Drops from reliable target also hurting Tom Brady and Patriots' suddenly pedestrian offense

By Ben Linsey

Tom Brady and the New England Patriots were done last season when they lost back-to-back games against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions to open the season 1-2. They were finished after losing three of five to the Tennessee TitansMiami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers later in the season, too.

Now, they’re toast after getting soundly beaten by the Baltimore Ravens and Houston Texans for the entire nation to see on “Sunday Night Football.” The dynasty is over.

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The only problem is that the Patriots weren’t finished on those first two occasions. Brady has a ring for his second hand that proves as much. It seems prudent to not fall into the same trap now, especially given that the two losses came to teams headed by MVP frontrunners in Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson

That being said, there is no denying that the offense – the foundation of the Patriots’ dynasty in recent years – hasn’t looked in sync. The underlying belief is that they’ll figure things out when it matters. After all, how many times have we seen them do just that?

This is not a good offense now, and that doesn’t fall on just one person. 

Tom Brady and the offense have been the driving force behind the Patriots' recent Super Bowl titles, but something's off right now. (Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports)
Tom Brady and the offense have been the driving force behind the Patriots' recent Super Bowl titles, but something's off right now. (Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports)

Tom Brady unequipped to deal with pressure

From 2015-2017, there was no quarterback in the NFL who was better under pressure than Brady. He wasn’t going to shrug off a defender and escape the pocket for a 15-yard scramble, but he was going to quickly diagnose and feel the heat, move in the pocket and get the ball to the open receiver. It’s what led to him leading the league in PFF grade, passer rating (93.7) and yards per play (5.5) when under pressure over that span. He fell back closer to the middle of the pack when pressured in 2018, and this year, Brady has been among the worst quarterbacks in the entire league when pressured. 

When pressured in 2019, Brady has a completion percentage of 34 percent (only qualifying quarterback below 40 percent), 3.8 yards per pass attempt (higher than only Mason Rudolph) and a passer rating of 49.3 (30th out of 32 qualifying quarterbacks). Those are bottom-of-the-barrel-type numbers. 

Brady is 42. At some point, physical skills will diminish, no matter how much TB12 methodology he puts into practice. It makes sense that performance under pressure would be one of the first things to go, which makes it crucial that the Patriots provide Brady with as many clean pockets as they can. Quick releases have kept his pressure rate in check at 30 percent (seventh-lowest in the NFL).

With Brady keeping company with the likes of Rudolph and Joe Flacco under pressure, that number might have to get even lower as the postseason nears. 

Patriots’ downfield passes have disappeared

“Disappeared” might be an inadequate word. Brady is still throwing downfield, and he’s actually throwing further downfield on average starting with their Week 9 loss to the Ravens. Since then, Brady’s throws are going an average of 9 yards downfield (12th-highest in the NFL). Prior to that, he was throwing 7.5 yards downfield on average (25th in the NFL). The issue in recent weeks hasn’t been that he’s abandoning downfield passes, it’s that he has been embracing even more downfield passes, and his efficiency on those looks has taken a massive hit. 

Over the Patriots’ undefeated eight-game stretch to open the season, Brady was averaging 12.5 yards per attempt (sixth out of 32 qualifying quarterbacks) and had a passer rating of 118.8 (eighth) on passes 10 or more yards downfield. In the past four weeks, those numbers have dropped to 7.1 yards per attempt (31st) and a passer rating of 74.2 (23rd). Over 40 percent of those attempts have been uncatchable based on PFF accuracy charting data (12th-worst in the NFL). 

Brady’s receivers need to be more explosive

A sideline camera last Sunday night gave a glimpse into Brady’s frustration with his current group as he implored his receivers to be better than they have been in recent weeks.

It’s easy to see why frustration is beginning to mount. This is not the kind of group that Brady is used to working with. 

It wasn’t long ago when the Patriots had a starting wide receiver trio of Antonio Brown, Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon, with the looming chance that Rob Gronkowski would grow tired enough of partying come November that he would return for a final Super Bowl run. Now, Edelman is the lone man remaining from that group, and the time has come and gone for Gronkowski to declare his return. The lack of experienced playmakers is showing in New England’s offense. 

Julian Edelman and the Patriots' receivers have been uncharacteristically unreliable. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
Julian Edelman and the Patriots' receivers have been uncharacteristically unreliable. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)

It shows in Brady’s results when targeting receivers out wide. The Patriots are somewhat oversaturated in slot receivers while lacking guys who can get open when lined up wide, especially since Gordon’s departure. Brady’s passer rating when targeting receivers lined up wide is 73.7 – dead last in the NFL. His passer rating to all other alignments (slot, in-line tight end and backfield) is 113.2, ranking eighth in the league. 

Perhaps no play sums it up better than the pick-six that Brady threw on a slant route to N’Keal Harry last week. Harry got no separation on the route, allowing Houston’s Bradley Roby to run right through him and the ball for the touchdown the other way. 

Faster. Quicker. More explosive. Brady is missing those traits from many of his receiving options, and it’s hurting the offense. 

Brady victimized by second-most dropped passes in NFL

To pour salt in the wound, when Brady’s passes reach their intended targets, his receivers have combined to drop 27 passes this season. That number trails only Dak Prescott (30) among all quarterbacks. The man most responsible for that number is none other than Brady’s most reliable option in the passing game – Edelman. 

Edelman has dropped 10 passes in 2019, more than any other player in the league. He’s always been prone to the occasional drop, racking up 37 since the start of the 2015 season (fifth-most among all receivers). That issue has escalated this season.

It’s not as if these flaws will take him off the field. There are few wide receivers in the league who can get open as well as Edelman, especially in key moments of the game. His drops, though, along with the drops by his teammates have been part of the larger issue with the New England offense.

It hasn’t been one thing. It has been Brady, and it has been his receivers. The naysayers for Brady and New England are the boy crying right now, but the wolf comes eventually. The Patriots have four more weeks to ward it off for the games that matter.  

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