Patriots' pieces finally together

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It took until Week 11 of the NFL season, but this finally might be the time that the New England Patriots offense Bill Belichick and his staff envisioned takes the field for the first time together.

Tight end Rob Gronkowski? Check.

Receiver Danny Amendola? Check.

Running back Shane Vereen? Nothing official at this point, but things are looking promising.

It is somewhat hard to believe, but Monday night's road game against the Carolina Panthers would mark the first time the Patriots have arguably their three most explosive non-quarterback skill-position players available at the same time.

The timing couldn't be much better because after more offensive struggles than many expected in the first eight games of the season, the defense that pretty much carried the team is now more depleted than desired.

Starting defensive tackles Vince Wilfork (Achilles) and Tommy Kelly (knee)? Out for the year.

Starting linebacker Jerod Mayo (pectoral muscle)? Ditto.

The Patriots also will be without two starters in the secondary on Monday night -- safety Steve Gregory (broken finger) and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (knee).

So after eight games in which the defense bought time for the offense to work through issues that turned out to be more significant than many anticipated, now is the time for the offense to return the favor to a unit that is expected to at least get one key player back Monday night in cornerback Aqib Talib.

It's no wonder Panthers coach Ron Rivera hasn't been sure exactly what to make of the Patriots.

"The hard thing about watching this team is that there are a lot of guys that have been hurt or are coming back from being hurt," Rivera said, "so it's hard to really get a good gauge as to who they are or what they are going to be as we get ready for this football game."


And really, it has been that way all season. Even going back to the offseason and the unexpected turn of events with tight end Aaron Hernandez being charged with murder, it has been unclear what the offense could become.

The picture is now starting to come into focus as more of the key pieces fall into place, the Tom Brady-led attack showing signs of explosiveness in the team's most recent game, a 55-31 pummeling of the Pittsburgh Steelers on Nov. 3.

What stood out more than anything from that game was that six of the team's seven touchdowns came out of different personnel groupings. It was as diverse as we have seen the offense -- a result of Gronkowski continuing to increase his workload since returning Oct. 20 -- thus allowing offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels some freedom to be less tied to the three-receiver sets that the Patriots mostly employed through eight games, which thrust rookies into larger-than-desired roles.

Gronkowski is still averaging just 44 snaps per game, which Brady -- himself battling through some discomfort with his right throwing hand since taking a third-quarter hit Oct. 20 against the Jets -- was quick to point out.

"He's a big presence on our team, and when he's out there for every snap it's going to be even better," Brady said.

The same could be said for Vereen, who is eligible to come off the injured reserve/designated to return list Monday. The versatile third-year pro was sensational in a 23-21 season-opening win over the Bills and is also the team's best pass-protecting back.

"He's a very dependable, consistent player. The more of those guys you have on your team, the better you are," Brady said. "He's really been that and played a really important role for us the last few years."

Finally, in something that slipped under the radar a bit this week, Amendola had full participation in practice for the first time since suffering a groin injury in the season opener. If things continue on the present course, he might be coming off the injury report next week -- just in time, as the player he is attempting to replace, Denver's Wes Welker, returns to town.

Gronkowski … Vereen … Amendola -- they were projected to be the constants this year, and the times that Brady has shown signs of frustration, this is the main reason why. The Patriots have yet to have their best skill-position players on the field at the same time, at full health.

That could change Monday night, and a stingy Panthers defense awaits.