FOXBORO, MA - SEPTEMBER 18: Chad Ochocinco #85 of the New England Patriots carries the ball in the second half against the San Diego Chargers on September 18, 2011 at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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OK, OK, we all get it. Chad Ochocinco hasn’t exactly been lighting it up so far this season. A lot of fans here in New England – including yours truly – thought Ocho would flourish under Bill Belichick and put up good, although not great, numbers. What we’ve seen though, is a string of two catch games and not a whole lot else. So far, Ocho’s biggest contribution to the team has been to actually get a rise out of the crowd at home games. And while that’s no easy feat at Foxboro, it isn’t what the Patriots brought him here to do.
For the first few games, Ocho got a pass. He came from a completely different system and had very little time to work with the offense before the season started, so it was expected that there would be a bit of a learning curve. But it’s been six weeks at this point, and Chad Ochocinco has had plenty of time to get the playbook down and earn Tom Brady’s trust.
Nobody is writing Chad off just yet. On the plus side, he has been getting better every week. He has made some big catches that have sustained scoring drives, and he has been running some very precise routes that have allowed other receivers to get open. He is a receiver that defenses must account for regardless of whether he gets the ball, and Tommy B has openly praised Ocho’s attitude and effort so far this season (unlike, say, Joey Galloway, with whom he candidly expressed his frustration). And to a degree, his lack of production as of late hasn’t been entirely his fault; at this stage in the season Brady is simply more comfortable with Deion Branch and Wes Welker, and with the Patriots employing a lot of 2 tight end sets to take advantage of mismatches created by Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, Ocho has been the odd man out. Plus, Welker is having a season for the ages, so it only makes sense that the Pats ride the hot hand. At the same time, though, now that Randy Moss is gone, Tommy B can go back to the "my favorite receiver is the open one" mentality, and obviously he hasn’t been looking Ochocinco’s way all that much.
But the clock has been ticking on Ocho for a while now, and I’m starting to think that time is running out. Which is why I think that Sunday’s game against the Dallas Cowboys is Ocho’s chance to prove his value once and for all to the Patriots and their fans. Dallas is a much better team than their record indicates and will present a major challenge to New England on both sides of the ball. If ever there was a chance for Chad Ochocinco to be the player we all thought he was going to be for this offense, Sunday is the time for him to step up. I see three reasons why Ocho is primed for a big game this weekend.
Dallas’ pass rush. Tommy B, in his weekly press conference, openly expressed his concern over how fierce the Cowboys’ pass rush is. DeMarcus Ware already has five sacks in four games, and if Dallas pulls out a win on Sunday, he is going to be a big reason why. How the Pats decide to handle the pass rush will play a big part in how much of a factor Ochocinco is in this game. If Brady operates out of primarily big packages (heh) that utilize the tight ends as blockers to help out the offensive line, then Ocho may spend the bulk of his time on the sidelines. But another strategy is to spread the Cowboys out by running a lot of empty backfield sets that put a lot of receivers on the field. Terence Newman is a great corner and Orlando Scandrick has been effective covering the slot before his injury, but Dallas simply doesn’t have the personnel to cover a 5 wide receiver set effectively. If New England employs this latter strategy, Chad Ochocinco could see a lot of balls thrown his way. I see the Patriots alternating back and forth between multiple tight end sets and a spread offense to keep the Cowboys guessing and to continue making use of that healthy balance of run and pass.
A rejuvenated running/playaction passing game. Benny’s toe injury is something to monitor, but all signs point to him being able to play this weekend. Between his career day last Sunday against the Jets and the running game that was on display week 3 against the Raiders, New England is establishing the run more and more each week. As a result, opposing defenses have no choice but to respect it. If New England can get the running game going early, Brady should be able to utilize the playaction more, which we all know is one of his strengths. In the same vein, a fair number of Ochocinco’s catches this season have come off the playaction, including his biggest reception of the year against San Diego. I don’t have any research or stats to back this up, but I feel like we haven’t seen as much playaction passing so far this season, as the ground game is only just starting to gather steam. An effective playaction pass is a great way to neutralize a pass rush, and could play to Ochocinco’s precise route running and his ability to get just enough separation to get open. If the Pats can keep running the ball well and allow for Brady to use the playfake, we may very well see Ochocinco benefit from those extra seconds the Cowboys D will have to give him in order to spy the running back.
The return of the deep ball. We all know that Chad Ochocinco isn’t a deep threat, nor is that the reason New England acquired him. However, Dallas is (or was, prior to the bye) banged up in the secondary and could be vulnerable to a deep ball or two, especially if BenJarvus Green-Ellis can keep running the way that he is. With Branch and Welker taking care of the under routes, Ocho could be primed to run some go and post routes down the field. Again, this all goes back to what kind of base offense New England decides to run, but I see them taking some shots on Sunday, and it just seems to me that Ochocinco is the best receiver to be on the other end. Let’s just hope that this time the ball doesn’t hit him in the face again like it did against Buffalo.
I know a lot of people have basically written Chad Ochocinco off, saying that he is what he is at this point and he ultimately has failed to deliver. And it’s tough to argue with those people, as they have plenty of evidence to back up their claim. But I’m still confident. Chad has a great chance to prove his worth this weekend, and then he has a whole bye week to keep working hard and become a dynamic part of New England’s offense for the second half of the season. Dallas could officially be his coming out party, and with New England getting into the meat of their schedule after the bye, it would really help to have another set of reliable hands moving forward.
But I will say this: if this one doesn’t work out, I say New England just avoids all receivers named Chad from here on out. Clearly that name just isn’t meant to wear a Patriots jersey.