What a difference a week can make — well, technically 10 days.
A visit from the Jets last week brought nothing but doom, gloom and concern for the Patriots’ offense — even in a win. This time, though, there’s plenty to be smiling about.
Tom Brady didn’t look exactly like Tom Terrific — missing a few easy ones and throwing a couple head-scratchers — but he was considerably better than in Week 2, and much of that has to do with his receivers. Julian Edelman still provided the reliable hands Brady needed in the clutch and Brandon Bolden shows flashes of Shane Vereen catching the ball out of the backfield at times, but it was the rookies who ultimately made the biggest impact on the afternoon.
Aaron Dobson, who dropped four passes in his NFL debut last week, seemed to be a different receiver altogether on Sunday, catching seven passes for 52 yards. He continued to run crisp routes and create separation out in space, even running against Darelle Revis for some of the day. He also showed off his poise and concentration in the clutch. Four of Dobson’s seven catches on the day went for first downs, including key third- and fourth-down conversions on the Patriots’ first touchdown drive. That same effort in tight spots will be important for Brady and the Patriots, at least until Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola can return to the field.
Heck, maybe he isn’t Chad Jackson 2.0 after all.
Dobson wasn’t the only rookie to make a statement on Sunday, though. Kenbrell Thompkins made up for some of his mistakes from the first two games with a big-time performance of his own. The undrafted rook caught three passes on seven targets — a far cry from the six of 20 he caught to start the season — for 41 yards on Sunday, but his biggest contributions came in the most important part of the field: the red zone.
The Patriots, who boasted the NFL’s third highest red zone efficiency (67.5%) last season, have struggled in the red area to start this season. Entering Sunday, the Patriots ranked second to last in the league and converting on just 25 percent (2-for-8) of their chances. They weren’t exactly back to their usual ways down by the goal line on Sunday, scoring two touchdowns on five trips inside the red zone, but they may have found a new touchdown target in Thompkins.
Thompkins scored both of the Patriots touchdowns against the Buccaneers, shifting through defenders on a 16-yard pass from Brady midway through the second quarter for seven and following it up six minutes later with another five-yard score just before the half. He was much more willing to stand in and take hits from defenders this week and didn’t show any signs of the [Brandon] Lloyd-itis, actually making an effort to gain yards after the catch.
It was only one game, and overreactions can be something of a trend in the NFL, but the chemistry exhibited between Brady and his rookie receivers on Sunday was definitely an encouraging sign for this offense. The struggles were certainly frustrating for Brady and company and even hard to watch at times, but they might prove to be the best thing for these rookies as the season wears on.
Gronk and Amendola will work their way back into the mix soon enough, and Edelman will continue to be a safety net for Brady in tough spots, but now he at least knows that he has two other players to rely on. Dobson and Thompkins likely won’t be leaned on quite as heavily once everyone is back healthy, but, in the meantime at least, there’s plenty to be optimistic about.