FOXBORO -- Logan Mankins, voice of optimism?
As the clock struck midnight Thursday evening, the veteran offensive lineman stood at his locker after a shaky 13-10 win over the Jets -- a victory that gave New England a 2-0 record to start the 2013 season -- and sounded, what was for him, the closest thing to positive he could muster.
“I feel 2-0. I'm happy to be 2-0. The good thing is, we're 2-0 and offensively, we haven't played very well yet. It's a good sign,” Mankins said. “Our defense is winning games for us, and offensively, we're doing just enough. We have a lot of improvement to do. When we improve, we'll do a lot better.”
Notice that? When we improve. Not if. When. Mankins is a practical man, one who deals in absolutes. And while he's not naive enough to simply gloss over the problems, he seems absolutely sure the errors the New England offense has committed over the first two games of the season are fixable.
“Oh, yeah. Mistakes are always correctable. I don't think we're getting dominated or anything. Just guys aren't working well together, I don't think,” he said. “We're not going to give up. I know that. We have guys who have fought through tough games before, and we have guys, young guys who buy into the system and try and hard as they can. We'll never give up on a game, as long as the defense keeps us in it.”
For the offense, Thursday was ugly, from start to finish. You can debate how much of it was the wet and awful conditions that permeated the second half. You can argue about how much of it had to do with the fact that the two teams were playing their second game in roughly 100 hours because of the meatgrinder than is the “Thursday Night Football” turnaround. And you can speculate as to how much of it is because there's so much newness when it comes to the New England passing game.
But there's no getting around the fact that the Patriots were unable to get much of anything going offensively. New England had a nice start with a tidy six-play, 81-yard drive that ended with a 39-yard pass play to rookie Aaron Dobson that went for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead, but that was about it as far as offensive consistency was concerned. The Patriots had just nine first downs, the fewest for the team in the Bill Belichick era, and won despite having more punts (11) than first downs (9). In the end, they got two field goals from Stephen Gostkowski, and had to sweat it out down the stretch as Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith threw three picks to help New England come away with the win.
Meanwhile, Tom Brady was 19-for-39 for 185 yards with one touchdown, and while the quarterback was at fault on a few occasions, just about every receiver came in for an earful from Brady. That included rookies Kenbrell Thompkins (two catches, 47 yards, one drop) and Aaron Dobson (three catches, including one touchdown, but three drops), as well as veteran Julian Edelman. Edelman had a career-high 13 catches for 78 yards, but also heard it from the quarterback, who was clearly frustrated much of the night.
“We all get crazy once in a while,” Edelman said. “We're all competitors out there. After a play sometimes, everyone gets a little heated sometimes. I don't know but I didn't sense anything. I think he kept us in the game and he was being our leader.”
“I think I have to do a better job with my body language,” said Brady with a straight face after the game. “I definitely can improve that. I wouldn't say it's a real strong point of mine right now.”
“Yeah, a little bit,” Dobson said when he was asked if he could sense Brady's frustration level. “But we just have to keep improving. Get on the same page and go forward to next week's game.”
The fact remains that the last time a Patriots offense was this impotent from start to finish in a regular-season contest was in Week 2 of the 2009 season when New England suffered a 16-9 loss to the Jets at the Meadowlands, a game where the Patriots ended up with three field goals and nothing else.
There are some interesting parallels between that game and the tractor-pull of a contest that took place in the rain Thursday night at Gillette Stadium: both were in Week 2 against the Jets, and both games featured Edelman as the most consistent and steadiest presence in the New England passing game. Four years ago, the rookie out of Kent State had a team-leading eight catches for 98 yards. On Thursday, he came away with an astonishing 13 catches for 78 yards.
“Julian played well, made some tough catches and did a good job on punt returns,” coach Bill Belichick said of Edelman, who now has a team-high 20 catches on the season. “He played hard like he always does, he’s a tough kid and I thought he made a lot of tough catches, too, in the second half.”
The 2009 offense was forgettable for several reasons, including the fact that it took nearly all year for Brady to regain his rhythm after sitting out 2008 because of his knee injury. In addition, there was the fact that well as the fact that it was a mismatched collection of spare parts that hit its expiration date shortly after the end of the 2007 season. In retrospect, there was very little room for optimism for that group, a relatively aged unit that had peaked, and was in need of some fresh blood. (They were also maybe the most mentally weak team of the Belichick era, but that's a story for another day.)
Can the 2013 Patriots pull themselves out of an offensive funk, or are they doomed to the same relatively mediocre fate? They will have help riding to the rescue in the form of Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola and Shane Vereen. Now, when that assistance arrives is debatable, but you figure they'll have at least Gronkowski and Amendola back sometime before Halloween, with Vereen returning sometime before Thanksgiving. Those additions will certainly place them ahead of the 2009 crew, and in a league where it's paramount that you're playing your best football in November and December, that infusion of elite talent should give them a late-season boost.
But the simple fact of the matter is that until those players return at something close to full strength, it will be a grind. Every week. Brady has said on multiple occasions this summer that the team is a work in progress, and that means there are going to be fits and starts like there were on Thursday night. Rookies will drop passes and run incorrect routes, and Brady will occasionally fits of Marinoesque rage. They will have to be bailed out by an improving defense, and the offensive fireworks of years past will be a distant memory. That is just the reality of the situation. What they do from here -- how the various offensive skill position players evolve and grow and mature from this point on -- will be the true measure of the 2013 offense.
And if they don't?
“This is the NFL, and you can't be too patient for too long,” Mankins said. “You've got to produce. You can't wait forever.”
Here are nine other things we learned Thursday night about the Patriots:
PAYING JULIAN EDELMAN $765,000 WAS THE BEST MONEY THEY SPENT THIS OFFSEASON
The receiver has always displayed good chemistry with the quarterback when healthy, and on Thursday night, he was the only receiver who was a steady presence for New England in the passing game. The former college quarterback had a career-high 13 catches (on a whopping 18 targets) for 78 yards in the win, and was able to consistently move the chains for the Patriots offense down the stretch. Over the course of eight quarters, he's shown a reliability and consistency that's been missing from the other receivers, and as a result, leads the team in catches. When he re-upped this past spring, his signing was a forgettable side note in an otherwise eventful offseason. But the cash they paid out to keep him around is turning out to be money very well spent for New England.
TOM BRADY IS CAPABLE OF A STINKER
Regardless of who was at fault on each of his passes, you can't deny this was one of the worst statistical games for Brady over the last five seasons. His 49 percent completion rate marked the first time since Week 15 in 2009 he was completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes (and that game was played in freezing cold temperatures in Buffalo). His finest hour likely came on the opening drive, when he finished off a six-play, 81-yard drive with a well-executed play involving Dobson. On the play, Dobson was lined up almost like a tight end on an unbalanced line, and he had a free release into the secondary. He hauled in a delicate floater from Brady and flew, untouched, into the end zone, making it 7-0 early in the first quarter. But that was pretty much it for highlights for the quarterback, who went 19-for-39 for 185 yards with one touchdown.
A GOOD NICKEL IS VALUABLE
The performance of the New England defense to start the season has to be taken with a grain of salt because it came against two rookie quarterbacks in Smith and EJ Manuel, but the fact remains that the Patriots have limited their opponents to three offensive touchdowns and forced six turnovers through the first two games, and consistently given the offense good field position over the first eight quarters of the season. (The offense hasn't done much with it, but that's a story for another day.) One interesting wrinkle the Patriots have adopted appears to be a slight change in their base defense: the Patriots have predominantly used a nickel defense over the first two games. They utilized a 4-2-5 look for 59 of their 64 defensive snaps in the opener against the Bills, and were in nickel for 33 of 71 defensive snaps against the Jets. While New England will remain a game-plan defense from week-to-week, the extended use of extra defensive backs across the board presents a new possibility for opponents to consider when it comes to game planning.
CHANDLER JONES IS VERSATILE
The defensive lineman was extremely active all night, coming from multiple spots on the defensive line and causing havoc for the New York offensive line. He spent the bulk of his time lined up at his usual defensive end position, but was also kicked inside to defensive tackle on several occasions, and his work alongside his fellow defensive linemen was able to present major issues for Jets guard Vlad Ducasse. Jones had a pair of first-half sacks to go along with several pressures, and came away with five tackles (three solo), two sacks (for 16 yards), two tackles for loss and three quarterback hits. The season is still relatively young, but the second-year Syracuse product has shown flashes of being the dominant defensive presence the Patriots hope he can be.
MICHAEL BUCHANAN IS THE BEST ROOKIE THE PATRIOTS HAVE TO THIS POINT
As previously stated, Jones was a tremendous defensive presence on the night, but Buchanan flashed very positively in spot duty at defensive end (all of which came on plays when Jones went from defensive end to defensive tackle). He had a sack (for six yards, the first of his NFL career), one tackle for loss and two quarterback hits. The most eventful play of the night came when he and Jones met at the quarterback on a first-half rush that ended with Jones being whistled for roughing the passer, a questionable call that (in part) allowed the Jets to keep a drive alive. Look for more substantive playing time for the rookie going forward.
BRANDON SPIKES IS KIND OF AN ODD MAN OUT RIGHT NOW
As we mentioned before, the Patriots have played a lot of nickel over the first two games of the 2013 season, and that has meant they've pulled Brandon Spikes off the field in favor of an extra defensive back. (More often than not, Dont'a Hightower and Jerod Mayo have been the two primary linebackers on the field.) Part of it could be because they've faced to relatively agile quarterbacks and not a traditional pocket passer, and some of it could be because they've been more attuned to stopping the pass instead of the run, but Spikes has been noticeably absent from much of the major activity as a result. He saw a good chunk of action in the second half against the Jets and ended up with three tackles, but there were times where he appeared to struggle in coverage and didn't do much of anything against the run. Overall, through the first two games, he hasn't made many game-changing plays over the first two weeks because he hasn't been on the field as much as he has in the past. (We were wondering if it was an Injury issue, as he missed a chunk of the Bills game because of dehydration, but he hasn't been on the injury report at all as of late.) It will be interesting to see how much the run-stuffing linebacker plays next week against Tampa, a team that can boast of a truly elite back in Doug Martin.
AQIB TALIB WON'T BE SENDING NICK MANGOLD ANY CHRISTMAS CARDS
At least from a statistical perspective, the Patriots cornerback had the best game of his New England career, coming away with a pair of interceptions and a forced fumble in the win. His first big play came when he forced a fumble by poking the ball free from receiver Stephen Hill after a sizable gain in the first quarter. (Devin McCourty scooped up the fumble and took it back deep into Jets territory.) He added his two interceptions in the fourth quarter, with the first coming on a bad ball Smith tried to throw across the body, and the second at the end of the game when he picked off Smith with 38 seconds left to seal the win. However, things got a little testy along the New England sidelines after Mangold dove at Talib's legs as the cornerback was headed out of bounds. The action touched off a scrum, and led to the ejection of New York's Willie Colon and D'Brickashaw Ferguson. It's debatable whether or not Talib was showboating on his way out of bounds, but the fact remains that diving intentionally at a players’ knees is a quick way to draw the ire of your opponent. Not a smart move by a respected veteran (Mangold) who should know better.
STEVAN RIDLEY SORT OF REDEEMED HIMSELF
Coming off a week where he put the ball on the ground early against the Bills (and ended up sitting out the second half in Buffalo as a result), the running back found himself in the crosshairs against the Jets. But while he didn’t deliver an overwhelming performance -- he ended up with a game-high 16 carries for 40 yards -- he was able to hold on to the football, no small feat given the slippery conditions in the second half. The performance won’t quiet his critics, but on a night where the conditions were nasty, no turnovers (particularly from Ridley) from New England was maybe the lone bright spot for an offense that had plenty of issues.
RYAN ALLEN IS A RECORD-BREAKER
Granted, it’s not the sort of mark you want to be setting, but the Patriots rookie punter registered a new franchise record Thursday night with 11 punts for 514 yards for an average of 46.7 yards. (He’ll get an asterisk for his performance however, because for some odd reason, New York didn’t have a return man on the field on a handful of occasions. Rex Ryan said that was because the Jets were going for a block in wet weather, and were hoping to rattle the rookie.) The rest of the special teams likely earned a passing grade, despite the fact that Stephen Gostkowski missed one of his three field-goal attempts, a 43-yarder that went wide left just before the end of the first half. Other than that, it was OK -- Gostkowski connected on a pair of field goals (21 and 30 yards) and had four touchbacks. Meanwhile, Edelman averaged a respectable 12 yards on six punt returns, including a 25-yarder.