Patriots

NFL Notebook: Have Patriots solved their biggest offensive weakness from 2018?

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When you win the Super Bowl, as the Patriots did last season, any flaws you might have as a team are certainly minimal when it comes to the rest of the league. That's why you're the champions.

But it doesn't mean you are without weaknesses — or at last areas that could use some bolstering when it comes to a title defense.

For the Patriots, there is a very short list of things that could use some tweaking: some of Tom Brady's pocket actions under pressure, interior run defense, overall pressure on the quarterback and, with Rob Gronkowski's retirement, production from the tight end position.

If there was one glaring weakness on the 2018 Patriots, it was this: the passing game lacked explosive plays and playmakers, and it was perfectly illustrated in the Super Bowl against the Rams when the Patriots had all of three points midway through the fourth quarter. In the end, New England was able to find enough — three of the top four gainers through the air in the final 7:43 of the game — thanks to tweaks made by Josh McDaniels and great individual plays by Rob Gronkowski and Brady.

But, man, the Patriots really had to work hard get those big yards and play, and that was a constant theme throughout the season.

It was something that became apparent in the win over the Packers in November, when I wrote about the curious method of attack New England took — namely the number of "deceptive" plays and methods they used against what was a middling defense from Green Bay.

Some people didn't care for my opinion at the time, but after the season I was told by team sources that it was, in fact, spot-on. The Patriots just didn't feel they had enough playmakers for third down and in the red zone, and it was a problem all season.

The stats bear that out.

The Patriots finished 12th in the NFL with 54 passing plays of 20-plus yards. The previous season, the Patriots were second in the NFL with 63. Nine plays might not seem like a lot, but it is. It's not just the stats, either.

It's difficult to quantify, but many of the Patriots' big plays likely came from scheme — McDaniels doing his thing by setting up a defense with personnel and formation — and/or busts by the defense. There were very rarely plays that left you saying, "That guy just beat his man or made a play."

It's the reason the Patriots felt they had to gamble on a questionable character like Josh Gordon. And Brady wasn't just force-feeding Gordon to get him up to speed — his size and catch radius combination provided Brady one of the few "easy" places to go with the ball on third down, with Gronkowski obviously not his normal self, and Julian Edelman getting a lot of attention from defenses.

The bottom line was big plays in the passing game were lacking last season and the Patriots wanted to solve that in the offseason, according to team sources. And they were working at a deficit to start with. With Gronkowski's retirement, Gordon's suspension and Chris Hogan's departure in free agency, the Patriots swiftly lost 57 percent of their 20-plus passing plays as soon as the offseason started.

So how have the Patriots done in that area, and how else might they make up the deficit?