It's not unheard of for the Patriots offense to still be looking for their identity in late November. Last year at this time the team was coming off a 24-point loss to the Titans in which they rushed for a season low 40 yards and even after that flat performance they'd still lose two more games in December, mostly unheard of for the Patriots dynasty.
But the 2018 Patriots figured it out. They put up 889 yards rushing in their final five games, including playoffs, en route to their sixth Super Bowl title. Few would've expected that team to suddenly become the balanced punishing running team they did and this year, in mid-November, no one knows if or how the 2019 Patriots will have a similar rebirth.
With two more injuries hitting the wide receiver position things are as uncertain as ever against Dallas.
"We’re just trying to figure out how we can do things consistently, with dependability, and guys are working hard at it," said Tom Brady in his weekly press conference. "Sometimes it comes together early, middle of the season, late in the season and, you know, the only thing that matters really is this week and trying to beat a really good football team."
How it will come together this week is quickly becoming a bigger question, as Mohamed Sanu has not participated in the first two days of practice and appears to be trending towards missing his first game as a Patriot after being acquired just before the trade deadline. Sanu has been a solid piece in his three games with the team, not yet a critical one, but his presence will be missed as an effective compliment to Julian Edelman.
The trickle down effect could thrust rookies Jakobi Meyers and N'Keal Harry into significant offensive roles, especially as Phillip Dorsett recovers from a concussion. Dorsett did practice on Thursday but was limited.
"I don’t know what shape it’s going to take this particular week as the game unfolds and you kind of see what the challenge is they’re presenting," said Brady. "Sometimes you have a great plan and then they change everything and then it’s – you’ve got to change everything and, it’s just the way it goes. You have a plan and you try to adjust over the course of the game but, you know, the goal is the same – it’s to, as an offense, go out there and score points and not go out there and run a bunch of plays and be ineffective."
How will this Patriots team change everything when they're already scraping the bottom of their depth chart? Last year they had options to turn to, but those options this year are more limited.
"Every year has its challenges, it’s just different every year," continued Brady. "So, it’s hard to compare every year to this particular year. This year is really this year, it’s in and of itself."
Without a power running game to shift gears to, what might get an undermanned Patriots offense going against the Cowboys?
It can start with the running game which has been a disappointment, and not just compared to last season. With Isaiah Wynn back in the mix, it could help Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead on early downs. Something that simple, just effectively getting yardage on first and second down, limits the third-and-longs and forces a defense to respect the ground game thus softening the pass coverage.
The tight ends are another spot to focus on. Ben Watson is coming off his best performance of the season with three catches for 53 yards. Matt LaCosse is also off the injury report and looking to find some success. With minimal production thus far from the tight end spot, Watson and LaCosse should be able to provide some kind of boost.
And then there's Harry and Meyers, the rookie receivers who have been mostly in the shadows this season despite fans clamoring for a contribution from them. Brady hasn't appeared ready to lean on either one yet but he might have no choice this week. And sometimes having no other choice makes interesting things happen.
Julian Edelman and James White will ensure the offense lands some punches against Dallas, but it's the other weapons that must step up this week with Sanu likely sidelined.
"There’s definitely a lot of things we can improve on that we’re working to improve on and that guys are committed to," said Brady. "The guys who are in there this week, whoever it will be, I don’t know who it will be yet, but, we’ll try to do it to the best of our ability."
Practice & Injury Report
Mohamed Sanu returned to practice on Thursday but after taking part in stretching he only watched as the other receivers went through the first drills of practice. Phillip Dorsett, listed as DNP on Wednesday as well, looked to be the more active participant. It's a good question if either receiver will play this weekend, but after Thursday it would appear Dorsett is the more likely of the two.
After spending the last couple weeks with open spots on their practice squad, the Patriots filled the second of three openings on Thursday with defensive end Tashawn Bower. Undrafted out of LSU, Bower made the the Vikings 53-man roster in 2017 and would go on to play seven games over the last two seasons for them. After tearing his Achilles last offseason, Bower was released off the NFI list in mid-October. At 6'4" and 250 pounds Bower is the ideal DE/OLB size for the Patriots system and fills a spot left vacant on the practice squad when Ufomba Kalmalu signed with the Ravens.
DID NOT PARTICIPATE
WR Mohamed Sanu, Ankle
LB Ja'Whaun Bentley, Knee
S Patrick Chung, Heel/Chest
WR Phillip Dorsett, Concussion
S Nate Ebner, Ankle/Back
WR Julian Edelman, Shoulder
RB Damien Harris, Hamstring
DE John Simon, Elbow
Locker Room Sound Bites
Devin McCourty on the importance of not allowing big plays on defense:
"You can't give it all in one play. Nothing's better for an offense, whether it's a 70-yard touchdown or a 30- or 40-yard play on a drive... I don't know the statistics but that usually leads to points. Just getting some type of big play like that. We talk about defensively just try to make teams have long drives and if they have a long drive good job by them. If they get in the red area try to make them kick three. It's forcing teams to do that every time you take the field to always be able to execute a 10, 12-play drive, it's not the easiest thing to do. I think that's something we focus on, no matter how aggressive we are, there's going to be a guy on our defense that's supposed to take care of the deep part of the field and whoever's role that is you have to do that."