The New England Patriots have had to overcome the loss of TE Rob Gronkowski, the single biggest non-quarterback injury for any team in the league. Instead of relying on one player to step up in his absence, the Patriots have opted to spread the ball around in the most balanced offense in the NFL.
Unlike other teams that rely on the same cast of two or three players to produce yards on a weekly basis, the Patriots have morphed their game plans to suit the opposing defense. In week 14, the Patriots played the best run defense in the NFL and QB Tom Brady had four receivers picks up 70+ receiving yards; in week 15, the Patriots played the best pass defense and RB Dion Lewis gained over 100 yards from scrimmage.
Over the past two weeks, a whopping six Patriots have picked up 70+ yards from scrimmage in a single game: three running backs (LeGarrette Blount, James White, Dion Lewis); two wide receivers (Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan); and one tight end (Martellus Bennett). These are all players that have stepped up to carry the offense, and rookie WR Malcolm Mitchell cracke dthe 70 yard plateau in week 13.
No other franchise has more than four players with 70+ yards from scrimmage in a single game over the past two weeks.
So while the Patriots are better prepared to overcome any individual injury on offense, most other franchises would be crippled if they suffered one more injury,
“I think it makes you more difficult to defend when you don’t have to force the ball to one thing or use one type or portion of your offense to move it,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said on Tuesday. “That’s the best part as a coach. We have a really unselfish team. I don’t think they care too much who gets credit or statistics or what have you. They all want to help us be productive and help us win and that’s their goal. Sometimes it’s one guy or another. Sometimes it’s a different position group, sometimes it may require us to throw it or run it more than the other, but we just try to figure out what the best thing to do is each week and sometimes that may change during the course of the game and sometimes it doesn’t.”
The Patriots entered week 14 knowing that they weren’t going to run the ball with much success against the Ravens defense, which ranked #1 in the NFL in defensive rushing DVOA. Brady threw the ball until the Ravens were exhausted and Blount finished the game.
In week 15 against the Broncos, the Patriots decided they weren’t going to challenge the Denver secondary, which ranked #1 in the NFL in defensive passing DVOA. As a response, 51 of the Patriots 73 plays (70%) on offense went to a running back, and a few more went to receivers in the middle of the field. The Patriots identified the Broncos linebackers as a match-up they wanted to exploit and that meant more playing time for Lewis and White.
The Patriots unselfish approach has allowed the team to overcome the loss of Gronkowski in a way no other franchise would be able. The Jets have the 32nd ranked pass defense in the NFL, by DVOA, so look for the Patriots to go back to spreading the ball to their receivers next week.