New England Patriots

By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com

Three weeks into the season, the New England Patriots still don’t have an answer to one of the most important questions of the season. Who steps up and makes a play on offense when Tom Brady can’t go to Rob Gronkowski?

Julian Edelman’s desperately needed return to the lineup should alleviate some of the considerable panic that’s about to reverberate in New England. But there’s still one more game before that, and there’s no telling how big of an impact the 32-year-old Edelman will have once he’s back on the field. Even if his presence is transformative, it would belie a clear lack of depth at wide receiver. And so far, a lack of enough impactful weapons anywhere on the field.

The Patriots’ beleaguered wide receiver corps, banged-up running back group, and frustrated quarterback combined to deliver a disturbing dud in Sunday night’s 26-10 loss to the Lions in Detroit. Though it was an off night for just about the entire team, the defense at least limited the damage at times. If Brady and the Patriots offense play their best football, they could top 26 points against just about anybody.

Instead, the Brady-led offense had their worst scoring effort with No. 12 since that strange, costly Week 17 loss to the Miami Dolphins in 2015. The one with the bizarrely long reliance on an inept run game. They didn’t quite lean on the run as much as that ugly 20-10 defeat three seasons ago. But when they did try to run the ball against the Lions, the Patriots were just as anemic as they were through the air.

For the second straight game, the Patriots tried very hard to feed the ball to running back Sony Michel. The rookie struggled in what looked like a big opportunity for him to bust loose, averaging just 3.6 yards on 14 rushes. He got stonewalled for losses on a pair of third-and-short plays. Can’t leave Josh McDaniels out of this – those were arguably the most questionable offensive play-calls of the game for the Patriots.

Instead of showing life in the second half, the Patriots looked more out-of-sorts as the game went on. Brady’s intentional grounding penalty, which happened when Cordarrelle Patterson ran an underneath route instead of a deep post, stalled a fourth-quarter drive when the Patriots still had plenty of time to make a comeback.

Brady’s frustration finally boiled over on a second-and-8, when he heaved one deep into double-coverage for Phillip Dorsett. The receiver struggled all night to get open and this play was no different, as the dangerous Darius Slay high-pointed the ball to pick it off and essentially ice the Lions’ victory. The way Detroit controlled the pace of the game, Brady’s interception with 7:23 left felt like his last gasp.

It was.

DETROIT, MI - SEPTEMBER 23: Trent Brown of the New England Patriots and Shaq Mason help their quarterback Tom Brady up off the field after a sack during the second half at Ford Field. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

DETROIT, MI – SEPTEMBER 23: Trent Brown of the New England Patriots and Shaq Mason help their quarterback Tom Brady up off the field after a sack during the second half at Ford Field. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

You can really only point to one play where Brady looked like his usual sharp self, and where the offense looked like it could make enough plays to make Sunday’s game competitive. Brady dropped a dime right over the left shoulder of James White as the running back streaked through the end zone, notching a touchdown to temporarily make it a three-point game early in the third quarter.

But it didn’t take long for the Lions’ offensive efficiency – and the Patriots’ jarring futility – to take back over.

Brady acknowledged that someone’s going to need to elevate their game when commenting on that glimmer-of-hope play, the moment where the Patriots’ playmaking potential only briefly shined through.

“Guys who can make plays, those are the ones who should be involved,” said Brady on White’s touchdown. “James is one of them.”

Gronkowski also made plays when targeted, catching four of the five passes thrown his way. But for the second straight week, Gronk was held in check as he finished with a meager 51 receiving yards and no scores.

It’s become all too clear that if Gronkowski is the only weapon that can be depended on to make game-breaking plays, the Patriots offense will be vulnerable all season.

Even with Edelman back, there still needs to be better blocking up front. Michel needs to start making more things happen if the Patriots are going to keep handing him the ball. Chris Hogan needs to do a better job getting open as a still-trusted target. And Brady needs to be virtually perfect with his decision-making.

None of those things happened at a high level in Detroit on Sunday. And if the Patriots do end up falling short of a Super Bowl in 2018, their struggles on offense could turn out to be the reason why.

DETROIT, MI - SEPTEMBER 23, 2018: Tom Brady of the New England Patriots is sacked in the fourth quarter by Eli Harold of the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

DETROIT, MI – SEPTEMBER 23, 2018: Tom Brady of the New England Patriots is sacked in the fourth quarter by Eli Harold of the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Their defensive issues can be explained, in part, by the absence of three usual starters in Trey Flowers, Patrick Chung, and Eric Rowe. But their lack of depth on that side of the ball isn’t much more promising, as the linebackers once again got exposed and the secondary looked disorganized at times against the Lions’ deeper receiver group. Pressure was once again at a minimum without Flowers disrupting things up front.

Still, that unit will almost certainly get better once they get all of their starters back. They did make one big play; Ja’Whaun Bentley’s interception looked like a potential momentum-shifter. And on a better day for Brady and the offense, perhaps 26 points allowed is just enough to escape Detroit with a win.

It remains to be seen when those better days will come for the offense. At this point, it’s a question of how much better they’ll get even with Edelman back. And they will get better, no question. But these last two games have been an unfortunate harbinger of what could be coming whenever the Patriots have to face a talented secondary.

What happens when the Patriots run into a defense that can contain Gronk? So far, the receivers haven’t shown enough for Brady to overcome that handicap. They’re left hoping that the enigmatic Josh Gordon can finally realize his full potential. They’re left hoping that Edelman comes back and regains every bit of the magic he had before a torn ACL in 2017 and a PED suspension this past summer. But to this point, the guys they have at receiver simply haven’t been dependable enough.

It’s far too early to sound the kind of alarms that are likely to rumble over this team. The Brady-Belichick Patriots have overcome too many of these early-season stumbles to even consider anything less than another deep playoff run this winter. They started 1-2 in 2012, and ended up in the AFC Championship Game.

But through three weeks, the Patriots’ biggest issue entering the season looks like their biggest issue during the season. The receiver depth is as clear of a flaw as ever. Brady may ultimately overcome it by the time January rolls around.

But if the Patriots end up losing on the last day of the season, it could be because the offense looked a lot like it did in Detroit.

Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at matthew.dolloff@bbgi.com.