WR Kendrick Bourne could help New England Patriots create more downfield separation in Week 2

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots receivers didn’t create above-average downfield separation in their season-opening 20-7 loss to the Miami Dolphins -- an issue that dates back to last season.

That is one of several things that must change Sunday against the host Pittsburgh Steelers (1 p.m. ET, CBS) if the Patriots want to avoid slipping into an 0-2 hole.

One obvious quick fix: Play Kendrick Bourne, who delivered a 41-yard catch in the fourth quarter, more than just two snaps. He brought a surge of energy, suddenness and downfield explosiveness that was needed.

Consider these numbers:

  • Of five targets of 20-plus air yards from quarterback Mac Jones on Sunday, receivers averaged 1.2 yards of separation, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. The Week 1 average for all NFL receivers on those plays was 2.2 yards of separation.

  • Those results mirrored 2021 when Patriots receivers ranked 25th in the NFL with only 1.6 yards of separation on deep balls (per NFL Next Gen Stats).

How the Patriots deployed their receivers against the Dolphins seemed to contribute to the lack of separation. DeVante Parker played 57 of a possible 57 snaps, followed by Jakobi Meyers (50), Nelson Agholor (33), Lil’Jordan Humphrey (3) and Bourne (2).

Parker leads the NFL in tight-window catches over the past five seasons. Creating separation isn’t his forte, but utilizing his 6-foot-3, 219-pound frame as a physical presence can be. Meyers primarily wins with precise routes and as a technician, rather than as a burner.

So the Patriots voluntarily put less speed on the field by pairing Parker and Meyers with tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, as the Patriots featured more two-TE sets in Week 1.

Whether they change course against Pittsburgh -- injecting more of Bourne's suddenness and Agholor's speed -- will be a notable storyline.

“They’re all different, with unique skill sets, and it’s up to us as coaches to tap into that and take advantage of that and get the best out of them,” assistant coach Troy Brown said of the receiving corps. “It’s up to us to do a better job of coaching these guys.”

As for Bourne, Brown previously said the receiver didn’t have as good of an offseason as he did last year, when he went on to finish second on the team with 55 receptions for 800 yards and 5 touchdowns. That included getting tossed from a joint practice with the Carolina Panthers for fighting, being bumped from a drill by an official for an issue relating to his equipment, and then reportedly showing up late for a meeting before a preseason game against the Panthers.

Bourne, who drew a large media crowd in the locker room after Sunday’s loss, took ownership of his limited role by saying: “I’m not giving the coaches what they want and need to see. I just need to get better.”

Coach Bill Belichick said Bourne’s limited workload Sunday wasn’t disciplinary based and later said on sports radio WEEI: “I thought KB did a great job stepping in there when we needed him. Made a big play for us. I’m sure that he’ll have plenty of opportunities, as all of our skill players will, going forward.”

Added assistant receivers coach Ross Douglas: “KB is a great player, a great teammate, a good guy to work with. Whenever he is on the field, we expect no less than what we saw in the game Sunday. He can make a lot of big plays.”

The Patriots, one of four teams to score fewer than 10 points in Week 1, need more of them.

That’s why creating better separation down the field -- and giving Jones a chance to capitalize on that with solid pass-protection -- will be key to the team’s Week 2 plan against the Steelers.