It’s not often that an All-Pro talent becomes available, let alone on the eve of the regular season opener. However, for better or for worse, Antonio Brown is not your typical All-Pro which is why the New England Patriots were able to pick him up last week — adding him to an offensive skill position group that already was filled with talent and depth across the board. Against the Miami Dolphins, that talent was on display for the first time.
On just their second offensive snap of the game, the Patriots used a personnel group that surely will give defensive coordinators across the league headaches. Josh Gordon and Phillip Dorsett aligned split out wide, with Brown and Julian Edelman in the slot. On top of all that talent, James White — one of the best receiving backs in the NFL — also motioned across the formation into the backfield to align next to quarterback Tom Brady:
The play run out of this formation resulted in an 18-yard pass from Brady to Brown, who ran a crossing route against the Dolphins’ zone coverage. It may not have been the most spectacular of plays, but it already showed the enormous potential of this Patriots offense: defenses will need to pick their poison in order to find a way to compete against the talent New England features at the receiver and running back positions.
“They’re going to have to cover somebody,” said Gordon after New England’s 43-0 victory in Miami. “You’re either going to focus on [Antonio Brown] or focus on me. If they focus on me — as you saw — he was able to get the touchdown; they focus on him, I’ll come open or Julian or whoever the case may be. We prepare for all of that each week. Now defenses will get a good look to see what they could try to do and we’ll scheme for that, as well.”
Gordon, who joined the Patriots off an indefinite suspension in mid-August but already appears to be up to speed, is right: teams will be challenged on an every-down basis because of all the potential playmakers New England has at its disposal. The addition of Brown only reinforces this belief, and the blowout win over the Dolphins was further proof of that, with Brown catching four passes for a team-high 56 yards as well as a touchdown.
“I don’t think any of us had any doubts about AB’s skillset,” said Gordon when speaking about his new teammate. “I think it was just good for everybody to see it in an actual game. He continues to be who we expect him to be and that’s a great wide receiver, a good football player. For us, it’s a tremendous asset. It takes a huge stress off of the offensive linemen, the running backs, everybody.”
“There is no way you can pinpoint one facet of our offense to try to shut us down. As you see, as you just saw, it’s pretty tough to try to contain us,” continued Gordon. The Dolphins under new head coach and former Patriots assistant Brian Flores failed to do that for most parts and it cost them: Miami surrendered 381 total yards as well as four touchdowns to the unit — two on the ground and two through the air.
“There are a lot of talented guys on our offense that can catch and run the football and a good offensive line and a great quarterback. I’m sure it presents challenges for defenses depending how they want to match up, but it all comes down to our execution,” James White, who scored the game’s final points on a 10-yard screen pass, said. The veteran running back is mentioning a key point, though: it all comes down to execution.
And against the Dolphins, the Patriots offense was far from perfect in this area. Despite all its talent, it found the end zone just four times and converted only six of eleven attempts on third down. The makeshift offensive line missing its top two tackles on 60 of 72 snaps was one reason for the at times flawed execution; another was the chemistry between Tom Brady and his pass catchers — one that remains a work in progress this early in the season.
“I feel like we’re... We haven’t been working together very long — myself, even [Julian Edelman] this year, Josh [Gordon] this year. Phillip [Dorsett] has been out there a lot but just everyone together. Matt LaCosse was out for most of training camp,” said Brady. “Just trying to get everyone in a rhythm and get the run game going. We had some injuries on the offensive line, so guys fought through it.”
Brady looked very good against Miami, despite the injuries up front: he completed 20 of his 28 pass attempts for 264 yards and two touchdowns; he also had a 1-yard quarterback sneak for an additional score. However, he was clearly also not on the same page as his pass catchers on numerous occasions — especially with Brown in the second half, as the duo failed to connect on four different plays.
“We have a long way to go, we really do,” the 42-year-old pointed out after the game before also addressing the work put in with Brown. “Whether it’s him or anyone else, it’s really... we always put in a lot of work as a group, individuals, walk-throughs, practice, film, corrections, field, between periods and so forth. We’re just trying to do the best we can do, get up to speed and ultimately come out here and play well.”
On Sunday, the Patriots offense did just that — at least in spurts. But it became evident that the unit’s potential is near-limitless, while the room for growth is still obvious. But if the group starts clicking and remains healthy, the rest of the league better watch out. The blowout win in Miami might have just been a teaser for the things to come.