FOXBORO — It would be unfair of the Patriots to ask Mohamed Sanu to carry their offense, a unit he’s been a part of for barely seven weeks.
But the way the offense is trending, fair might not matter much longer.
Since Sanu arrived via trade in October, he’s quietly served double duty as the team’s No. 2 receiver and barometer for its passing attack. Tom Brady has completed more than 56 percent of his passes in one game with Sanu as his teammate, the Pats’ 37-20 loss at Baltimore when Sanu caught a season-high 10 passes and a touchdown. A high ankle sprain has since hindered Sanu, dragging his numbers down and the pass offense along with it.
Despite a one-game injury absence, only Julian Edelman has shown he’s earned more trust from Tom Brady than Sanu among wide receivers. Sanu has seen the second-most targets behind Edelman. It’s easy to understand why.
“He’s a smart kid, he’s experienced. He’s played a lot of football. So a lot of the (route) concepts, he’s dealt with (them) before,” Belichick said. “The terminology and the nomenclature and the way it’s presented might be a little bit different, but he can get it. That’s not really a problem.”
Edelman and Sanu have built trust with Brady over vastly different timelines, but their ability to defeat man coverage is a shared trait that’s separated them from the rest of the receivers room. Most opponents have played more man-to-man against the Patriots than they have other teams, a direct reflection of their confidence in matching up with Brady’s weapons. Particularly lately, it’s worked.
However last weekend in Houston, Sanu was not himself. His cuts were less explosive, his routes at times rounded. His most notable play — a fourth-down drop — happened because of another mistake: his route on the preceding third down failed to reach the sticks.
This week in practice, teammates say Sanu has returned to form.
“You can see how much he just enjoys the game, how much he’s happy just to be out there. We’re all happy to have him back out there, too,” said Patriots safety Terrence Brooks. “He’s looking good. He’s looking real good.”
In retrospect, Sanu’s ankle sprain may be seen as a mere speed bump in his Patriots tenure. He insisted Friday he’s “pretty good,” both physically and with regard to handling the playbook. He also sounded ready to leave the miscommunications that have plagued the passing attack behind.
“I feel like we’re doing the right job,” Sanu said Friday. “This week, guys have prepared really well. We’ve still got a ways to go. We’ve still got two days (until game day), so we’ll take advantage of every moment we can.”
In his final press conference of the week, Belichick said he sees regular improvement from his newest wideout.
“Each week, there’s building blocks and you can add some things or repeat things that have come up in previous weeks to improve the execution on and communication. So we’ve made a lot of progress,” Belichick said. “(We’re) definitely headed in the right direction. Definitely not there yet, but we’re gaining ground.”
Or perhaps getting back on track. Sanu is, after all, filling a void the Pats created themselves.
Back in September, the team chose to rely on two troubled wideouts, Antonio Brown and Josh Gordon, over Demaryius Thomas and their stable of rookies. None of the three veterans remain, with Thomas having been traded to the Jets and Brown and Gordon later receiving their releases. The cost of adding another adult in the room with Edelman and Phillip Dorsett was a second-round pick paid to Atlanta; a price the Pats rarely pay at any time of year, let alone midseason.
Their first-round investment in N’Keal Harry last April has yet to provide meaningful return, though Harry is a longer-term play than trading for Sanu was. The rookie’s best football is undoubtedly ahead of him. The Pats need Sanu now.
They need the calm and confidence he exuded in front of his locker Friday to translate on Sunday in the biggest game of their season. How can the Patriots pull through?
“Just go out there and play football,” he said. “Don’t make it bigger than it has to be.”
It’s all Sanu has done since October. Fit in, emit a natural positivity and perspective, practiced and played. And if his latest week as a Patriot was any indication of the performance, the Pats might be OK.
“When you’re in here, it’s just playing football. You do your part. Everybody working collectively, working toward one goal, and that’s to win. If everybody does their part, we should be fine.”
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