ATLANTA – The Patriots offense never quite resembled the high-powered units of the recent past – at least not during the regular season. New England was still among the top 10 in the league in terms of scoring throughout the season, but the days of running roughshod over the league didn't exist on a consistent basis in 2018.
But as the postseason arrived, things have change. Strangely, things went to a higher level late in the year when Josh Gordon was suspended and the offense was forced to adjust.
Gordon was lost for the year following a loss in Pittsburgh in Week 15, the last time the Patriots lost a game this season. Since then the Patriots won each of their four games and Tom Brady and the offense have been sharp.
After completing 30 passes in a game once during the regular season, Brady did so twice in the playoffs, racking up 41 and 37 points in wins over the Chargers and Chiefs.
So, what has made the difference? That question was posed to wide receivers coach Chad O'Shea, and while he didn't necessarily embrace the absence of Gordon has been the determining factor he didn't dismiss it either.
"What this group has been since I've coached them this year is that they've been mentally tough enough to handle any situation and sometimes that's what I call adversity," O'Shea said. "They've done such a good job of responding to anything that's thrown their way.
"When Josh was no longer with us, they embraced that somebody else had to do something different to contribute to our offense. They took a lot of pride in that. I think they each did a good job of utilizing their strengths and what they do well to try to contribute weekly and I'm really proud of the way they did that. They didn't balk at all and they really saw it as an opportunity for us to kind of move forward and I was proud of them for that."
O'Shea explained how the group has come together in Gordon's absence and how the coaching staff focuses on finding ways to put players in positions to succeed. Gordon was used primarily on the outside and often ran downfield routes as well as some deep slants. As Phillip Dorsett has replaced his snaps, O'Shea explained that it doesn't make a lot of sense to just plug in the next player and ask him to do things he's not comfortable with.
The fact that Dorsett is comfortable working underneath routes has meshed well with Brady's excellence with those types of receivers.
"Tom is very comfortable with the group of receivers that he has. He's comfortable with them for these reasons: they're detailed, dependable and consistent," O'Shea said. "I think Tom's always wanted those traits in a receiver because he's so precise in what he does and he's so good as far as coverage reads and understanding what the defense is doing and he wants guys to be in specific spots at specific times. To me those are the receivers who have really done well here.
"That's why I'm really happy to go to this game with some guys that I think fit within that mold of doing things right all the time regardless of it's catching the ball or being on the backside of the route that is maybe helping the other guy catch the ball."
Dorsett has come alive with the added opportunities. He caught touchdowns in each of the last three games and has 10 catches over that span. Prior to that, Dorsett had gone four consecutive weeks without a catch.
"It's important to stay ready and be prepared so when your opportunity comes you put yourself in a position to take advantage of it," Dorsett said. "When Josh went out there were was a need for us to step up and we've done our best to make sure that happened. We need to keep that mindset against the Rams."
Brady's production has increased as the offense has gone from downfield throws to more of the underneath stuff that he's more comfortable with. Brady's two postseason games represent two of his best three games of the season in terms of yards. He threw for 343 yards against the Chargers and followed that up with 348 against the Chiefs. Only his 358-yard effort in Miami was better.
He also passed for seven touchdowns and completed more than 66 percent of his passes over the last month while throwing more often per game than he had with Gordon in the lineup.
"The great thing about what we try to do offensively, and Josh [McDaniels] has done a great job of this, we have to see what our players do well and then do that," O'Shea said. "Josh [Gordon] obviously had a different skill set than some of the players we have on our roster. We always talk about what can a player do, not what can't he do.
"That being said, I don't think we're ever going to have a change in philosophy as far as what our core offensive philosophies that are important to us, but what we are going to change from week to week is how we attack the defense based on the skill sets of the players we coach and that's how we're going to win. We're going to win by identifying what we need to do and then who on our team can do those things. It might be different – obviously throwing a deep pattern down the field to a true outside receiver is different than a catch-and-run player from somebody who is more apt to do that. The biggest thing is just utilizing the strengths of your players."
Interestingly, the loss of Gordon allowed the offense to get back on track, and Brady hasn't slowed since.