Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is a big believer in the cliché, "You're only as good as your weakest link". Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels are three of the smartest football minds to ever grace the games. Between the three of them, no stone when reviewing opposing defenses on film is overturned. The only way to slow down the Patriots' passing attack is to mask your weaknesses, try to disguise your defensive looks, and pray to the Football Gods that your pass rush can get to Brady. None of those three tasks are easy because Brady, Belichick and McDaniels have seen everything over the years. Brady and Belichick are future Hall of Famers while Josh McDaniels pretty much is in the position of being able to land any head coaching gig he wants in the future.
Over the majority of Brady's career, the Patriots typically have passed primarily out of spread formations, utilizing a lot of quick-hitting passes (better known as Dink and Dunk) to needle and frustrate defenses. From 2001-2009, the Patriots primarily utilized receivers in those formations. Most of the Patriots receivers in that time period were guys who could line up both on the outside and in the slot in order to create favorable matchups against the opponent's third best cornerback, a linebacker, or a safety. The Patriots found that type of matchup when Wes Welker was doing it to them, so they signed the slot receiver away from the Dolphins. Welker re-defined the role of a slot receiver in the offense as a primary guy who can win against safeties, linebackers, or less athletic corners inside the numbers and move the chains. Welker hauled in 672 passes over 6 years with the Patriots and now teams are trying to find that slot receiver who can move the chains between the numbers.
Signing Welker in 2007 was the first big move designed towards a spread offense that attacks the opponent across the entire width of the field. The Patriots followed up by drafting both Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in the 2010 Draft. Both players are listed as tight ends on the depth chart, but are much more than that. Both players could line up anywhere on the field (Hernandez was even more versatile than Gronkowski because he could line up at RB and take handoffs), and making it difficult for opponents to be able to counter defensively. The Patriots unleashed the true power of the 2 TE set in the 2011 NFL season, setting multiple offensive records and Gronkowski entering his name in the record books. After a tremendous debut season, the Patriots were never able to run that offense due to injuries and Hernandez in the middle of a murder investigation. The Patriots signed Scott Chandler to be the second TE in their offense (and also so he'd stop owning the Patriots). Chandler is a player who can line up in multiple spots and while he lacks the athleticism Hernandez possessed, he's a solid option as a reserve behind Gronkowski.
Today, the Patriots employ a heavy use of their tight ends and running backs in the passing game to generate those matchups against linebackers. That can be attributed to Belichick's willingness to go outside the NFL to find creative solutions to give his team the edge in games. Most college offenses run spread offenses that like to spread out opposing defenses across the entire length of the football field to create the best matchups for the offense. Belichick has taken notes from the college game and added it to his offense. Also credit belongs to Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who puts in the weekly grind to formulate game plans and helping Brady identify possible matchups to exploit during the course of the week preparing for the game.
No game holds any more evidence for the success of how the Patriots spread the field than their most recent Super Bowl championship. The Patriots had 4 touchdown catches by 4 different receivers. The Patriots matched their small and shifty receivers against Seattle's lanky and physical CBs. The Patriots also took advantage of when RB Shane Vereen and All-Omniverse TE Rob Gronkowski were singled up against a linebacker (K.J. Wright). After Jeremy Lane left the field with a broken wrist and torn ACL, the Seahawks were forced to play Tharold Simon. Brady relentlessly targeted Simon in the Super Bowl, who yielded two touchdowns and was unable to stick with Julian Edelman on third downs. While the Seahawks defense was able to get Brady for a couple interceptions and a sack, for most of the game Brady was able to drive up and down the field. On the final two drives in the 4th quarter, Brady was 13/15 for 124 yards and 2 TD. He was 8/8 for 64 yards on the final drive that ended with Edelman spinning out Simon (with the help of a veteran push-off) on a 3-yard whip route for the go-ahead score.
The Patriots' top 5 projected receivers are Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell, Danny Amendola, and Travaris Cadet. The Patriots can turn one personnel grouping and show you 10 different formations from that personnel grouping alone. The Patriots could go in as tight as a 2 TE set or spread them out into a 5 WR formation. For opposing defenses, there is no right answer for countering the Patriots' formations and the plays they run from them because the players on the field can perform multiple roles and can beat defenses in multiple ways. Gronkowski, Edelman, LaFell, and Amendola can all play out wide and in the slot. It's tough to counter because if defenses go heavy (base D) against that package the Patriots will spread them out and attack a linebacker with a receiving running back or a tight end in space. If the opponent counters with their sub packages, the offense can line up tight and run the ball between the tackles. It's pick your poison for opposing defenses. Most defenses can't cover both options with the same personnel, which is why the Patriots offense is continually a top unit.
For the 2015 season, the Patriots are returning most of their starters from the 2014 season. The only starter not returning are RB Shane Vereen and LG Dan Connolly's status is in the air, but I don't consider him likely to return. The Patriots retained their top 4 receivers, 4 out of 5 offensive lineman, their offensive coordinator, and their quarterback. Free agent signee Travaris Cadet is a player to watch for in the passing game once he figures out how to pass protect. Kevin Faulk, Danny Woodhead, and Shane Vereen weren't very good pass protectors coming into New England and coach Ivan Fears (longest tenured Patriots coach, preceding even Belichick) is still on the team, so there's a reason for optimism in that department. The Patriots rotated the #5 eligible receiver as a #3 WR, #2 TE, a FB (James Develin), or a 6th offensive lineman (Cameron Fleming) in 2014. We'll likely see more of the same in 2015 with the player that gets the majority of the snaps differing by that week's game plan. The Patriots have the pieces on the offensive side of the ball, once they figure out who plays at guard, to repeat. It comes down to a matter of can they execute well enough to win another championship.