By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The simplified slogan of what the Patriots have done thus far in 2016 has come in the form of a handy six-word slogan: “No Brady, no Gronk, no problem.”
It’s true, technically, but only because so many others have been willing to step up in obvious ways through the first three weeks of the season.
While yes, it helps to have Bill Belichick masterminding the operation, the games still come down to what happens between the white lines. And though it may not exactly be quantifiable, one can’t help but notice a sense of urgency up and down the roster from players who don’t appear to be treating these games like early-season September contests.
It started early, too. The first offensive drive of the season, to be exact, when Julian Edelman decided he was going to lay his body on the line to jump-start the offense as if it was the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, in order to be the reliable stat that the inexperienced Jimmy Garoppolo needed. It wasn’t; it was Sept. 11. But based on the way Edelman was flying around the field, absorbing some bone-crunching hits and also delivering some punishment on opponents (and sideline workers) as well.
He caught three passes for 38 yards on that drive, eventually leading the Patriots with seven of Garoppolo’s 24 completions on the night. In Week 2, he once again led the Patriots with seven receptions. And Thursday night, when he was also willing and able to serve as the team’s backup quarterback, on a night when rookie Jacoby Brissett was thrust into the spotlight of a nationally televised game against a 2-0 Texans team … Edelman led the Patriots with four receptions.
Playing with two inexperienced quarterbacks, knowing Rob Gronkowski is not on the field (he was on the field for just 14 snaps Thursday night), Edelman knew he had to step up. And he did.
But, of course, it takes much more than one man, and as it relates to offense, a reliable running back is a young quarterback’s best friend. That’s where LeGarrette Blount has come in. In Week 1, he literally carried half of the Cardinals defense on his back for five yards, stretching a 10-7 lead into a 17-7 advantage.
In Week 2, when Garoppolo left in the second quarter and Jacoby Brissett was thrust onto the field at QB, Blount became the workhorse, running for 123 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries. And on a short week when the rookie QB had very little time to prepare, Blount once again shouldered the load, rushing for 105 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries.
That’s a credit to Blount but also to the offensive line. Nate Solder has calmed offseason concerns that he’d be slow in his return from injury last year. On Thursday night, he was a force. Rookie Joe Thuney has been a solid force at guard, while center David Andrews and guard Shaq Mason have progressed nicely in year two. Marcus Cannon’s play has not been perfect but he’s begun this year better than he ended last year’s. And though not technically an offensive lineman, the return of James Develin to the field has brought with it a noticeable impact in the effectiveness of the running game. Many times over the past two weeks, the defense has known quite confidently that the Patriots would be running the ball. That hasn’t helped the defense stop them.
And then there is the Patriots’ defense. Though the second half against Miami was an undeniable debacle, the stench lasted exactly four days. The defense clearly provided its own motivation by falling asleep on Sunday, and the newfound focus showed up on Thursday night. Every member of that Patriots defense can feel good about that 60-minute performance, as the unit provided the first Patriots shutout since Week 17 of 2012.
While it’s a team effort, it was Jamie Collins who came up with an interception for the second straight week. He also led the team with eight solo tackles and 14 total tackles.
“You watch the film, he’s everywhere … except for with the media. That’s Jamie,” Logan Ryan said of Collins, per NESN’s Doug Kyed. “You’ve gotta love the guy.”
And on Thursday night, even the special teams players had as great of a performance as a special teams unit can have. Brandon Bolden and Nate Ebner each forced a fumble on kick returns, with Duron Harmon and Jordan Richards coming up with the recoveries. Punter Ryan Allen played a pivotal role in the Texans’ starting their drives at an average spot of their own 16-yard line. Stephen Gostkowski helped in that regard, too, with his kickoffs getting returned an average of 17 yards on the night. He also went 2-for-2 on field goals and 3-for-3 on PATs.
Take it all as one big picture, and it’s easy to see a complete effort from the whole roster. For the team itself, saying “No Brady, No Problem” wouldn’t quite help much come game time. But their preparation, focus and execution has made it look easy, for the most part.
And Belichick himself, in the midst of receiving praise from all ends of the earth for steering the 3-0 ship without Brady, must be impressed with what he’s seen out of his players. On Friday morning, he delivered a lengthy speech to the media about what it takes from each player for a team to consistently succeed.
“Well, look,” he started, “when you sign up to play football it’s a team sport, and all of us have to give up a little of our individuality or give up a little bit of what we personally like for the good of the team. And that goes for every player and every coach that’s a part of this. If an athlete wants to do his individual thing, then play an individual sport — be a swimmer or play tennis or go do whatever you want as an individual sport. It’s no problem. Team sports are team sports. All of us end up doing things at some point that maybe you’d rather not do, you’d rather have somebody else do, you’d rather do something that you’re good at but you have to do something that the team requires you to do.
“That’s what football is,” he continued. “You put the team first. You do your job. You put the team first. You do what the team needs you to do to win and that’s what our team does. That’s what our players do and I have a lot of respect for them. That’s why they’re on the team — because they have that attitude. I don’t think there’s anybody in this organization, player or coach, that everything’s exactly the way they want it to be. Some things are, and some things maybe you don’t want to do but you have to do them because they need to be done and it’s your job. [If] you want to be part of a team, then that’s part of the responsibility you accept, and I would say not only accept but embrace and understand that’s what it is and you do it.
“A lot of people who don’t understand team sports maybe can’t relate to that. I don’t know. When you sign up for football that’s what you sign up for.”
He stated all of this to the media, but in that locker room, based on the way the team has played these past three weeks, it’s a message that clearly goes without saying.