe or Steve Grogan? 

Brady has played through all manner of bumps and bruises and things more severe during his two decades behind center. His shoulders have been battered. Back in 2002, he separated his shoulder, played through and exacerbated the issue in the season finale. He hurt his left shoulder in 2011 but played on, ultimately losing the Super Bowl. He hurt that shoulder again in 2017 — something that's helped keep him on the field because he does well to fall on his non-throwing arm when he can — but didn't miss a beat. 

Brady played through an ankle issue late in the 2015 season and suffered a significant ankle injury during his run to a Super Bowl in 2014. Brady's hand swelled up like a balloon in 2013, and perhaps his most publicized injury — a gruesome cut on his hand he suffered in practice late in 2017 — didn't keep him out. 

Brady's predecessor, meanwhile, certainly has a case as the tough man of the group. He played with pins in his throwing hand in 1998 and came back for a series after a hit from Mo Lewis rattled him so badly that his abdomen was filling with blood. 

“Drew could have died,” Dr. Thomas Gill told Sports Illustrated in 2016. “He ended up having about three liters of blood in his chest. He had torn one of the blood vessels behind his rib that was then pumping blood into his chest. They got a CAT scan of his belly, and you can see the bottom of the lung fields and they could see that was filled with fluid. 

"So then they extended the study up the chest and saw what the problem was. They were able to drain the blood out and immediately once that happened, he started feeling better, his breathing was under control, his blood pressure stabilized. But it was really dicey. I don't even think Drew knows how serious it was. But he really could have died.”

Then there's Grogan, who was so tough that he inspired something the Globe's Nick Cafardo called "GTM -- the Grogan Toughness Meter." 

"You won't find too many QBs past or present any tougher than old No. 14 Steve Grogan," Cafardo wrote in 2003, "who played 16 years for the Patriots with neck injuries, broken bones, and myriad pulls and strains. He was the ultimate spit-on-it-and-go-back-out-there football player. John Hannah calls him the toughest guy he ever played with."

Cafardo was writing at the time about Brady's toughness. The young quarterback's elbow "was swollen the size of a grapefruit" after a game against the Eagles, but there was no doubt Brady would continue to play.

"To explain GTM a little better," Cafardo continued, "here's a partial list of Grogan's ailments: five knee surgeries; screws in his leg after the tip of his fibula snapped; a cracked fibula that snapped when he tried to practice; two ruptured disks in his neck, which he played with for 1 1/2 seasons; a broken left hand (he simply handed off with his right hand); two separated shoulders on each side; the reattachment of a tendon to his throwing elbow; and three concussions ("I lost parts of my life," he said.)"

"I tried to play like I was a football player and not just a quarterback," Grogan said. "If I had to deliver a blow, I'd deliver a blow. If I had to run and take the hit, I'd take the hit."

Quarterbacks, sure. But one thing that Grogan, Brady and Bledsoe all had in common is that their peers would likely unanimously consider them more than that. They were (and are) football players. And in a game where toughness is a commodity valued as highly as any other, there aren't many compliments higher than that.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.