With Josh Gordon, Ryan Izzo and Matt LaCosse all dealing with injuries this week, it looks like the Patriots offense will once again have a new look against the Jets on Monday. For an offense still looking for their identity, the Jets should provide a stiff test as the Patriots project to have two new tight ends and no big-bodied outside receiver available.
The good news is that Phillip Dorsett appears ready to return to action after missing the last game against the Giants, but even with him paired with Julian Edelman, will the Patriots have enough weaponry? The focus becomes even greater on Jakobi Meyers, coming off a career-high four receptions against the Giants, and Gunner Olszewski who chipped in with the first two receptions of his career in the same game.
"Gunner works really hard," said Bill Belichick on Saturday. "He gives a lot of effort to do, again, whatever we ask him to do. Whether that’s return kicks, cover kicks, block, catch – he works really hard. Just gives his best all of the time, so you can’t ask for anything more than that. He keeps getting better, so we’ll see where it goes."
Tom Brady acknowledged earning trust is a process for any young player.
"When you're young you gain trust at practice," said Brady on Saturday. "A lot of it's doing the right thing over and over again. Those guys are working at it, they've been here for a period of time. So try to get as many reps as you can, talk about things with your coaches. Any young player is trying to earn trust of the coaches and the players we have."
Hopefully Meyers and Olszewski can build off the success they had getting an extended look against the Giants.
"You get a lot of confidence, especially when they make a couple plays, and I think they've started believing they can do it too," said Brady of the newcomers. "That's a good thing to have happen."
The development of the rookies aside, the biggest issue could come from having no outside threat, which would allow the Jets to focus their defense near the line of scrimmage and challenge Brady to beat them deep with receivers who don't excel down the field. This would also force the offensive line to maintain their blocks for extended time.
We've seen this kind of thing happen before in the Meadowlands and the results aren't often dynamic.
But there are two x-factors to consider - Rex Burkhead and Ben Watson. Burkhead has missed two games but has practiced all week. His balance as a back and receiver could help tip some advantage back to the Patriots and keep the Jets off balance. Belichick remained non-committal about Burkhead's chances to play however.
"We’ll see how it goes with Rex and some of the other guys," said Belichick. "Part of having a long week, it gives you a little bit of extra time, so we’ll see how it comes together here today and tomorrow with some of these guys."
Watson was with the Pats in training camp and returned to the team after being released last week. He's only had a week of practices to get caught up, but the veteran's skill set could help offset what the team will be missing in Gordon. If he can stretch the seam like he did in his first stint with the Pats he'll be extremely valuable and take some pressure off of Edelman in the middle of the field.
The uncertainty for the receivers and tight ends puts more pressure on the running game. Ranked 18th by Football Outsiders DVOA, an opponent- and situationally-adjusted stat, the team has struggled to recreate last year's ground success and have watched some of the key blocking architects depart or end up on IR. With new blocking tight end and potential fullback Eric Tomlinson, along with Watson, the Pats will once again try something new to get Sony Michel going.
If the run game sputters it will be a tall task for Brady to beat the Jets leaning entirely on Edelman and James White. White has been targeted a whopping 22 times on third down, catching 17 and converting 13 for first downs. Edelman has caught six of nine third-down targets, converting four of them. He and Dorsett are second behind White with those nine targets, while Dorsett has only converted three of his.
"We just want to continue to improve," White said of the offense this week. "Each and every week, we want to continue to get better and better. You don't win anything in this league with six wins."
Getting their seventh win with a new-look and undermanned offense coming off an extended break might be their toughest challenge of the season yet.
The Patriots wrapped up their final practice of the week on Saturday, featuring the same injury absences from the previous day. Ryan Izzo (concussion), Matt LaCosse (knee) and Josh Gordon (knee/ankle) were all not spotted. It is expected that none of those three players will be available on Monday night against the Jets.
Locker Room Sound Bites
Dont'a Hightower on what he expects against the Jets on Monday night:
"It's going to be a good game. Obviously those guys feel good over there right now. I'm sure Sam [Darnold] feels good on where he's at, coming back and playing the way he did. Looking for a good, hard fought game in all three phases."
Tom Brady on what makes Bill Belichick one of the greats as he approaches 300 wins.
"I think his dependability, his consistency, what he brings to work every day. His commitment to our team. I don't think you can ask for anything more than that as a player. He's got great competitive stamina. He might be the best coach of all time. It's a privilege to play for him, just to see him get all these wins, he certainly deserves it."