FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In one of the unforgettable scenes of the 2009 documentary “A Football Life: Bill Belichick,” the New England Patriots head coach lamented to his staff how his team’s offense was relatively easy to defend.
As Belichick leaned back in his chair during a meeting with his coaches, his hands over his head, he said, “If you just take [Randy] Moss away in the deep part of the field and get down on [Wes] Welker, we’re done. We can’t run the ball. We can’t throw it to anybody else. It’s a problem across the board.”
Now fast-forward to 2018, in the wake of Sunday’s 31-20 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Belichick’s words from '09 came to mind after the Patriots had their primary option -- tight end Rob Gronkowski -- limited to just two catches for 15 yards as the offense never truly got on track.
Without Gronkowski doing superhuman things like we saw in the season opener, when he was making remarkable grabs against double coverage, what do the Patriots have?
They are still figuring that out, of course, as are most teams just two weeks into the season. And it sets up a notable chess match Sunday night against the Detroit Lions, as the Patriots’ former defensive coordinator -- Matt Patricia -- will surely be drawing up plans with a focus on slowing down Gronkowski.
“They had a lot of coverage on him at different points,” quarterback Tom Brady said of the Jaguars’ approach on Gronkowski. “And we just never connected the way we need to.”
On Monday morning, in his weekly interview on sports radio WEEI, Brady added: "I thought they did one or two things a little differently [to take away Gronkowski]. He was double-covered, I'd say most of the day, on third down -- which just gives other people opportunities. We could never really get into a rhythm at that position."
Brady lamented one missed connection with Gronkowski on Sunday, on the opening drive of the game, when linebacker Telvin Smith tugged Gronkowski's jersey on a first-down pass attempt but wasn't penalized.
"I thought they kind of got away with a call on the first drive, which would have been a big play to Rob, but we were really out of rhythm all day," Brady said on WEEI.
Indeed, most everything looked disjointed. The Patriots couldn’t get the running game going (24 carries, 82 yards, 3.4 average) and by the time running back James White and receivers Phillip Dorsett and Chris Hogan got more involved in the attack, the margin for error was so thin because of the sizable deficit facing them (21-3 at halftime).
That doesn’t mean all hope is lost going forward, as second-year tight end Jacob Hollister shows promise and the veteran White remains as clutch as ever. Rookie running back Sony Michel is still getting his legs under him after missing the preseason and opener and should become a bigger factor. And, of course, Julian Edelman will be returning from a four-game NFL suspension.
But in the short term, what unfolded Sunday sparked a 2009-type question: If the Patriots can’t get Gronkowski going, can the offense rise up?
Gronkowski, who was often covered by safety Tashaun Gipson, was critical of his performance as he looks ahead to a Week 3 matchup in Detroit.
“It’s difficult against a team like that and you have to be prepared. You have to be ready to find the openings and that’s one thing I didn’t do,” he said. “I just have to come out and play better.”