Due to unforeseen circumstances culminating into a tumultuous offseason, a lot of talk is being bandied about in a negative manner - regarding the Patriots offense. Naysayers and pundits alike have deemed the 2013 season the end of an offensive era for the uber successful Patriots attack. Well not so fast my friends! I believe the death of the New England Patriots offense has been greatly exaggerated. The Patriots have plenty of talent stockpiled, and need to look no further than the budding dynasty of college football for distinct blueprint on how to utilize it.
The weaponry of iconic quarterback Tom Brady has drastically dwindled this offseason. Whether it be through free agency, injury, or other drastic circumstances (to say the least), Brady's top five targets from last season are either gone, or won't be available to start the season.
The Patriots often run a multiple scheme designed around a two tight-end set. A set that once contained the very best duo in the NFL. The ultra-versatile Aaron Hernandez, combined with the physical monstrosity that is Rob Gronkowski , to unearth a package that had coordinators foaming at the mouth - just thinking of how to emulate it.
via (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
Unfortunately, (or fortunately) due to a growing list of injuries, it's more than likely that Gronkowski starts the season on the physically unable to perform list. As bad this is, given Gronkowski's status as a consensus top two tight end on the planet, it pales in comparison to the dealings of Aaron Hernandez.
Hernandez was jettisoned after being arrested for his alleged involvement in a gruesome murder. (This story has been widely-covered so going into detail here is not necessary) Losing Hernandez is like losing four players on the roster. His versatility allowed him to play all three receiver spots, tight-end, and even running back! Trying to figure out where he was going to lineup coming out of a huddle, got to be similar to trying to locate Waldo of 'Where's Waldo?' fame. Offensive coordinators Bill O'Brien and Josh McDaniels did an excellent job of evolving the two tight-end set - that's predominately used by high-volume rushing teams - into a 'Gold Standard' scheme that's in the process of being mimicked by a multitude of NFL franchises.
What allowed for the two-tight end set to really shake out was the play of the most productive underneath route runner in recent memory. Veteran receiver Wes Welker, who has long been Tom Brady's top target as far as volume, was allowed to leave via free agency. His prowess in between the numbers allowed for the tight-ends to be used all over the formation. The Patriots would essentially spread you out and work the middle. The absence of a true outside threat brought about this scheme out of ingenuity as well as necessity.
The Patriots have proven to be the most forward thinking team in all the NFL. They've gone through multiple identities offensively as well as defensively, and have done it all with an abundance of success.
Last season, the Patriots unveiled a lightning-quick no huddle offense, designed around getting a quick lead, that would serve as an aid to their much-maligned defense. A myriad of formations, crossing patterns, screens, and other throws of the short variety - culminated in a successful year overall for the offense (As if we'd expect anything different). The offense ended up fourth in passing, while earning the seventh slot in rushing. And after a 12-4 record, it's safe to call it a successful season in totality. Now the world awaits an offensive encore, under the most difficult of circumstances. I have a schematic change that would seem to fit the Patriots personnel absolutely perfectly.
The Alabama Crimson Tide have won an astonishing three out of the last four BCS National Championships. Their brand of smash-mouth football has excelled despite a trending number of big time programs opting to go for a more spread-out, finesse type attack. Centered around a three headed monster at running back, the Crimson Tide have punished teams physically, while skirting their way around a significant lack of talent at the receiver position. This is the exact approach I think the New England Patriots could execute, and I think the end results could climax in a Super Bowl victory!
Allow me to clarify. I know the first thing that most of you thought, (well the ones that didn't hit the 'x' button) why would you implement a scheme that doesn't center around the right arm of Tom Brady? For people who are thinking this, it's totally justified, considering Tom Brady might be the greatest QB of all time- and has not shown any inclination of a dip in his play. It's just that there's more than one way to skin a cat.
Brandon Lloyd, last season's deep threat, (and I use that term loosely) was not resigned. On-again, off-again, (and then on again) receiver Deion Branch was allowed to walk as well. Both Lloyd and Branch played the z and x positions in the scheme, and were counted on heavily to stretch the defense. Let's just say they were average at best. Above all else, the players currently slated to replace them are either unproven, or have proven to be below average. Rookies Aaron Dobson & Josh Boyce could turn out to be adequate replacements for Lloyd and Branch, but counting on rookie receivers is usually not the thing that championship teams do. It's a steep learning curve for the receiver position, so anything these players provide should be considered a bonus. Veterans Donald Jones and Michael Jenkins are the likely replacements, but both of those guys have been widely unproductive in their careers thus far. I'm not very confident in the outside receiver position, but hopefully someone steps up and stands out during training camp.
The slot position voided by the departure of Wes Welker is in very capable hands. Free agent signee Danny Amendola has been very productive when available. The problem is, he hasn't been available much recently, appearing in a total of 12 games due to injury that past two seasons. If healthy, he provides an athletic presence in the slot, while having a good feel for zone and option route concepts. These attributes were similarly attached to Welker as well. Amendola's agility and grittiness is very reminiscent of Welker, as the two have been compared to each other since Amendola stepped foot onto the campus of Texas Tech University - the same school Welker attended.
via USA Today Sports Images
Below Amendola on the depth chart is veteran Julian Edelman - who provides a lot of the same characteristics that both Welker and Amendola posses. He's versatile and can line up in a variety of positions within the scheme. If health is not a factor, I'm extremely confident in the inside receiver position.
The tight end position will take the biggest hit, at least until Gronkowski returns to form following rehab from a couple of off-season surgeries. The Patriots have no tight-end currently on the roster capable of taking over a game like Gronkowski. As a matter of fact, only the New Orleans Saints (Jimmy Graham) have a tight end that can mimic the production and be a matchup nightmare like Rob Gronkowski. He's irreplaceable! Aaron Hernandez is equally irreplaceable in his versatility. The Oakland Raiders (Marcel Reece) are the only other team with a weapon in the mold of Aaron Hernandez. TE's Daniel Fells, Michael Hoomanawanui, and Jake Ballard all have their place on the roster. And all could essentially contribute even when Gronkowski returns. Both Fells and Hoomanawanui are two of the better blocking TE's in the league, and both are an intricate part of my proposed Alabama type approach to offensive football.
The offensive line is solid all around, and capable of playing multiple styles. I'm thoroughly impressed with their ability to maul in the between the tackles game, but the precision in which they execute counters and other misdirection type plays all but assures me that the Patriots could be the very best rushing team in the league, if not purely from a schematical standpoint.
Which leads me to the penultimate part of this personnel rundown. The Patriots from top to bottom, have the most talented set of running backs in the league!
Last season's breakout back Stevan Ridley is the absolute truth! He's powerful, shifty, and runs with a unique sense of fervor. At 5-foot-11, 220 pounds - Ridley is the prototypical type of running back you can have lead your multi-pronged attack. He's equally as good between the tackles as he is on plays that call for a bounce out. His 1,263 yards and 12 td's, (4.4 yards per attempt) - were exactly what the doctor ordered for the Pats rushing attack. Fans should fully expect these numbers from him for the duration of his career, as he really only has two seasons of starting experience under his belt since he left high school in Mississippi. Ridley left college after a breakout junior season at LSU, the first season in which he got more carries (249) than his previous two season combined (57). His first season in the NFL saw him in a rotation that notched him only 87 attempts. His 290 attempts in 2012, would mirror the amount he should get this season.
The guy who I think could equal Ridley's production, if given the opportunity, is second year man Brandon Bolden. He too stands 5-foot-11 and weighs 220 lbs. He's a nice blend of power and agility, in the mold of Ridley. His 16 carry, 137 yard outburst at Buffalo was just scratching the surface of what he's capable of. He should get at the very least 150 attempts.
via Getty Images
Let's put this in illustration.
This screen grab highlights the personnel grouping most Pats fan long for. 12 personnel. (1 RB, 2 TE's) Even with absence of a significant pass catcher, the Pats should utilize this grouping predominantly. The Pats have three of the best blockers at TE in the league in Gronkowski, Fells, and Hoomanawanui. In this ground and pound attack, having two of three be an extension of the run game works in a myriad of ways.
In the previous shot I diagrammed, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (#76) uses his athleticism to get to the second level and maul the MLB. Like I stated before, the Pats o-line is surprisingly full of athletes, who can maul as well as pull. This would go along way into establishing a ground attack build off a full array of runs. Both Ridley and Bolden are extremely patient runners who survey the scene initially, which allows for their blocking to establish.
Here we see Buffalo's DT Kyle Williams press the A gap. As good as Williams is, this is a mismatch when you factor in Bolden's agility and his initial burst. Not to mention guard Dan Connolly is peeling back to assist Bolden with another block. Look at how Bolden sticks that foot in the ground!
MLB Nick Barnett shoots the gap, but can barely get a hand on Bolden. This is where individual talent takes over. Arm tackles will barely get Bolden or Ridley's attention.
Down goes Barnett! This well executed 'counter toss' is a perfect example of the Pats run game in action. It's a between the tackles play that calls for the o-line to sustain blocks and peel back to get more. It requires agility and power from the running back as well. The Pats could easily execute a game plan heavy on the run, while featuring finesse runs as well as well as a heavy dose of power.
One of the more exemplary games of the Patriot's rushing prowess - was week five versus Denver. Both Ridley and Bolden got 28 and 14 carries respectively. In addition, former change of pace back Danny Woodhead made the most of his seven carries totaling 47 yards which helped the Pats gain over 250 yards rushing for the day. Woodhead's role will now be filled by highly capable third year man, Shane Vereen, who is a jack-of-all trades similar to Woodhead. Throw in former 1,000 yard rusher Legarrette Blount, and special teams ace Leon Washington, and you truly have the most well-rounded group of rushers in the NFL.
This is the type of rotation that Alabama head coach Nick Saban, (Ironically a good friend of Patriots coach Bill Belichick) deploys on a weekly basis. A three headed monster of an attack, with a clear delineation demonstrated by the amount of carries. This allows for his QB (A very Tom Brady like A.J. McCaron), to throw against a lot of single coverage, as the defense has no choice but to commit to eight men in the box. Could you imagine Tom Brady throwing against most teams base defenses, while getting single coverage? It almost wouldn't matter who's at receiver, Brady would succeed. I thoroughly believe that teams who value the run, will succeed in this day and age of spread offenses. The success of the Ravens, 49ers, and Seahawks is a clear example of that.
Here's another 12 personnel set in the game against Denver. A game in which Tom Brady threw the ball 31 times for 231 yards, but the young stable of running backs grinded Denver's defense down to a nub, to the tune of 251 yards on 54 carries (4.6 average). On the play, Ridley is running an inside counter, with guard Dan Connolly pulling as his lead blocker.
This is a beautifully designed play. Every blocker is on a man. To be a good running team, you must want to execute. Most lineman would rather go forward to run block, rather than retreat to pass block.
Look at the spacing the Pats front line creates with their blocking. Ridley literally has a two way go. His vision, balance, agility, and power makes these type of runs, huge gainers for the offense.
Everyone is a accounted for. The safety is the player in best position to make the play. That's what you want out of a running play. Being able to get to the second level on most run plays - is demoralizing for a defense. Especially a good one, like Denver's. Ridley has the vision to not run into his lineman's feet.
Off to the the races!
The lack of talent in the pass game might be a blessing in disguise for the New England Patriots. Often in the playoffs, the teams that would establish the line of scrimmage would overmatch the Patriots on their way to victory. Having the Patriots set the tone from a physicality standpoint could slow the game down periodically, allowing for less possessions for the defense while providing more rest in the interim. In this day and age where fans are in awe of high-flying passing attacks, both Super Bowl participants (Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers) are among the best teams as far as dominating at the line of scrimmage, while picking their shots through the air. I firmly believe that the New England Patriots could become the best smash mouth, ball-controlled team in the NFL. A description that pundits attach the most successful college program and recent memory....The Alabama Crimson Tide!
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