Rob Gronkowski, Tom Brady, Devin McCourty ‘Elite’ at Their Positions and Other Patriots Thoughts

Tom Brady, Rob GronkowskiIt’s the Patriots offense’s turn.

For the first eight weeks of the season, New England’s defense kept the Patriots in games. They held strong in the fourth quarter, caused turnovers, didn’t tire and put the offense in the best opportunities to succeed.

Now, though, it’s the offense’s turn. As we saw against the Steelers, the defense isn’t quite as stout without Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Jerod Mayo, Aqib Talib and Steve Gregory. The latter two players will return, but there are song long-term issues the Patriots will face at stopping the run.

So Week 9 was the perfect time for Tom Brady to churn out a vintage performance. It was the perfect time for Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola and Aaron Dobson to step up. It was the perfect time for Bill Belichick to realize just how valuable Stevan Ridley is. And Week 11 is the perfect time for Shane Vereen to return.

Maybe all Brady and the offense needed was a little pressure — healthy obviously didn’t hurt either. And if the defense starts allowing points like they have in years past, the pressure will be on for the offense. It may depend on them how far the Patriots can go this season.

For this week’s No-Huddle Offense, I’ll be going through some mid-season thoughts.

1. I didn’t expect much out of this year’s rookie crop. Outside of the wide receivers, none of them were expected to play major snaps this season with so many talented players in front of them. But slowly, more and more have had to take on starting roles and none of them have disappointed.

2. Overall, there are 12 rookies on the team: Josh Boyce, Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, Chris Barker, Michael Buchanan, Chris Jones, Joe Vellano, Steve Beauharnais, Jamie Collins, Duron Harmon, Logan Ryan and Ryan AllenJa’Gared Davis, Kanorris Davis and Zach Sudfeld have also spent time on the active roster.

Dobson, Thompkins, Buchanan, Jones, Vellano, Collins, Harmon, Ryan and Allen have all played major roles on this team. Dobson, Thompkins, Jones, Vellano, Collins, Ryan and Allen have all started and Harmon’s first start is likely coming in Week 11. It’s a testament to Bill Belichick‘s drafting and talent evaluation that this team is still 7-2 right now. There are no first-rounders in that bunch and Thompkins, Barker, Buchanan, Jones, Vellano, Beauharnais, Allen, Davis, Davis and Sudfeld are all sixth-rounders or lower.

3. Plenty of second-year players have made the jump this year, too. Chandler Jones has 8 1/2 sacks, Alfonzo Dennard has emerged as a near-shutdown cornerback and Dont’a Hightower has done a great job filling in for Mayo in the base and nickel defenses. Brandon Bolden has filled in admirably for Vereen, too.

4. Of course, there are some disappointments from last year’s class, as well. Tavon Wilson and Jake Bequette, second- and third-rounders respectively, got passed by Harmon and Buchanan on the depth chart. Harmon was a third-rounder and Buchanan was taken in the seventh round. Nate Ebner has been a solid special-teamer, which is probably all you can ask out of a sixth-round pick who had barely played college football at Ohio State.

5. Wilson could play a pretty big role against the Panthers, however. With Gregory’s broken thumb, Harmon will likely start next to Devin McCourty. That means Wilson will go back to being the “money” defensive back in dime. He played well in that role last year. It’s a hybrid cornerback/safety/linebacker role.

6. Dennard, Chandler Jones and Hightower have all made big strides this season, but McCourty may be the team’s most-improved player. When Wilfork and Mayo went down, it was popular to say those were the Patriots’ best two defensive players. Talib was treated the same way when he got injured. McCourty may be the best player on this defense, though. It’s extremely rare to see the deep safety make a mistake.

7. When Michael Lombardi worked for NFL.com and the NFL Network, he had his annual “blue chip” team. In looking through the Patriots’ roster, Brady, Gronokwski, Nate Solder, Talib and McCourty could all be considered “blue chip” or “elite” players at their positions.

Chandler Jones and Ninkovich are getting there. Dennard and Ridley have the potential to get there. Logan Mankins would typically be included. But it appears he’s struggling with an injury and his play has suffered as a result.

8. Andre Carter and Isaac Sopoaga were some big-time midseason additions. Sopoaga made a big impact in his first game with the Patriots, freeing up the linebackers by taking on some double teams in the middle of New England’s base defense.

Interesting fact about Sopoaga: He had 31 sacks as a sophomore in junior college. That’s insane.

9. Carter made an impact in the second half of the Steelers game too. The vet had six pressures, with a sack and two QB hits coming in Pittsburgh’s final drives. Carter played much better in Game 2 than he did in Game 1.

10. Much has been made about the struggles of the Patriots’ offensive line. It certainly doesn’t look as good as usual, and a lot of that may be on Mankins. If he is hurt, the bye could serve him well. Marcus Cannon did very well in his first full game filling in for Sebastian VollmerRyan Wendell and Dan Connolly have improved since the season began. Connolly was very good against the Steelers.

11. I’m not sure what’s going on with Thompkins. The Patriots decided to play Austin Collie over the undrafted rookie, even though Collie was having trouble getting open while with the team. Then, once Collie got hurt and was subsequently released, the team picked up LaQuan Williams.

Thompkins still has a lot of potential. He plays a bit spastic at times, but that’s nothing a little experience shouldn’t be able to fix. KT’s snaps would have dropped anyway due to Gronkowski, Amendola and Vereen’s returns. But it would be nice to at least see him active.

Have a question for Doug Kyed? Send it to him via Twitter at @DougKyedNESN or send it here.

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