Sunday, April 20, 2014
By HOWARD ULMAN/The Associated Press
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - The New England Patriots have played all season without their top two tight ends and wide receivers from last season's high-scoring team.
WHO: Saints (5-0) at Patriots (4-1)
WHEN: 4:25 p.m. Sunday
And, in a way, without the quarterback who threw them the ball.
Yes, that's still Tom Brady taking the snaps. But his play hardly resembles the way he performed last year when he led the best offense in the NFL.
"We've got to start making the plays that NFL players make," Brady said Monday on WEEI radio. "If we don't, we're going to continue to struggle and not score points and put too much pressure on our defense."
The NFL's two-time MVP had his worst game in several seasons in Sunday's 13-6 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. For the season, his rating and completion percentage are lower than they were at the end of any season since he became a starter in 2001. And he's on pace for his fewest touchdown passes and most sacks since 2002.
Bad numbers, to be sure, but the Patriots still lead the AFC East with a 4-1 record going into Sunday's game against the unbeaten New Orleans Saints.
And it's not as if Brady is surrounded by an all-star cast.
Tight ends Rob Gronkowski, recovering from forearm and back surgery, and Aaron Hernandez, who was cut and is in jail and has been charged with first-degree murder, combined for 106 catches last year. Without them, Patriots tight ends have five catches.
Wide receivers Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd are gone after totaling 192 catches last season.
Their top two running backs are banged up, with Shane Vereen out for at least four more games because of a broken wrist and Stevan Ridley missing the Bengals game because of a knee injury.
So the Patriots have tried to get by with a bunch of newcomers -- rookie receivers Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce, and veterans Matt Mulligan at tight end and LeGarrette Blount at running back.
But Coach Bill Belichick dismissed the idea that it would be unrealistic to expect consistency early in the season from first-year Patriots.
"Everybody that's out there has been out there, played a lot of football for us this year," he said. "We just didn't overall offensively perform to the level that we did last week or that we're capable of doing. I think everybody is accountable for that, the coaching staff, the players."
The Patriots led the NFL last season with 34.8 points and 427.9 yards per game. This season they were 23rd with 19.0 points and 19th with 358.6 yards after Sunday's games.
Cincinnati's pass rush sacked Brady four times. The Bengals also sacked Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers four times.
But Brady's other numbers were worse than the other four quarterbacks Cincinnati has faced -- Jay Cutler of Chicago, Ben Roethslisberger of Pittsburgh, Rodgers, and Brian Hoyer of Cleveland.
"They have a good rush," Brady said. "They rush you into quick throws and things you don't want to make. That's why they are a good defense, because they rush, cover and have good athletic linebackers."
The Patriots wasted an excellent chance to cut the lead to 13-10 midway through the fourth quarter.
On first-and-10 at the Bengals 17, Danny Amendola caught a pass thrown behind him, then fell near the goal line as he tried to run. He nearly rolled into the end zone, but safety Chris Crocker touched him at the 1.
"I knew I was close," said Amendola, who missed the previous three games because of a groin injury.
On first down, Blount ran for no gain. On second down, right tackle Nate Solder lined up at tight end, a position he played in 2007 at Colorado, but Brady overthrew him in the end zone.
"It's been a long time since I've been a tight end," Solder said with a laugh. "I think I'm more of a tackle now."
On third down, Brady's pass to Julian Edelman in the end zone was incomplete. So the Patriots settled for a field goal.
"We're not putting up 50 points per game," Brady said. "When we do get that chance to put seven on the board we have to be able to do it."