When the Patriots go base personnel, they may be the most difficult to stop in the NFL. In a 12 personnel (2 TE, 1 RB), the Patriots have mainly utilized Julian Edelman and Aaron Dobson at Wide Receiver, Rob Gronkowski and Scott Chandler at Tight End, and Dion Lewis as the Running Back. That's just the personnel grouping, which I expect to see a lot of in the first 6 weeks of the season with some occasional 3 WR and 4 TE packages. However, I think we'll see the 2 TE offense return to it's 2011 usage. The talent level on the offense isn't as good now as it was in 2011, but the Patriots can get more creative with their current personnel than in 2011.
2015 Snap Counts Through Week 2:
Julian Edelman 123/147
Aaron Dobson 100/147
Rob Gronkowski 141/147
Scott Chandler 68/147
Dion Lewis 117/147
So what makes this personnel group difficult to stop? It starts with Gronk, who is borderline impossible to cover because of his size, agility, catch radius, and physical strength. Having Gronk is the same as having a Calvin Johnson or Randy Moss type receiver, even though he doesn't run 4.3 in a 40-yard dash. Gronk transforms the Patriots offense from above average to juggernaut. The other 31 teams have tried everything to slow him down and minimize his impact, but so far no one has been able to come up with an effective game plan to do so. Not only is Gronk difficult to stop in coverage, he can line up all over the field. The Patriots have lined him up at the traditional end of the line spot (Y), in the slot (F), and out-wide (X). When you give him a QB that even at 38 can make the throws and factor in his size and speed, Gronk turns into a Touchdown and Football-Spiking Machine.
After Gronk, the second most important cog to the offense is Julian Edelman. Gronk is the red zone threat, Edelman is the primary chain mover. Edelman is arguably one of the greatest horizontal threats in the NFL, playing the role of flanker (Z) and moving around the formation. Edelman can make things happen with the ball in his hands and has a knack for fighting off and eluding tackers. Edelman is not afraid of getting hit and often welcomes contact, initiating some nasty blocks. Edelman is Brady's primary target in 3rd down situations, which combined with his otherworldly agility and punt return skills forged when he was a bottom of the roster player makes him almost as difficult a cover as Gronk in the Patriots scheme.
Perhaps the biggest surprise to the Patriots offense other than the offensive line is RB Dion Lewis. Lewis' skills are comparable to Danny Woodhead, although the latter would likely beat the former in a 40-yard dash. Lewis was a promising talent in Philadelphia, but got stuck in football purgatory because of a coaching change and a 2013 injury. Mike Lombardi alerted Bill Belichick to Lewis' talents, signing him to a contract in January. Over the first two weeks, Lewis has proven to be more than an adequate replacement for the now-departed Shane Vereen. In 2 games, Lewis has forced 17 missed on 32 touches (22 carries, 10 catches). Egad! Not only is Lewis forcing tackles every other touch, he's also racked up 258 scrimmage yards in 2 games. That's elite production in 2 games so far and if he can stay healthy, we have an early favorite for the 2015 Comeback Player of the Year Award.
Scott Chandler gives the Patriots a second 6'6" body in the red zone. After spending multiple seasons trying to convince Belichick to save him from football purgatory by posting big numbers against the Patriots. Chandler isn't a seam threat like Gronk or have the dynamic mobility skills that Aaron Hernandez had, but Chandler is a savvy route runner who can beat small DBs on jump balls and evade linebackers in single coverage. Inside the 20s, Chandler is probably a #5 option on the offense, but once the Patriots go into the Red Zone he can be another threat if the Patriots operate from the 4 TE package since he can line up anywhere. It appears that he's still trying to get comfortable in this offense, although I expect his production to go up once he's comfortable. Adding him as a weapon gives the Patriots more to throw at their opponents, even if Chandler can't take over a game like Gronkowski can.
The last receiver from this personnel grouping is Aaron Dobson for at least the first six weeks. So far Dobson has caught 8 of 9 passes for 96 yards. Right now, the Patriots have utilized Dobson as more of an outside chain mover than sending him out deep. That's likely a function of the two defenses they played more than anything else. Dobson showed up in the Bills game, catching 7 of 8 passes for 87 yards and 6 first downs. If Dobson is able to establish himself as a threat to take the top off the offense from the outside and keep the safeties back, that gives the Patriots another dynamic to the offense that doesn't exist when Brandon LaFell is playing the Split-End position.
The Patriots can use this personnel group and apply numerous formations to attack the opponent's weakness. All five players contribute in both the running and passing game. While Gronkowski is the Super Star, teams should not sleep on the other four players in that personnel grouping. The Patriots not only can confuse you will numerous formations, they also can control the tempo better with that skill group. Since the Patriots can run and pass the ball effectively out of that skill group, that means teams will have a difficult time game planning. If the defense matches with their own base defense, the Patriots can spread them out and create mismatches in the passing game. If the defense tries to match in nickel, the plan is to run behind the tight ends. So far this year, there hasn't been an answer for this skill group as the Patriots have torpedoed the Steelers and Bills defenses with it.