It doesn't take much to remember the not good anymore days of the New England Patriots. Those early-2014 Patriots were bad. While the defense was bad, the typically elite offense as floundering on a weekly basis.
One of the issues with the early-2014 Patriots was the poor offensive line play. Jordan Devey and Marcus Cannon were terrible at guard. Interior linemen Ryan Wendell and Bryan Stork weren't yet integrated into the offense, but the unit took off to new heights once the line was solidified. Nate Solder, Dan Connolly, Bryan Stork, Ryan Wendell, and Sebastian Vollmer. That was the key to the offense.
The 2015 Patriots are currently playing like the early-2014 Patriots. The main issue with this fact is the 2015 team doesn't have a full season to fix the problems. They need a solution over the next two weeks.
The offensive line is what it is at this point in the season. Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon are flawed tackles, with both struggling against speed rushers. Rookies Shaq Mason and Tre Jackson can't block a stunt to save Tom Brady's life, while undrafted players like Josh Kline and David Andrews lack the functional strength to handle some of the stronger defensive tackles. Even center Bryan Stork has been struggling to handle communications with his linemates.
The Patriots picked up 284 yards against the Jets and an anemic 196 yards against the Dolphins. The last time New England was held to consecutive games of 300 yards or fewer? Weeks two through four in 2014.
Now there is a chicken-or-the-egg situation at hand. Did the 2014 Patriots improve because the interior line finally settled down? Or was it because of the return of numerous players into the offense?
Remember that tight end Rob Gronkowski was returning from an ACL injury and that wide receiver Brandon LaFell was still adjusting into the offense. This provided the Patriots a reliable quartet in Gronkowski, LaFell, Julian Edelman, and running back Shane Vereen, a group capable of attacking defenses in multiple ways.
When the 2015 offense was operating at full capacity, Brady was able to rely on Gronkowski, Edelman, Dion Lewis, and Danny Amendola. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was able to compensate for the weak offensive line by dialing up quick passing plays; plays that the Edelman-less and Amendola-less Patriots have been unable to utilize in 2015.
The 12 first downs against the Dolphins are tied for the 3rd fewest in the Bill Belichick era- the Patriots actually played a fairly identical game against the Dolphins back in 2006. Is the problem simply just the injuries to the receivers?
The Patriots hope that Julian Edelman (didn't play), Danny Amendola (definitely not 100%), and Rob Gronkowski (not asked to face much contact), will return at full strength in the divisional round of the playoffs, to allow Brandon LaFell (foot) to drop back into 4th in the receiving depth chart. Additionally, running back Steven Jackson will have a few more weeks in the system to help as a versatile running back and an option out of the backfield.
If all of these players can return to the field, then opposing defenses will be unable to triple team Gronkowski, like the Dolphins, or play press coverage on Keshawn Martin, who is just not of the same caliber as Edelman or Amendola. The Patriots would be able to bring back their quick passing offense, which would require opposing teams to drop more players into coverage. When defenses play on their heels, the rushing attack will have more opportunities and the entire offense will flourish.
The Patriots offense can't continue to function like the trainwreck early-2014 version and expect to have any postseason success. The question is whether the coaching staff can use these next two weeks to recapture the high-octane production from earlier in the season.