Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer 18d

Rising total of hits on Tom Brady a growing concern for Patriots

TAMPA, Fla. -- There were a couple of hold-your-breath moments early in the New England Patriots' 19-14 victory Thursday over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, when quarterback Tom Brady absorbed a hit and seemed to be a bit slower than the norm getting to his feet.

What happened?

“Just football,” he said with a smile. “I’ll be there next Sunday.”

Few doubt that, of course, but if Brady is to be there every Sunday, limiting how many hits he’s taking would be a good start. The Buccaneers hit the 40-year-old six times Thursday night, which included three sacks.

Through five games, Brady has now taken 32 hits and been sacked 16 times.

The sack total surpasses last season's, when he was brought down 15 times in 12 regular-season games.

Why such a noticeable spike?

Here are a few of the reasons:

Adjusting without Julian Edelman. Losing his go-to receiver to a torn right ACL on Aug. 25 took away a player Brady often looks to when pressure closes in. Not having that security blanket has been a factor in opposing rushers getting to Brady before he can get rid of the ball, as the Patriots have had to adjust their attack. Specific to Thursday night’s game in Tampa, one could say the same thing about playing without tight end Rob Gronkowski (thigh injury). Likewise in Week 2 with Danny Amendola, who missed that game against the Saints with a concussion.

More of a vertical offense. Acquiring a speedy wide receiver in Brandin Cooks has opened up more options in the vertical passing game this season. Because of that, Brady has held on to the ball longer at times to allow those routes to develop, which can also allow pressure to get home. Also, the Patriots have faced some solid personnel, which deserves some credit, too.

Offensive-line breakdowns. The protection in front of Brady hasn’t been as solid as it was for extended stretches in 2016. Left tackle Nate Solder had some early-season struggles, which were related to him not playing in the preseason as he worked himself into regular-season form. Right tackle Marcus Cannon, who had arguably his best season in 2016, hasn’t consistently matched that level in 2017 and missed a game with a concussion. But the hits on Brady don’t always fall on the O-line; sometimes the receivers aren’t getting open fast enough.

Short-yardage inconsistency. The running game hasn’t been able to consistently gain traction in third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 situations, and in general, hasn’t truly balanced out the offense. The Patriots have attempted 195 passes and have 128 rushing attempts. As more of a one-dimensional attack, it has allowed opponents to have a better read on when to dial up pressure.

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