Tom Brady came back from his four-game suspension chucking bombs like it’s 2007 with Randy Moss all over again.
Brady is now 8 of 10 on passes that travel over 15 yards this season. He was 4 of 4 for 123 yards in the Patriots’ 35-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.
So, what is going on here? Is Brady’s deep ball back? Did he spend those four weeks in Italy throwing vertical passes to Graziano Pellè? (That’s an Italian soccer player. I looked it up on Google.)
To put some context behind this, Brady completed just 41 of 100 such passes in 2015. He completed just 39.3 percent of deep passes from 2011 to 2015. The last time he completed 50 percent of deep passes was in 2007, when he had Moss, Donté Stallworth and Ben Watson at his disposal.
Brady went way deep on a couple of throws in Week 5 against the Cleveland Browns but scaled it back a little bit Sunday, when he averaged 20.3 yards through the air on his deep completions.
The throws are producing favorable results, and as long as he continues to pick his spots, that should continue. Here’s how he was able to successfully go deep on 4 of 4 attempts against the Bengals.
— His first deep pass came just one minute and four seconds into the game, when he completed a 32-yard pass to tight end Rob Gronkowski on a throw that traveled 22 yards.
This one wasn’t a designed deep ball. Gronkowski was running an out route, but Brady’s pocket collapsed around him, forcing some improvisation.
— The play turned into a scramble drill, and Gronkowski took off down the sideline. Brady effortlessly flicked it downfield and hit Gronkowski in stride.
— The second deep pass came with 6:59 remaining in the third quarter on a 24-yard completion to tight end Martellus Bennett on an 18-yard heave. When Brady pump-faked to running back LeGarrette Blount on a swing route, cornerback Josh Shaw, who was covering Bennett, bit hard.
— That left Bennett wide open down the seam, and Brady smartly hit his tight end. It would have been an even bigger play if Bennett didn’t fall backwards after the catch. He only had safety George Iloka in coverage over the top.
— The third deep pass came with 4:33 left in the third quarter, when Brady connected with Gronkowski for a 38-yard reception. Brady’s pass traveled 18 yards downfield.
Iloka tried to bump Gronkowski on the line, but the big tight end shrugged it off and sent Iloka flying. That left linebacker Vontaze Burfict — not exactly the fleetest of foot — in coverage.
— It didn’t help Burfict was caught completely flat-footed as Gronkowski scampered right past him.
— That left Gronkowski with an open field to pick up 20 more yards after the catch.
— Brady’s final deep pass came with 8:46 left in the fourth quarter on a 29-yard hookup with Gronkowski. The pass traveled 23 yards through the air.
The Patriots aligned Gronkowski and Bennett on the same side of the field and used play action to clear out space. Bengals linebacker Vincent Rey, who was lined up across from Gronkowski on the snap, stepped forward.
— Bengals safety Shawn Williams then is left to defend Gronkowski, who appears to be running a seam route.
— Gronkowski then broke inside on a post and ran right past Williams.
So, Brady wasn’t exactly saying “screw it, I’m going deep,” Rex Grossman-style, but he’s certainly showing better touch on vertical passes than he has in years past. Will he keep up this pace? Probably not. Andy Dalton was best among starting quarterbacks with a 53 percent completion percentage on deep passes last season. Drew Brees was best in 2014 with a 53.6 completion percentage. So, Brady likely won’t complete 80 percent of his deep throws all season, but he’s almost already ensured his rate will be its highest since 2007, if not its best ever.
Here are other notes from our film review:
— Elandon Roberts made an impact in his first career NFL start, but some rookie mistakes creeped up at times. He overpursued and whiffed on some tackles. He’s still a very solid backup linebacker, however, and has impressive strength and burst off the line.
— Dont’a Hightower seriously stepped up in Jamie Collins’ absence. Collins gets more publicity because his role allows him to make more plays, but when Hightower has to step up, he does, and he can make many of the same plays Collins does. Hightower by far is the Patriots’ most productive regular pass rusher. His forced safety in the third quarter turned the game around for New England. He also excels at keeping his receiver in front of him in coverage and forcing short gains.
— Rookie guard Joe Thuney, like Roberts, has been a standout. He does need to improve his strength at the point of attack, however. He too frequently gets pushed back and overpowered in both the running game and in pass protection. He more than makes up for it with his smarts, fundamentals and athleticism, however. Thuney should be a shoo-in for the All-Rookie team.
— Running back James White had a solid day on the stat sheet, scoring two touchdowns with 66 yards with 15 touches. He didn’t have to work too hard for those yards or touchdowns, as he waltzed into the end zone both times. He likely still will have a role when Dion Lewis comes back, however. Lewis figures to take snaps from both White and LeGarrette Blount in a three-headed backfield.
— The Patriots came into the game allowing touchdowns on 8 of 10 red-zone attempts. They allowed touchdowns on 2 of 4 trips into the red zone Sunday. Defensive tackle Malcom Brown, linebacker Rob Ninkovich and cornerback Eric Rowe made important plays in the red zone to prevent touchdowns. Rowe broke up a pass over A.J. Green to force a field goal in the fourth quarter.
— Ninkovich was a consistent standout in defending the running game. He hasn’t been able to generate much pass rush yet, but he combined with Hightower to provide stout run defense from linebacker in the base defense.
Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports images