FOXBORO – There was a very telling moment in the Patriots locker room on the Thursday before the game with the Steelers. Tom Brady had his right shoulder and elbow heavily wrapped.
It certainly wasn’t a major issue. If it had been, Brady and the Patriots wouldn’t have had the ice in plain view during the open locker room period for the media. And it certainly isn’t a big deal to see Brady doing some routine maintenance on his shoulder and elbow.
But what he said when someone joked about protecting his most valuable right arm was ironic and foreboding.
“It’s from all those deep passes,” he replied with a laugh himself.
So, in addition to trying to shake the “finesse” tag, Brady is clearly self-conscious about the sudden inability of the Patriots offense to get the ball vertical and deep against opposing defenses.
The last significant deep ball was the bomb to Wes Welker on the first offensive play of the second half against the Jets. It set up a very important touchdown and helped the Patriots to a 30-20 win over their AFC East rival.
Often this year, the long pass plays have resulted from yards-after-catch, after a completion on a short-to-intermediate route, like the Brady-to-Welker hook-up on a seam route in the fourth quarter against the Dolphins on opening night. That resulted in the first 99-yard TD pass play in team history.
But the Brady-to-Randy Moss stretch plays have gone the way of the first-generation iPhone.
Well, first of all, before the game with the Cowboys, the Patriots were showing more than enough ways to put big-time points on the board. And, more importantly, they were winning.
They’re still 5-2, but consider: Patriots receivers accounted for just over 49 percent of Tom Brady’s targeted passes over the first five games. Against the Cowboys it fell to 31 percent. Against the Steelers, it was just 35 percent.
The Patriots possess the most prolific passing quarterback in football. They possess the most dynamic set of wide receivers and tight ends in the game. With Kevin Faulk back from the PUP list, they possess the best group of pass-catching running backs in the game.
Yet Tom Brady is finding it increasingly difficult to complete passes of over 20 yards down the field.
To quote Ben Cherington, it’s multifactorial.
Defense: There’s been more press and bump-and-run coverage on the line of scrimmage from opposing teams.
Speed: Receivers are having trouble getting separation on their initial and secondary breaks.
Height: Patriots receivers are, on average, just under 6-feet tall. There are no Dez Bryants, Mike Wallaces, Larry Fitzgeralds or Calvin Johnsons on the team. Yes, Brady has big targets like Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, but they are not routinely expected to beat man coverage 25 yards down the field.
Schedule: The last two games, the Patriots have faced defenses in the Cowboys and Steelers that thrive on teeing off on the quarterback with pressure from the ends. The Patriots countered with screens to Kevin Faulk, with little to no time to get the ball deep.
Habit: Most of all, Brady has become most comfortable throwing short and intermediate routes, using the passing game as an extension of the running game with bubble screens and passes in the flat.
Where’s the commitment to the running game? Are you concerned? What would you do?
Well, Twitter and Facebook were not short on answers this week.
From Joey on Facebook: “Go 5-wide, no backs, with Hernandez and Gronk split out with Branch, Welker and Price. Throw more screens and put Solder at Right Tackle. Volmer has been shaky with [a] back injury.”
From Jason on Facebook: “How about getting back to a power running game? Get the O-Line to play angry and mean! Block tough! Get into D-Linemen’s faces. Without a running game that needs to be respected, teams will just key on the passing game and then the Pats are sunk! Also have Coach [Pepper Johnson] -- even though he doesn't coach the defensive backfield -- get in the DBs’ faces and challenge them. They need to get tough and physical with the receivers. Look at the space that the Steelers receivers had off the line and when they got to the point where they caught the ball. WAY too much space! They need to do going forward what the Pats did to the Rams receivers in the first Super Bowl win, jam them, be physical and HIT everyone who catches a ball so hard they don't want to catch the ball.”
From Carl Cody on Facebook: “I agree with Jason, they need to incorporate a respected running game in order to challenge defensive coordinators. Once you have a respected running game, you can run play action passes that will actually cause the deep coverage to lose a step, freeing up your long ball.”
From @Rich__Hill on Twitter: “@Trags What's been the issue with making real-time adjustments to the game plan? Seems like the team comes with a plan and sticks with it.”
And certainly the criticism doesn’t stop with the offense.
There’s lots of angst and disgust out there about the release of veteran Leigh Bodden, especially when there doesn’t appear to be any significant upgrade in the offing. Those concerns became pronounced in the aftermath of the loss to the Steelers:
From @s_thorn, after the Patriots released Bodden and placed Ras-I Dowling on injured reserve with a tear in his hip: “And they still cut Bodden? Head-scratcher, indeed. Not liking the move thus far.”
Last week, I mentioned in my final rant that it’s a pet peeve that TV stations have to send their anchors down to question Bill Belichick about discipline issues. Last week, Rob Gronkowski; this week, Julian Edelman.
Both times Ch. 7 dispatched the very professional and tenacious Jonathan Hall (@JHall7News), who has no axes to grind, just questions to ask and stories to write.
Hall is clearly one of the best in the business at what he does. Upon further review, when one listens to the back-and-forth between Hall and Bill Belichick, one gains a great deal of appreciation for the direct approach that Hall used in trying to get answers to the questions that had to be asked.
Belichick knows right away when someone like Hall or Byron Barnett is in the building that one of his players either did something regrettable or put himself in a less-than-ideal position.
Being in the room and two seats down from Hall when he was asking the questions, there was no disrespect of Belichick, just a hard-nosed approach. Belichick didn’t blink. Neither did Hall. He did the same minutes later when Tom Brady walked into the room. Brady showed a little more charisma than Belichick but both did their best not to give Hall or the media anything to work with.
My final rant: I usually love to travel. Love seeing new cities and new stadiums. But last Sunday morning, as New England was being hammered by the Nor’easter, yours truly tried traveling to Pittsburgh.
I was planning a detailed chronicle of events from Heinz Field, one of the very best atmospheres in the NFL.
What a nightmare.
The truly frustrating part of this was that I got out of Boston with no problem, arriving at Dulles Airport at 8:15 Sunday morning with plenty of time to make my connection to Pittsburgh for a 4:15 kickoff.
What could go wrong?
Airlines that cancel flights in the anticipation of congestion in the airways six hours ahead of time, leaving the traveler no options is what.
I would’ve gladly driven to Pittsburgh if given the chance. But the stubborn airlines – losing hundreds of millions of dollars a week – refused. So, not only did I wait in customer service lines twice for a total of two hours, I got nothing to show for it -- just a chance to watch the Ravens and Cardinals and Giants and Dolphins in an airport terminal seat that had disgusting yellow foam coming out at the seams.
Lovely. I got on the plane back to Boston as Ben Roethlisberger was killing the Patriots with a heavy dose of Heath Miller.
I was hardly alone, obviously.
This all happened hours after passengers were stranded ON A PLANE on the tarmac for seven hours because no one at JetBlue apparently had the common sense to allow people off the plane, get some relief and some fresh air. The airline apologized to passengers, their bladders and sensibilities.
Wonder how long before the airlines get it all figured out.
Until then, I’ve made one executive decision: I’m driving to the swamps of Jersey for the Jets game next Sunday.