The New England Patriots came into this season with an offense on the cutting edge of football innovation – about to usher in an era of efficiency never witnessed before – an attack so precise, so large and so brutal that the only team capable of beating them was themselves.
And ever since the centerpiece of this potential juggernaut went down with a severe ankle injury early in week 2, the Patriots have been doing just that.
From the beginning, the offense had the appearance of an aggressive assault based on sort of a multi-level scheme. In my warped mind, the roster was assembled to promote the idea of a 3-tiered attack, predicated on the presence of two intermediate horizontal threats with the upside to go vertical, two solid underneath targets and an H-back to take advantage of whatever mismatches the defense had to concede to cover the second and third levels.
Because the roster was top heavy with tight ends, it became clear that we would see mostly the bigger brutes on the field with the “13 Personnel” packages, where the Patriots would line up Brandon Lloyd wide, Rob Gronkowski and Daniel Fells as the in-line tight ends, Aaron Hernandez as an H-back and Stevan Ridley as the running back. They could also spread out the formation more by going without a running back and setting Wes Welker wide, or just go to a standard Pro Set.
That’s the beauty of versatilty.
With Hernandez in this role and the team using an up-tempo approach, Brady could scan the defense, identify where it is at it’s most vulnerable and audible from the line, setting Hernandez in the best position to take advantage of mismatches – a classic example of taking what the defense gives you, but with the idea of maximizing yards after the catch as the central theme.
Not a quick-strike plan by any means, though the potential is there – rather, it is an intermediate level attack designed to be an exasperatingly efficient, ground eating, clock churning, methodical assault that wore down a defense with it’s tempo and physicality, limited the number of possessions by the opposing offense, and allowed the Patriots to put an opponent away with relative ease.
The first indication of what was happening with the scheme was when they started collecting tight ends, with Daniel Fells signed away from Denver and Visanthe Shiancoe from Minnesota ,and then they nearly fell over themselves getting a claim into the NFL offices when Jake Ballard appeared on the waiver wire from the New York Giants. Shiancoe ended up on the non-season ending IR, while Ballard is reserved until next season on the Physically Unable to Perform list.
They also signed a myriad of receivers, mainly former Patriots’ Jabar Gaffney and Donte Stallworth to team with newly signed Brandon Lloyd and veterans Deion Branch, Wes Welker and Julien Edelman to give their preseason roster the look of inspiring potential, with visions of 50 point games dancing in their heads…
But as the regular season approached, Coach Bill Belichick went all Texas Chainsaw on the receiving corps, cutting every receiver the Patriots had with the exception of Welker, Lloyd and Edleman and started the season with Gronkowski, Hernandez, Fells as their tight ends, signing Michael Hoomanawanui after final cuts were made. They were going big – really big - and the idea was to physically dominate every opponent.
We got to see exactly one game of it – and then Aaron Hernandez’ ankle injury derailed the entire thing.
Hernandez is the one player that this style of offense can not afford to lose long-term. His versatility adds so many variables to the playbook that when he’s not there, the offense is ordinary and demonstrably inconsistent…ill equipped to match up well enough to take advantage of a defense’s weaknesses consistently, which means a persistent inability to close out games dominantly…
…which leads to questions regarding play calling and execution, which is where we are now.
New England has tried to partially replace Hernandez’ versatility through Danny Woodhead, and he has been electrifying and clutch in the role, but the H-back position for the Patriots relies on great size to go with enough speed to split the opposing safeties on seam routes. However Woodhead’s performance gives credence to the thought that the diminutive running back could flourish in an expanded role or as a an excellent third down option going forward…
Given these facts, taking inventory of where this team stands at present should inspire a lot of optimism going forward. At a middling 4-3, the Patriots are nonetheless atop the AFC East, are traveling to London this week for a date with the St. Louis Rams, and have their bye the following Sunday.
Aaron Hernandez is back on a limited basis, Gronk is hobbling but able, Lloyd is being misused and Welker is being overused while Deion Branch is just kinda hangin’ around. Edelman is back from his hand injury. Ridley has proven to be a solid runner and Woodhead is nearly as valuable as Hernandez in his limited role.
We haven’t even mentioned the offensive line, and for good reason. They are solid, capable of setting the base of any formation and overall an outstanding unit. The best way to honor their play is leave them transparent, and knowing that this means that they are doing thier jobs masterfully.
All of these players should benefit greatly from the two week break, and when they return to the field against Bills on November 11th, Visanthe Shaincoe will be eligible to play and it’s possible that Power Back Brandon Boldin will be appropriately healed, along with everyone else that is bumped and bruised.
So the Mantra for the Patriots this week should be to beat the Rams and survive the trip to Jolly old England, then get back home to rest, heal and plan – knowing that they are healthy and finally ready to unleash their juggernaut offense on the rest of the NFL.
It should be a sight to behold.
Next: The Patriots’ defensive philosophy, from my demented point of view…Through the next 2 weeks, I’ll be taking an in-depth look at philosophy as well as each positional settings for both the offense, defense and special teams.