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The Patriots Seem Determined to Make Antonio Brown a Focal Point of Their Offense

Brown led all New England players in targets and receiving yards in his debut against the Dolphins on Sunday days after a former trainer filed a civil complaint that said Brown sexually assaulted and raped her

New England Patriots vs. Miami Dolphins David Santiago/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The Patriots targeted Antonio Brown early and often in his debut with the team and made him a centerpiece of their passing game on Sunday. He suited up despite questions about whether he would play after his former trainer filed a federal civil complaint that said he sexually assaulted and raped her.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that Brown was not a candidate to be placed on the commissioner’s exempt list, which would have precluded him from playing, as there is no criminal investigation against him and the league has not yet been able to conduct their own investigation. Brown—who officially signed with the Patriots last Monday, one day before the civil complaint was filed—played a limited number of snaps in Sunday’s 43-0 win against the Dolphins but finished with four catches on eight targets for 56 receiving yards and one touchdown.

Brown was not on the field for the Patriots’ first play, but from the team’s second play to the end of its first drive, he was the only player quarterback Tom Brady targeted. Brown caught all three of Brady’s passes on that drive for 36 yards, including two first downs on his first two catches. His first reception came after lining up in the slot on Brady’s left in a four-receiver set and cutting across the middle of the field for 18 yards.

His second came two plays later when Brown, once again lined up on Brady’s left, caught a 10-yard pass along the sideline.

Brown’s third reception took the Patriots to the Dolphins 10-yard line, and three plays later he drew a defensive holding penalty against Miami cornerback Xavien Howard that eventually set up Sony Michel’s opening touchdown.

Through halftime, Brown led the team in targets, catches, and receiving yards, despite playing just 13 of New England’s 35 snaps. And it was clear where Brady was looking when Brown was on the field—Josh Gordon had just two targets and no catches in the first half.

New England also looked to Brown often in the red zone. At the end of the first half, Brady found Brown, who was lined up in the slot in a five-receiver set on Brady’s left side, for a 20-yard touchdown.

That pattern continued in the second half. On New England’s second drive of the third quarter, Brady looked to Brown three times in the red zone in a five-play stretch but failed to complete a pass to him before the team settled for a field goal. The Patriots’ best chance to convert came on the last play before the field goal, a third-and-7 from Miami’s 10-yard line, when Brown was lined up wide as the only receiver to Brady’s left in a four-receiver set. He got open on a fade, but Brady threw the ball short.

Brown was barely used late in the game as the Patriots defense turned a 23-0 lead into a 37-0 lead with two consecutive pick-sixes by cornerback Stephon Gilmore and linebacker Jamie Collins, respectively.

After the game, Brown left without speaking to reporters, according to the Patriots public relations team. When head coach Bill Belichick was asked about Brown’s performance in his postgame press conference, ESPN’s Mike Reiss reported that he said, “We’ll take a look at it on film. It was one week. There are a lot of things we can work on. But it’s good to have him out there.”

Brown’s status could still change. Britney Taylor, the trainer who filed the civil complaint saying Brown sexually assaulted her twice in 2017 and then raped her at his Miami home in May 2018, is reportedly set to meet with NFL investigators on Monday. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported on Sunday that Taylor and Brown were engaged in confidential settlement discussions in the months before the lawsuit went public. Rapoport also reported that the Patriots were unaware of the forthcoming lawsuit when they signed Brown, and that the team would not have signed Brown had they known. Brown practiced with the team the day after the lawsuit was reported. The Patriots host the New York Jets next week.