The New England Patriots offense had its best performance of the first nine weeks in their pre-bye, 55-31, victory over the Steelers Nov. 3 Gillette Stadium.
That effort included 610 yards of offense. They had three 100-yard receivers — tight Rob Gronkowski and wide receivers Danny Amendola and Aaron Dobson; and a 100-yard rusher, Stevan Ridley.
It was a breakout performance by a unit that struggled, clawed and simply got by through much of the first two months.
Now, with a week of rest under its belt, the New England offense has a chance to prove whether that performance against Pittsburgh was a one-week aberration or what the unit can be given improved health and added weapons.
Proving the latter will require success against one of the best defenses the NFL has to offer in 2013. Monday night’s matchup in Carolina comes against a Panthers (6-3) defense that ranks No. 2 in the league in total defense, No. 3 against the run and No. 4 against the pass.
It is a unit that just held the 49ers to 9 points in San Francisco, allowing just 151 yards of total net offense.
So while the Patriots could be getting running back Shane Vereen back off injured reserve and will have another game with a healthy corps of playmakers that includes Gronkowski and Amendola playing just their third game together this season, there is still plenty or prove in a tough post-bye matchup.
“Well this is obviously a very highly ranked defense in basically every statistical category, and they should be,” New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “This is a good, well rounded group of players with, I would say, a lot of guys capable of making big plays.
“They get an incredible amount of pressure on the quarterback without having to blitz, which is, I would say, a luxury that some teams have and some teams don’t. They don’t give up a lot of big plays, (they are) really good in situational football. It’s all the things that you would want in a defense, and they have them and they are obviously playing as well as any group that we’ve played all year. This will be a great challenge for us on Monday night.”
Sure the Patriots put forth an impressive effort prior to the bye, but a veteran coach like New England offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia knows it’s a little early to suddenly say the offense has found its rhythm.
“If you went on the last game you could say, ‘Yeah,’ that would probably be a pretty good thing,” Scarnecchia said of the 55-point outburst. “We just feel like our goal around here has always been from day one to be better today than we were at the beginning. That’s pretty much it. Whatever it was last week, hopefully it will be the same next week and then if it is next week, then maybe we say, ‘Oh, OK, maybe we do have some rhythm going.’”
For that to happen the Patriots know they’ll need maybe their best effort of the year against, statistically, the best defense the team has played all year.
“Real solid team all the way around, playing very well right now,” Bill Belichick said of a team he gets two weeks to prepare for. “It will be a big challenge for us going down there on Monday night. I’m sure there will be a lot of energy in the stadium and we’ll have to match that. With the roll that they’re on, they’ll be — it’s a good football team — I’m sure they’ll be ready to go Monday night.”
It’s a game that will be a measuring stick for Carolina quarterback Cam Newton and the Panthers defense to see if they’re ready to be considered among the elite in the game.
And for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and his healthy-again offense, this is a chance to prove they are back as the backbone of the New England team.
Belichick content with health
Given the recent health scares for Houston’s Gary Kubiak and Denver’s John Fox, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was asked heading into the bye week if those events had caused him to take a step back and re-evaluate how he was taking care of himself physical.
“No, I don’t feel that way,” Belichick said before going on to say he’s content with his health midway through his 39th season as an NFL coach. “I’m comfortable with the schedule that I’m on and what I’m doing. I feel about what I feel normally at this time of the season which is good but it’s not like you feel on July 28 when you start the year or whenever it is. I feel good. I’m planning on making it through the rest of the year. I don’t really see, I don’t really plan on doing anything differently.”
RB Vereen to return
RB Shane Vereen was a huge part of New England’s opening day win in Buffalo. The Patriots passing back rushed for 101 yards on 14 carries while also catching seven passes for 58 yards. He also broke a bone in his wrist that required him to have surgery, landing him on injured reserve with the designation to return. He’s been practicing with the team and is expected to return to the lineup Monday night in Carolina.
“Shane is a good football player,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said, looking forward to getting another healthy weapon back on his attack. “As soon as he is ready and able to help us and we are able to play him, certainly he will have a role in the game. He definitely did make a big impact in game one. I don’t know if we can expect him to do that right off the bat in his first game back, whenever that is. We’ll look forward to having him back. He is a really good kid, a great teammate and a good football player that can help us. So, we’re looking forward to that.”