FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — What a difference two weeks make.
After the New England Patriots lost their second straight game to Detroit last month, there was major concern about the team’s offense. The Patriots had only three active receivers who gave them little production in the 26-10 loss to the Lions.
On Thursday night at Gillette Stadium, it marked the first time New England had tight end Rob Gronkowski, running back James White and wide receiver Julian Edelman on the field at the same time since November 2016.
For all the talk about schemes and play-calling, players make the difference. White, Gronkowski and Edelman combined for 23 catches for 209 yards. The three receivers who were active for the losses to Detroit and Jacksonville — Cordarrelle Patterson, Phillip Dorsett and Chris Hogan (quickly falling out of favor) — had eight catches for 70 yards against the Colts.
New England fans suddenly have nothing to worry about with the offense. The NFL is a physical game and injuries can always happen. With recently acquired Josh Gordon, Edelman, Gronkowski and White, the Patriots now have one of the best offenses in football.
With the rules favoring offense more than ever before, it is hard to see many teams that can slow down this offense in the final 11 games that. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels returned to the basics on Thursday night by spreading out the Colts and going with an up-tempo pace.
As a result, the Colts rushed four and played seven in coverage. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who threw his 500th touchdown pass, found the openings in the middle of the field. Allowing receivers to have easy releases is a bad way to beat Tom Brady.
With Edelman back from a four-game suspension, he makes everyone look better. But what really makes the offense look better is Edelman’s great ability to read the coverage and get open. He does what head coach Bill Belichick loves – accept what the defense gives you and make the most of it.
Belichick once told a running back: don’t out-dumb yourself if you see the hole, just hit it and go. Edelman does that for a receiver — he finds the creases in the defense and exploits them.
“Yeah, well that’s the mark of any good player,” said Belichick. “You try not to force things. Try to take what’s available and make the best out of it. If it’s not there, then sign off and go somewhere else or cut your losses and move on to the next play. Really I think that’s all players. It’s good advice for all players. But yeah, Julian does a good job of that.”
Edelman also is shifty so he can evade defenders like his mentor, Wes Welker. White gives the Patriots the flexibility to throw it short if the receivers deep are covered. He also can run routes well. It might, though, be Edelman’s leadership that New England missed most.
“It gives me a lot of confidence as a player to see him out there,” Patriots special teams ace Matthew Slater said of Edelman. “It’s been awhile so it definitely has been a welcome sight. We are fortunate to have players like who are consistent and dependable in big moments. “
Edelman has also been a great force in the locker room.
“His personality is one of a kind,” Slater said. “He’s always giving us a hard time — holding guys accountable. He just brings an edge. He’s like that irritated uncle that’s like ‘ahhh.’ He’s like an old gunslinger. It’s good and we miss that.
“We’re still forging our identity early in the season. We have shown some resiliency. It’s a long season. Who we are and our character, that story is still being written.”
Edelman, who spent the past month working out with the Boston Celtics during his suspension, wore a Celtics jersey to the podium after the game. Edelman doesn’t shave and looks like the rugged, grizzly football player most teams would want on the roster.
“I definitely took advantage of the time coming off an injury,” said Edelman. I had (former Patriot Rob) Ninkovich out there. Harvard was very generous at let me using their facilities. Boston College, Rivers Academy, Foxboro — it was pretty cool to see the support from all these people.”
Edelman just loves New England. The schools could have awarded him an honorary degree. He was asked if the report was true that he worked out with the Celtics.
“I worked out in Brighton with some tall guys,” Edelman said. “I’ll leave at that. Tell (Celtics forward) Gordon (Hayward) easy on the ping-pong talk. He has a special paddle.”
Edelman might not have played a real game in 405 days, but his personality has not changed. If he lost to Hayward at ping pong — the uber competitor would not be happy.
“I am living my best life,” Edelman said.
Having Edelman back allows Gronkowski to be free from constant double coverage. It also relieves Gronkowski of having the stress of being the go-to guy on every play. Gronkowski’s body won’t get as beat up and he can get better releases off the line of scrimmage.
Gordon adds a threat deep that the defense must respect. Gordon surely will not have a year like he had in 2013, when he had 87 receptions, but if he gives the Pats 35 to 40 catches with a few deep touchdowns like the 34-yard scoring strike he had Thursday night, this offense will be tough to defend late in the year.
Players seem happy that they responded when their backs were against the wall. Slater was happy that the team responded from a 1-2 start and is now 3-2. Belichick also uses games as teachable moments to show what the players can do better.
“It’s better to learn from a win then a loss,” Slater said. “We have shown some progress in that department. I think we have responded well — being 1-2 and having our backs against the wall,” Slater said. “It will be nice to get a mini by week here and get ready for a huge game next time we enter the stadium.”
At last a weekend off.
Except for Edelman, who might be playing ping pong at some local college.