NFL games and seasons are often not decided by which team employs the most superstars or biggest playmakers but by who has the deepest roster. After all, injuries are nearly impossible to avoid in a contact sport like football and when they hit, you better be prepared. The New England Patriots have been just that all year long as they have suffered some significant personnel losses over the last few months.
On Sunday against the Oakland Raiders, the quality of the Patriots' depth players was on display once again. New England entered the game missing six core players in all three phases of the game due to injury – and that is not even putting into account players like Dont'a Hightower, Julian Edelman or Derek Rivers, who will end the 2017 season on the injured reserve list – but still won 33-8 in dominating fashion.
The Patriots being able to replace all six of the above-mentioned players was a key in the victory as their backups proved their collective worth once again. Take Ted Karras and LaAdrian Waddle, for example. Both offensive linemen were buried on the depth chart as the season began: Karras was released during final roster cutdowns and signed to the practice squad, while Waddle was the number four on the depth chart at offensive tackle.
Yesterday, however, the duo played integral roles in stepping in for injured starters David Andrews and Marcus Cannon, respectively. And as a testament to their performance and the coaching staff preparing the two backups for it, New England's offense did not skip a beat in both the running and the passing game. The unit was its productive self despite the absences of Andrews, Cannon and starting wide receiver Chris Hogan.
Waddle, who also started last week's game versus the Denver Broncos and helped keep Von Miller off Tom Brady, and Karras are just the latest examples of the Patriots' being forced to utilize their backup players this season. The results mostly looked the same – impressive – and helped the club stay on course no matter the extent of injuries on offense, defense or special teams.
Core special teamers Johnson Bademosi and Jonathan Jones are thrust into starting roles because of injuries to Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe? No problem. Trevor Reilly needs to play additional snaps with Cassius Marsh limited? Sure. Malcom Brown is out so Adam Butler and Ricky Jean-Francois need to help replace him? You bet. Granted, the results were not always ideal but the New England train kept rolling nevertheless.
New England's depth is not only important in the event of an injury, however. It also gives the team flexibility from both a performance and game-planning stand point. The last two weeks were perfect examples of that as the Patriots opted to use different approaches – particularly on offense – to attack the defenses of the Broncos and the Raiders.
Last week, the team used its running backs more prominently to attack Denver's run defense. This week, against a suspect secondary, the Patriots went with a more vertical and pass-oriented battle plan. Both times it worked and both times New England's depth at the offensive skill positions – let alone the offensive line, as previously mentioned – was on display and allowed the team to not lose any offensive firepower despite using different tactics: The Patriots scored a combined 74 points in their two road games against the AFC West teams
As the Patriots are slowly entering the home stretch of the regular season, this ability to adapt while being able to count on the next men up to perform will come in handy. It has been like that in the past but with an increased number of injuries becomes even more important in 2017 – all to ensure the train keeps chugging along.