Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Pats must remain healthy
As the Patriots precisely picked apart the Buccaneers' defense on their opening series, piecing together 15 plays that covered 80 yards, converted four third-down opportunities that ended with an excited Tom Brady head-butting his receiver in the end zone, it became increasingly apparent:
If Danny Amendola and Shane Vereen can stay healthy, the New England offense should be plenty potent.
There's no guarantee of either, of course. Amendola has a history of injury problems, and Vereen hasn't been able to stay fully available over his first two years, even in a limited role.
But after weeks and months of worrying who Tom Brady would throw to, and wondering about whether the Patriots had set themselves up to squander a year with their all-time quarterback by not doing more to make up for the loss of his top five targets from 2012, now that they've had a couple of opportunities to show their capabilities under game conditions, and done so with encouraging efficiency and production, it's reasonable for Pats fans to think everything will indeed be okay. As long as Amendola and Vereen remain so.
It won't be easy to replace Wes Welker and Danny Woodhead, a pair of undersized but seemingly invaluable weapons for Brady. But, then again, it wasn't easy to replace Troy Brown and Kevin Faulk before them - so there's at least a chance New England can find fill-ins who are at least representative.
And Friday night offered reasons to think they can at least be that, if not more.
Amendola is a bit bigger than Welker, and probably a bit faster, and he appears to have already struck a chemistry with Brady. The pair certainly seemed to be on the same page against Tampa Bay, when the two connected on six of the seven passes targeted for the receiver, gaining 71 yards before the end of the first quarter.
They worked well together on all parts of the field, hooking up outside the numbers, over the middle and up the seam, which is where Amendola executed a double post between two defenders to haul in a 26-yard touchdown strike on the game's opening series.
"I thought we got some good work in," the receiver said. "We wanted to start fast, that was our goal. I felt like we made some plays early and it was good that we got on the board early, too. Work in progress."
Vereen did a good job of leaking out of the backfield to find open space in the flats, and gained 46 yards on his four catches. Included therein were a 16-yard grab on third and 4, and later an 18-yard catch-and-run from Ryan Mallett on second and 10. Both of those contributed to the Patriots' two offensive scoring drives.
As expected, Friday night didn't provide any more certainty about how New England's rookie receivers will perform once the bullets start flying for real - Josh Boyce had three catches for nine yards, Aaron Dobson had two grabs for 30 yards and Kenbrell Thompkins had one catch for three yards - but the reason Amendola and Vereen are so important is because of what their presence and production would afford the Patriots as far as patience in bringing those players along.
Through the years, Brady has had success when working with a good underneath receiver, a dangerous security blanket out of the backfield and a good (or better) tight end. They've put up points without necessarily having consistency among their outside receivers, so if Stevan Ridley and LaGarrette Blount can establish the run game as a threat, and some combination of Jake Ballard and Zach Sudfeld can fill the tight end spot adequately until Rob Gronkowski returns, history suggests Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will find a way to score.
As long as Amendola and Vereen can stay healthy.
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Sudfeld accounted for eight of the Patriots points, making difficult catches in traffic on both his two-point conversion toss from Brady and his 22-yard touchdown pass from Mallett. The tight end is a big target who appears to have the hands necessary to be a contributor, and it appears a pretty safe bet that he'll make the team despite being an undrafted rookie. Belichick praised the work he's done to learn the playbook - and afterward Sudfeld proved he's already learned how to talk like a Patriot, too.
On the touchdown, which saw him stick with a deflected ball that bounced up in the air and cradle it between defenders, he said, "It was just a great experience to be out there and to be able to compete as part of this organization. The whole experience was great and the touchdown was obviously very cool."
And of the two-pointer from Brady, which required him to snatch the ball away from tight defense while keeping himself in bounds near the end line, he said, "It was good coverage for that play and a great throw. It was probably a better throw than anything else."
Defer personal credit. Praise teamwork. Say nothing else. It's formulaic, and Sudfeld fits there as well as he does in this offense.
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A popular phrase among coaches at all levels of sport is the adage, "You practice how you play" - and after working out with Brady and the Patriots for a few days leading up to Friday's exhibition, Bucs defensive end Da'Quan Bowers can attest to that being the case.
"When you watch the way that guy practices, him being 11-for-11 doesn't surprise me," Bowers said. "He's a competitor; he likes to get things done the right way. He's the leader of that offense and once he gets going, the rest of those guys get going and they are hard to stop."
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Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan remains a work in progress, but it was a good sign from the rookie that he recognized something - either from practice in the preceding days or from his days playing under Tampa coach Greg Schiano at Rutgers - and jumped a route on a Mike Glennon pass attempt, picking it off and taking it 53 yards to the end zone.
The Pats' top draft pick, Jamie Collins, also had a good night for himself, making a team-high six tackles, including one for a loss.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.