Patriots' offense in search of answers at a time it usually has them

PITTSBURGH -- What is the identity of the New England Patriots' offense? And what can the Tom Brady-led attack hang its hat on in crucial situations?

These are two questions lingering after the team's disappointing 17-10 loss Sunday to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The questions, naturally, lead to others.

Is it a case of a lack of talent? Would better utilization of personnel help?

That the Patriots' offense was the unit that didn't hold up its end of the bargain Sunday was most surprising, particularly considering that the game started with the defense on its heels. But the D rebounded, while the offense was stuck in neutral for long stretches of the day.

"I think it's just finding our rhythm out there and doing a better job overall. We just haven't done a great job of that," Brady said. "All of us feel it. It's not any one thing, and it's a lot of things collectively."

So where to start?

Brady has often said that the unit's success begins along the offensive line, and Sunday's loss wasn’t that group's best body of work, starting with six penalties. Left tackle Trent Brown (false start, holding) and right tackle Marcus Cannon (false start, holding) had two apiece, while left guard Joe Thuney (false start) and right guard Shaq Mason (holding) had one.

Also consider this: Brady's fourth-quarter, red zone interception came as he was facing pressure and trying to throw the ball away. It was his fifth interception this season when under duress, according to ESPN Stats & Information data, which is a major increase from the norm. He had five such interceptions from 2015 through 2017 combined.

While that doesn't all fall on the offensive line -- pass-catchers have to get open with consistency, Brady needs to find them -- Sunday's performance was too shaky for a group that is relied upon to be the foundation of what the offense is trying to do. If the line plays better, which it is capable of, that would be a good first step.

And then there's the issue of the Patriots' most reliable players not making enough reliable plays.

Receivers Julian Edelman (two) and Josh Gordon (one) had drops Sunday, and Edelman also had two penalties -- one for a false start and one for an illegal formation. Overall, the Patriots (9-5) were called for 14 accepted penalties for 106 yards.

"It was pretty frustrating," Edelman said. "You come into a hostile environment and can't expect to win when you have penalties. We'll leave it at that."

Meanwhile, once-dominant tight end Rob Gronkowski was quiet (two catches, 21 yards), saying that the Steelers double-teamed him at times and played effective zone coverage.

It was telling that Brady looked in Gronkowski's direction on two of his final three throws -- on second-and-15 and third-and-15 -- and neither play really had a chance. A fourth-and-15 pass to Edelman was similar, with Brady later crediting the Steelers for playing it well and explaining that all three throws went into the end zone because he was worried about running out of time by throwing it into the field of play with no timeouts.

So on the three got-to-have-it plays at the end of the game, Brady looked in the direction of his two most trusted targets over the past eight years, but the old magic was nowhere to be found.

Perhaps the Patriots, with home games remaining against the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets, can reinvent themselves on the fly and catch lightning in a bottle in the playoffs; maybe that means featuring Sony Michel, James White and Cordarrelle Patterson a bit more.

"It's taken a while for things to come together for us and I think every week you learn, and you learn right up through the end of the year," Brady said Monday morning in his weekly interview on sports radio WEEI. "We've dealt with a lot of different situations, injuries, players coming in and out. The one positive is guys are healthy, and any time you come out of a game healthy, it gives you a pretty good chance the next week. We have a lot of football ahead of us. We just have to go play really well."

While the odds they suddenly become the high-flying attack Patriots fans are accustomed to seeing seem long, it's not out of the realm of possibility in a league that features dramatic turns by teams on a weekly basis.

But they usually have it figured out decisively by now.