Are people starting to believe? The Patriots defense has been one of the top units in the league, albeit against some of the weakest offenses in football, while the offense improved over its Week 2 debacle. Quarterback Tom Brady seemed to be on the same page as every receiver not named Zach Sudfeld, who's playing like someone switched his playbook with the phonebook, and the running backs stepped up to limit the loss of Shane Vereen.
Oh, and all-everything tight end Rob Gronkowski could be back this week. And wide receiver Danny Amendola could be back as well, but probably next week. This offense is going to break through in the next couple of weeks and it's going to be beautiful.
While no one will say that injuries to Gronk and Dan the Man are good things, it's certainly forced the rookie receivers to step up their performances and become more than bench players in the NFL. In Week 2, Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson looked like guys who should be WR4s and WR5s on the Oakland Raiders. In Week 3, they looked like they deserved to be on the same field as Tom Brady.
As they stand, I'd tout the Dobkins duo as legitimate WR3s in the NFL, which is a much more rapid growth curve than I would have anticipated. If they have another game like Week 3, I'd say they border a bottom-tier WR2 option. As rookies, that's more than you can ask and in the Patriots offense, that's exactly what they need to be. The return of Gronk and Amendola will allow Dobkins to continue their trajectory, while lessening the pressure that comes with being leading men.
Oh, and add in Julian Edelman and the Patriots have quietly surrounded Tom Brady with his deepest group of wide receivers since 2007. Amendola, Dobson, Thompkins, and Edelman form a quartet with no one in the same level as Randy Moss or Wes Welker, but all four are developing into reliable targets who can see passes at any moment in the game. Brady won't be phoning in passes to Welker (duh, 3rd down, who else is he going to throw it to?), but instead Brady has four weapons at wide receiver who can throw it to.
One of Brady's biggest weaknesses has been the lack of a legitimate outside receiver. Well, now they have two in Dobkins. And the first quarter of the season has provided some growing pains, but it's allowed them to develop into the receivers the Patriots need them to be.
Luckily for the young receivers, though, the Buccaneers didn't know how to use their best defensive player:
I don’t get why the Bucs don’t let Revis do Revis things.— Nick Underhill (@Nick_Underhill) September 22, 2013
Fun fact: Running back Brandon Bolden was given 4 attempts on third down and picked up 19 yards. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui caught a third down pass for 16 yards. How many first downs do you think that would net? Zero. Five touches, 35 yards on third down, ZERO first downs to show for it.
On the other hand, all four passes towards Aaron Dobson, Julian Edelman, and Kenbrell Thompkins on third down resulted in 45 yards and the Patriots moving the chains.
Not all yards are created equal.
And we all know that not all defensive players are equal as cornerback Darrelle Revis can just straight up eliminate players from the game. Fortunately for the Patriots, Revis is getting the Nnamdi Asomugha treatment and the Buccaneers are totally playing him out of his element.
Like Asomugha, Revis's skill is so great, using him in anything other than man coverage is just wasting his time on the field. Dropping Revis into zone is like throwing a jump ball at Wes Welker. Sure, it might work, but his talents are better used elsewhere. After Brady and the Patriots keyed in on Edelman against the Jets, I was convinced the Bucs would stick Revis on Edelman and force Brady to beat the defense with only the rookies. Instead, Revis dropped into zone and didn't match-up on a receiver.
As a Patriots fan, I love the advantage that gives the Patriots. As a Bucs fan, you have to be scratching your head.
Edelman was 7/7 on passes his way, but the Bucs did a good job of creating traffic with their linebackers and Edelman only picked up 44 yards. That strategy worked. So why not use Revis on Dobson- Brady's clear second target? Why not have Revis stick and completely eliminate Thompkins and let Jonathan Banks and Dashon Goldson work together to bracket Dobson?
There are plenty of strategies that could have forced the Patriots offense to play with what the Bucs would allow them. Instead, the Bucs let the Patriots dictate the play by handcuffing the best defensive back of the decade to a scheme that doesn't fit his game.
Good thing no other defense the Patriots face will have a player like Revis., and it's especially good that the Patriots were able to win at their weakest.
I feel like the offense will only keep getting better...
Ridley has toned down his slashing style big time. It's like he's been neutered.— PatriotsXLVIII (@PatriotsXLVIII) September 22, 2013
And that starts with running back Stevan Ridley. He's providing a more rounded approach to the game, with improved pass blocking, but his running attack seems to be off. He hasn't been hitting the hole as hard since he lost his fumbles and that's something we'll have to monitor moving forward: The harder he hits the hole, the more likely he is to make a big gain, but the more likely he also is to fumble. So expect some timid play coming from Ridley's corner until either:
a) Bill Belichick takes him out of the dog house. With the emergence of Bolden and the 4th quarter closer in LeGarrette Blount, Ridley's leash is a lot shorter. While I think part of Blount's play in the fourth has to do with him playing his old team and Belichick getting sentimental, you also have to think Belichick wouldn't play him if he couldn't do it. While Ridley might not have lost his time on the field, Bolden and Blount have definitely earned theirs.
b) Ridley gets punched in the mouth. I'm not talking playing the Lions, but I'm saying that he'll be timid until he has a big breaking play where he gets to lower his shoulder. He seems to be thinking about protecting the ball so much that he's not fighting and not attacking like he was last year. If he gets the chance to boulder over a defensive player in the open field, it'll do wonders to help him gain a mental spark.
Until Ridley takes command of the lead role, I think we'll see keep seeing the balance between the running backs.
Or, who knows? Maybe there won't be a lead back this year. Ridley and Bolden both saw 26 snaps, while Blount closed out the game with his 21. It's not like Ridley's still being featured- he and Bolden were equal opportunity and Bolden made more of his.
Maybe Ridley is a one year wonder. Maybe he'll break out once he's given the opportunity. All we know is that he hasn't looked great this year, and the other backs (including Shane Vereen) are playing too well to keep feeding a horse off the tracks. Ridley needs to have a big game and have one quickly, or else we might see Bolden carrying the load until Vereen returns.
No matter what happens, though, you have to appreciate the depth of the Patriots roster youth.
Pregame saw reports that Brady was reaching out to Branch and Brandon Lloyd to test the waters for their returns. Brady denied it, as he would and should, postgame. Terrell Owens said that he'd be willing to play. Oh, and Browns WR Josh Gordon and Titans WR Kenny Britt are both first round talents on the trading block, and if the Steelers keep tanking maybe Emmanuel Sanders will become available.
But seriously? I like what the Patriots have going at receiver. Sure, adding another player might add depth at receiver, but at what cost? Unless Gordon/Britt/Sanders could be had for a PFA pick (6th/7th rounder. Maybe a 5th), then the value probably isn't there for the Patriots. If they pick one of them up, that would push down the Patriots depth chart.
No matter how you stack it, one of Aaron Dobson, Julian Edelman, and Kenbrell Thompkins is WR4 on this team. Mr. Strawman, you're really thinking of bringing in another receiver and making one of the aforementioned become a WR5? No way that happens unless another injury happens or maybe Josh Boyce gets traded for Sanders straight up.
It's not happening. The Patriots have some solid youth and depth at receiver for the first time in forever and they're going to keep growing. And New England is going to be all the better because of it.
Fun to watch Aqib Talib on the sidelines as Blount continues to chew up yardage. Jumping up and down and clapping.— Christopher Price (@cpriceNFL) September 22, 2013
And I think Chris sums up this Patriots season pretty succinctly by describing Talib. This Patriots team is going to be fun to watch because it's unlike any we've had in a while. It's like watching this season's Red Sox team- a bunch of guys having fun that people counted out from the start. Players with chips on their shoulders, coming together to be a team.
I know that Talib and Blount were friends from Tampa, and I know that Talib let Blount crash at his place one he was traded to the Patriots. But isn't it nice to hear of the defense getting pumped for the offense, and vice versa? The best Patriots teams were always one united group of guys who could rely on anyone on either side of the ball. For the past few seasons, there's been a clear split between the offensive and the defensive quality, and that absolutely permeated through the locker room.
Now? Guys supporting guys that no one gave a chance. And so far, it looks like both sides of the ball are keeping up their end of the bargain.
This season won't be as pretty as the 2007 year, but I know that I'm absolutely going to have fun watching it play out.