“Not fun at all.”
That was Browns coach Hue Jackson’s assessment this week when asked about being the first team Tom Brady gets to face this season, per Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com.
Brady makes his 2016 debut Sunday, rejoining a Patriots team that put together an impressive 3–1 record in his absence but is coming off a loss to Buffalo. The 39-year-old two-time MVP played in two preseason games this summer, completing 19 of 35 passes for 242 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
Then he was barred from being around his teammates from Sept. 3 to Oct. 3 as the NFL’s hard-fought suspension from Deflategate kicked in, finally rejoining practice this Monday. So, there could be a little rust when he faces the Browns. But maybe not all that much. Last season, for example, Brady played sparingly in August, sat out the Patriots’ final preseason game and then threw for a combined 1,387 yards and 11 touchdowns over the first four weeks of the regular season. These circumstances are different, of course, but he should not require much time to find a comfort zone again.
New England’s offense does look a little different now than it did when Brady last played a meaningful game, although some of those shifts were born of necessity with Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett under center. What will happen now with Brady back in the lineup? Here’s how he could impact the rest of the offense, position by position:
Blount produced a 1,000-yard campaign as a rookie and averaged 5.0 yards per carry for the Patriots three seasons ago, so it may not be fair to say he is running better than he ever has right now. But he might be.
The 29-year-old Blount currently sits on a 1,400-yard pace, and that’s with Patriots opponents trying to load up against the run game. He should benefit almost as much as anybody on the offense from Brady’s return, as there are bound to be bigger gaps up front.
Blount is averaging 22 carries a game and should remain a workhorse option until at least Week 7, when Dion Lewis is eligible to come off the PUP list. Prior to this season he had 20-plus rushing attempts just twice as a Patriot, once in 2013 and again in ’15, both times with Brady in the lineup. His totals across those two games: 318 yards and three touchdowns. (He also had 20 carries in Week 17 of the ’14 season, but Garoppolo relieved Brady midway through that game.)
Based on that brief history, Blount—who already has topped the century mark twice this season—is in line for big numbers with Brady, who can spread the field better than New England’s other options.
The Patriots had the league’s 30th-ranked rushing attack last season. They currently sit third, with Brissett’s 83 yards part of the mix. But a big factor there, as well as in the passing game is ...
The tight end combo
While the run game mostly thrived in Brady’s absence and the passing game did well with Garoppolo in the lineup, the Patriots have yet to unleash the full potential of their Martellus Bennett–Rob Gronkowski duo.
Bennett’s outstanding blocking has provided a substantial boost for Blount, and the former Bear also leads the team in receiving with 247 yards. But Gronkowski has been a non-factor to date, at least through the air. He sat out the Patriots’ first two wins, then caught just one pass (on three targets) in Brissett’s two starts. While Bennett was used to challenge defenses over the middle of the field, Gronkowski played a complementary role: blocking and short routes.
A nagging hamstring injury is at the root of Gronkowski’s woes, but he clearly will be more of a focus for Brady than he was for an overwhelmed-at-times Brissett. It still remains to be seen how teams even attempt to defend Gronkowski and Bennett together without totally vacating the likes of Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and the Blount-led run game. Remember back in 2011, when Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez combined for 169 catches, 2,200 yards and 24 touchdowns? The Gronk-Bennett combo may not reach those heights, but they could be just as hard to cover if Gronkowski gets healthy.
The offensive line
Bennett is a nice new toy for Brady. The offensive line’s improvement over 2015 won’t be unwelcome, either. The Patriots have had to deal with injuries up front yet again, but the puzzle is much closer to being complete than it was a year ago. Give a hearty thanks to rookie guard Joe Thuney, who grabbed a starting spot this summer and ran with it.
He and Shaq Mason form an emerging guard combo, center David Andrews has played every snap this season and left tackle Nate Solder is healthy again. The only real question mark headed into Week 5 is at right tackle, where Marcus Cannon (calf) may have to sit. Cameron Fleming is plenty capable as a backup.
Brady is one of the quickest draws in the league as it is, but a little protection sure helps. And the O-line improvement combined with the Bennett-Gronkowski blocking machine makes running the ball much more feasible. If Brady does struggle at all early Sunday, keep in mind that Cleveland is allowing 118.3 yards per game on the ground.
The game plan
Put everything back on the table. Brady may require a drive or two to get back in the swing of things, but he won’t find any surprises in the playbook. He and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels are now in the fifth year of their second stint together.
In fact, McDaniels didn’t even strip down the playbook all that much (at least as far as was obvious from game action) when Garoppolo was in the lineup. New England’s passing attack thrives on quick passes, creating space by getting defenders caught up in traffic. Edelman, Danny Amendola, James White and eventually Lewis all will play familiar roles with Brady back slinging the ball.
Rookie Malcolm Mitchell (18.8-yard average on four receptions) does provide a bit more of a deep threat; Hogan, brought over as a free agent this off-season, offers size at 6' 1" that’s not present elsewhere on the depth chart. Add in the ways New England will mix and match its tight ends, and there is more versatility in how Brady can attack than he had last season.
Save for Buffalo’s shutdown performance last week, this Patriots offense was pretty good without Brady. It should be explosive with him, potentially even more so than last year’s group that finished third in points and sixth in total offense.
The Patriots’ run game will give them an edge most weeks, and the yards-after-catch abilities of Edelman & Co. offer Brady a chance to settle in quickly. What little rust Brady has won’t take long to shake.