For most of the year he's been missing Gronk, his left tackle, and now his center. They have no speed on the outside. And his arm may be in decline as well.
Mike Lombardi's take
Yes, quarterback Tom Brady does not look like himself. Yes, he is throwing the lowest yards per attempt (6.6) since the 2002 season, and yes, the offense is struggling to do anything effectively. When a team cannot make plays down the field in the passing game, it becomes harder and harder to score, especially later in the season. Yes, it’s easy to say that they lack explosive players, but the issues run much deeper than that. The lack of big plays and points (88 overall for a 17.6 average) over the last five weeks is not a result of Brady’s age. Their struggles on offense are a result of losing extremely talented players, injuries to critical players, not having adequate replacements, and being too young at certain positions. Plus, their opponents have a better understanding of how to attack the Patriots.
Obviously, the most significant loss, as well as the hardest to replace, is former tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gronk’s presence on the field helped in two areas that are currently slowing down the offense: The first is how they handle blitz pressure and the second is the strong side run game. Gronk was not the same in 2018 as he was during the 2014-16 seasons. He was still a force in the run game, sealing the end of the line and handling defensive linemen, but his speed, quickness, and explosiveness down the field in the passing game were not the same. Yet, even as his overall skills were declining, he was still a matchup nightmare. Whenever a team thought about sending pressure, they still had to rationalize dealing with someone who could cover Gronk one-on-one, and so many coordinators thought twice before sending pressure as a result. Gronk isolated away from the offensive formation, apart from the three-receiver set, alone with a smaller defensive back, or a slow linebacker, and Brady could throw the ball before the blitz. Now, with only Julian Edelman on the field as a significant threat, Brady does not have a security blanket to help offset pressure. And in the NFL, once you cannot handle pressure effectively, more pressure comes.
Brady’s inability to handle pressure is similar to what occurs in the NBA when a low post player gets doubled as soon as the ball enters the post. The post player recognizes the double, then fires the ball to the open player standing near the three-point line. When that player is a reliable, consistent shooter, the doubles become less and less common. They still occur, just with less frequency. When that player is not a great shooter, or able to knock down the three, then teams double harder, more quickly and more often. Brady sees more blitzes than ever before because the offense lacks the players to make teams suffer when blitzing. Once a team proves they cannot handle something, they should expect more of that something to come their way.
The run game, which last year was the strength of the Patriots, has become a weakness. Without Gronk, there is no tight end on the roster who can control the end of the line, or who can get movement off the ball against bigger defensive ends. The edge never gets sealed, which means the back never has a clear path to the strong side. Losing fullback James Develin also hinders the run game, in part because the Pats’ best runner, Sony Michel, is a “point of entry” back. That means he needs a lead blocker to clear out the hole and get him into the point of entry without having to shuffle or stutter.
And while losing Gronk hurts, losing David Andrews, their starting center, is a killer. Andrews was the rock of the line; he made everyone around him better. His replacement, Ted Karras, was injured during the loss to the Texans, and journeyman James Ferentz started against the Chiefs. Ferentz is too small to handle big tackles. On Sunday, the Chiefs put their best lineman, Chris Jones over him, and all hell broke loose on Brady. No wonder Jones was so confident during the game when he was trash-talking Brady.