Entering Week 7, there was ample talk about how the Patriots had used their tight ends far less frequently this season than they had last season.
That all changed with the return of Rob Gronkowski, who was targeted 17 times and hauled in eight catches for 114 yards, more yards than all other Patriots tight ends had combined for in the first six games.
The Patriots will again be without their best pass-catching running back this Sunday, as Shane Vereen isn't eligible to return to game action until Week 11. But, like the tight end position, the Patriots have been less reliant on their backs to catch the football in 2013 than they were in previous seasons.
Nonetheless, they have capable pass-catchers -- Brandon Bolden is probably the best of the healthy bunch -- and Sunday could present a window to take advantage of an aggressive, fast-read Dolphins defense.
The Bills, Miami's Week 7 opponent, converted a critical third-and-15 on a screen pass to tailback Fred Jackson, catching a blitzing Dolphins D off guard. The play involved a confluence of factors -- a well-time played call, an unfortunate defensive play call and good running after the catch from Jackson -- but it served as a reminder that the Patriots have long been one of the best screen-game passing offenses in football.
This season, there has been much less of that, due in part to the injury to Vereen. But Sunday, with Tom Brady in the midst of a mini-funk and going against the type of defense that could be vulnerable on such plays, perhaps the Patriots will turn back to what was once a staple and try to more readily involve their backs as pass-catchers via the screen.
Though Stevan Ridley hasn't handled a huge load as a receiver during his career, he's capable of turning a screen pass into big yardage, and we know the Patriots offensive line plays with the athleticism and tempo to get into the open field and execute blocks on second- and third-level defenders.