Ever since Randy Moss was traded away by the New England Patriots during the early portions of the 2010 season, the team was lacking a wide receiver to challenge the deep portions of the field on a regular basis. Chad Ochocinco failed to bring this element to the team, while neither Brandon Lloyd nor Brandon LaFell had the consistency to do it each game or even from one play to the next.
While Chris Hogan and Brandin Cooks fared well as deep threat receivers in 2016 and 2017, respectively, they did not appear to be suited for this prominent a role in the Patriots’ offensive system. Cooks — sharing his fate with Moss — was since traded away to the Los Angeles Rams while Hogan’s role changed and he is now serving as more of a rotational number three wide receiver.
The latest player to try his luck at providing a constant big play presence in the Patriots’ offense is Josh Gordon. When the Patriots traded a fifth-round draft pick to the Cleveland Browns to acquire him in late September, they mostly paid for potential: Gordon had led the league in receiving yards in 2013 but had also served multiple suspensions and was limited to just 11 games between 2014 and getting traded to New England.
The gamble, however, paid off for the Patriots. Since arriving in Foxboro, Gordon — who will appear in his 11th game for the team on Sunday — has been an outstanding player in New England and one able to fill the X-receiver role in a way the other players named above failed to do; whether it is due to a lack of size or athletic skills or because of an inability to develop a chemistry with quarterback Tom Brady.
A look at the numbers shows just how well Gordon has performed as a big play receiver. Since week four, when he played his first game for the Patriots, the 27-year old leads the NFL in yards per reception: his average catch covers a distance of 18.0 yards, which is more than the Indianapolis Colts’ T.Y. Hilton and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Mike Evans are gaining as the next two down the line (17.9 yards per catch).
Overall, Gordon has caught 39 passes for 701 yards and three touchdowns ten game into his Patriots tenure. And the Patriots will need him to build on this performance on Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers. After all, New England’s upcoming opponent has performed relatively well when it comes to stopping big plays, but during its current three-game losing streak has been uncharacteristically susceptible to the long pass.
Last week’s game against an otherwise moribund Oakland Raiders team, saw Pittsburgh surrender four pass plays of 20+ yards. In order to get similar results and in turn help free things up against a stout run defense, the Patriots will need Gordon to perform well — especially considering that the Steelers will likely put an extra focus on stopping Rob Gronkowski, who has regularly torched their defense throughout the years.
If Pittsburgh finds a way to slow Gronkowski down or at least uses additional resources to make life hard for him, Gordon will be in an interesting position: he will become immensely important to stretch the field and get open on intermediate-to-deep crossing patterns, while potentially going against one-on-one coverage for most of the game. So far this season, he has shown the ability to take advantage of situations like this.
Teams have zeroed in on Gronkowski, which in turn created opportunities for the team’s other receiving options to make plays. Against the Steelers, it might be more of the same for Gordon and New England’s offense. And in turn, the veteran wide receiver might fill the role previously held by Gronkowski when it comes to torturing Pittsburgh’s secondary.