After the Oakland game in the black-hole, we noted it mildly, but attributed it to becoming more balanced whilst playing in one of the most hostile environments in the league. It was further in evidence in back to back games against the Jets and Cowboys, but we put it down to back to back games against the Ryan boys! Last week against the Steelers, the realisation began to finally sink in, as the Patriots barely mustered any offense at all. Like the truest of fans we undoubtedly are, we tried to rationalise away the fear, but the Giant defense exposed the all too real fact for all the world to see - it appears that some teams actually can stop this Patriot offense.
I distinctly remember the 45 - 3 shellacking of the Jets in Foxborough last year, watching the game and hearing Jon Gruden salivate over the Patriots offense and claiming that the Patriots were evolving how offense would be played in the NFL. Within the space of less than a year, it seems that Gruden's confidence may have been misplaced - not perhaps in the system itself but in the personnel which the Patriots currently choose to execute such a system with. Teams are starting to key in on the Patriots passing attack as they have come to two vital realisations - one perhaps more worrying than the other...
Firstly, it must be noted that I said some teams seem to understand how to slow the Patriot attack - that would be those teams who can bring pressure with four (or sometimes less people). Some have suggested that teams who can play man coverage against the Patriots receivers are having success and yes, that is true to a certain extent, but the common factor amongst all these defenses is that the Patriots are slowed when teams can bring the pressure with 4 players, dropping others into zone/man coverage or a mixture.
Now, lots of teams aspire to bring pressure with less and you will no doubt see the Giants employ a similar game plan against Aaron Rogers and the Packers in a few weeks time. However, a HUGE difference you will see is the safety play of opposing teams against the likes of the Packers and Saints as oppose to how teams are playing vs the Patriots. Against offenses such as the Packers and Saints, teams are required to keep their safeties back in deep zone coverage in order to respect the deep threats these teams have at the receiver positions. As we all know this does indeed open up the middle and intermediate areas of the field for the slot receivers and tight ends to occupy.
However, look at how the Steelers played defense against the Patriots. They basically played a single high safety for much of the game, and were then able to apply pressure with 4 men. They manned up on the outside but also dropped linebackers and brought down a safety to either double a specific Patriot receiver or simply occupy a zone in cramming the middle of the field where the Patriot receivers do most of their damage.
Consequently, because the Patriots have no respectable deep threat whatsoever, the field becomes more condensed with less room to get open and the teams that can apply pressure with 4 rushers are getting home with their rush (12 sacks in the last 4 for Brady!). It's the scenario we dreaded when Randy Moss left the team but only now do teams appear to be understanding that they no longer have to respect the deep ball - that they can take their chances by cramming the intermediate and short zones whilst single covering the outside receivers - it's the game plan the Jets perfected so well in the playoffs last year, and while we all said at the time not all teams have the personnel to duplicate this plan, because teams don't have to respect a deep threat, they have realised they no longer need all world corners to do the trick.
One thing I will say at this point is that the Patriots do not appear to substitute and confuse the defense half as much this year - I still laugh about that 45 -3 game where the Jets simply looked utterly lost amongst all the formations, pre-snap motions and substitutions. In 2011, the Patriots appear to have simplified the offense to a certain extend and want to ‘out-execute' the defense - well, I'm sorry but without all the confusion, defenses are taking away what the Patriots do best (intermediate throws) much more easily and in the absence of either a deep threat or a return to a more complex offense, the smarter defenses will continue to dictate.
However, the other problem that perhaps people overlook is in maybe the last place people would look for a problem on offense - Tom Brady. Please don't think I am suggesting Tom is playing poorly but let's all agree on one thing - Brady has an average deep arm at best - and it appears to be getting worse.
Before everyone screams "look at his arm in 2007...did you see some of those throws!?" - yes some were terrific, but the guy is one of the best ever so they should be, but go and look at the highlights on YouTube; some of those 2007 throws were absolutely horrible (and when I say horrible, I mean real floaters where Randy was waiting for it to come down) and but for Moss, would have been interceptions.
When I say worse, I do not mean losing arm strength, as Brady has never has consistent downfield velocity. What's worse is that in recent months, Brady seems to throw the deep ball scared - he throws it like he doesn't want it to be intercepted so either over or under throws the ball. He is limiting the damage rather than going for the kill with conviction and it's hurting this offense.
That's why, before clamouring for a deep threat or more downfield throws, we must really ask the question as to whether that can be a consistently efficient function of this offense i.e. can Brady consistently make those deep throws enough for teams to start backing off their coverage rather than condensing it? Certainly not with the current offensive games plans and personnel, but even with a healthy Taylor Price (who got good downfield separation last week in Pittsburgh), can Brady execute those downfield throws to a higher level, because as long as he and this team can't, opponents are going to continue to show a lack of respect to the Patriots deep passing game and clog the shorter passing lanes - teams simply know the Patriots aren't going deep...certainly not with any confidence!
Essentially, the Patriots currently have no deep passing game, either because they don't have the receiving talent to consistently make plays downfield or Brady can't consistently get the ball there. Either way, if the 2011 Patriots can't incorporate more confusion for opposing defenses, they will simply not be able to out-execute smarter defenses unless a deep threat emerges from the current roster, with a QB confidently and accurately throwing downfield.