Missing piece shouldn't puzzle Patriots
Even without Aaron Hernandez, Tom Brady and Co. seem to be built to produce
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There's a scene in the NFL Films documentary "Bill Belichick: A Football Life" in which an exasperated Belichick is sitting at a table with his assistant coaches following a regular-season loss and lamenting the ease at which teams can stymie New England's offense. Filmed during the 2009 season, Belichick suggests that if teams take away Randy Moss down the field and eliminate Wes Welker underneath, the Patriots have no other consistent option with which to move the ball.
Ever since, the Patriots have seemingly constructed their offense around the idea that if a key piece is missing or neutralized by the opposition, the unit can remain productive thanks to its complementary pieces.
The Patriots selected two tight ends in the first four rounds of the 2010 draft (Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez) and two running backs in the first three rounds in 2011 (Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley). They jettisoned big-play Moss and brought back one of Brady's favorite possession receivers in Deion Branch. This past offseason they traded for Chad Ochocinco to add depth to the same receiver corps (one that still has the likes of 2010 third-round pick Taylor Price trying to get on the field and carve out a role).
The result? The Patriots have scored 30 or more points in each of their past 10 regular-season games, breaking a franchise record set by the Moss/Welker-led offense of 2007. What's more, quarterback Tom Brady and the New England offense has generated a staggering 940 passing yards through the first two weeks of the season.
Maybe that's why reports Monday that Hernandez might miss game action with a knee injury sustained in Sunday's 35-21 triumph over the San Diego Chargers was met with something decidedly less than panic.
Keep in mind that, in little more than a season, Hernandez has made himself one of the most important cogs in this offense. In a total of 16 games, he's caught 59 passes for 728 yards and eight touchdowns (all of which have come in his past nine games). Pairing with Gronkowski, the two have seemingly combined for more offense at the tight end position than Brady generated from all of his other tight ends combined over the previous decade.
Of course, Hernandez is a tight end by roster designation only. With a 6-foot-2, 250-pound frame, he's an H-back capable of splitting out wide and both outrunning and outleaping most defensive backs.
So even with the Patriots thin on depth at tight end -- Gronkowski's older brother, Dan, was signed before the start of the season, but hasn't caught a pass while focusing on blocking assignments -- Belichick has the luxury of meeting the injury with a shrug.
"We have a lot of different skill players in our offense," Belichick said when asked about using a receiver in place of Hernandez. "We have a lot of different formations and things. We use multiple personnel groups, multiple formations, so whatever we have to do, we'll use some combination of those."
When Hernandez sat out the final two games of the 2010 regular season with a hip injury, the Patriots still generated 850 yards of total offense and scored a total of 72 points in wins over the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins, suggesting they're capable of adapting with backup personnel.
The Patriots travel to Buffalo this weekend, the same place they played without Hernandez last season. What does that Week 16 game tell us about how the Patriots compensated? Consider this:
• Rob Gronkowski played 67 of 68 offensive snaps and should probably brace for another hefty workload with Hernandez sidelined.
• Alge Crumpler, the team's third tight end, started alongside Gronkowski in a two-tight-end formation and played 43 snaps, while the team still limited his releases into passing routes. This is an area where Dan Gronkowski could fill in.
• Even without Hernandez, the Patriots ran 35 of 68 plays out of a two-wide-receiver, two-tight-end formation, including 23 of 37 first-half snaps in which New England built a 24-3 cushion and cruised to a 34-3 triumph.
• Third wide receiver Brandon Tate saw a bump in snaps and the Patriots ran 24 total snaps out of a three-receiver set. New England has utilized formations with three or more receivers just 25 of 151 snaps so far this season. Regardless, more three-wide sets open the door for Ochocinco to see more snaps and show where he's at in terms of grasping the offense.
The flip side here is that, while teams have struggled to take away New England's overall tight end production, the lack of Hernandez gives teams the opportunity to key on Gronkowski and force New England's wide receivers to beat them.
During the 2010 playoffs, when Hernandez played but was ailing (just 25 snaps), the Jets put the onus on the wide receivers to make plays while bringing extra pressure on Brady. The Patriots generated 299 yards through the air, but New York emerged with a 28-21 triumph. Gronkowski caught six passes, but only for 59 yards and was kept out of the end zone.
If the Patriots are without Hernandez on Sunday, it will be interesting to see how much they deviate from what's worked so well the first two weeks of the season. This is a chance to show they're built to avoid being caught in the one-dimensional trap that sometimes plagued the 2009 squad.
Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.
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