Commentary

Patriots run crossing pattern

Receiving corps in flux with reduced role for Welker, injury to Hernandez

Updated: September 17, 2012, 8:37 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Two major developments unfolded in the New England Patriots' surprising 20-18 home-opening loss to the Arizona Cardinals that figure to play a big role in how the team fares in the coming weeks.

The first is tight end Aaron Hernandez and his right ankle injury, which had him leaving Gillette Stadium with crutches and a boot on the ankle. Losing Hernandez for any stretch of time, as was seen Sunday, dramatically changes the complexion of the team's attack.

[+] EnlargeAaron Hernandez
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaLosing Aaron Hernandez on their third offensive play seemed to throw off the Patriots' game plan.

The second is more of a question: What is the coaching staff doing with Wes Welker? In a surprising development, Welker was third on the depth chart, playing behind Julian Edelman in two-receiver sets. In all, Edelman was on the field for 75 snaps (including penalties and a 2-point conversion), while Welker was on for 63. Welker said afterward that there is no injury-related issue that is holding him back.

The two issues met at a fork in the football road Sunday when Hernandez was injured on the team's third offensive play; he was engaged as a blocker on a short pass to Edelman when Edelman was tackled by cornerback William Gay into Hernandez' right leg.

Welker had been a spectator up to that point, but without Hernandez, the Patriots morphed from their base two-tight-end offense into more of a three-receiver attack. Welker was the third receiver. It was surprising to see the player who would break the all-time franchise record for receptions (562) later in the game relegated to backup status.

The main conclusion to be drawn at this point is that the coaching staff sees something it likes more in Edelman when the Patriots are in their two-receiver package. Of 18 snaps on Sunday in that personnel grouping, Edelman was on the field over Welker for 15 of them.

Maybe it's Edelman's blocking, as running back Stevan Ridley had some of his biggest runs of the day (20, 12 and 10 yards) out of the two-receiver package with Edelman on the field over Welker.

This is a major shift from 2011, when no matter the package, Welker was on the field. No Patriots receiver played more than him (89 percent of the snaps).

"You want to be out there," Welker said afterward. "As a competitor and everything else, especially on Sundays, it's what we work for. At the same time, Coach felt like whatever was best for the team, and I'm for that and I totally understand that. I'm just there to help out however I can."

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As for how the Hernandez injury affected the Patriots' approach, consider that in the convincing season-opening win at Tennessee on Sept. 9, the offense ran every play with two or more tight ends on the field, becoming only the second NFL team since 2008 to do so. The multiple tight ends helped dictate favorable matchups and made them more versatile.

But after Hernandez was injured in Sunday's home-opening loss, the Patriots had two or more tight ends on the field for just 19 of 79 snaps. Their primary personnel grouping had three receivers (Brandon Lloyd, Edelman, Welker), one tight end (Rob Gronkowski) and one running back (Ridley or Danny Woodhead).

"When he went down it took away a lot of things they are able to do," said Cardinals safety James Sanders, who played for the Patriots from 2005-2010. "It's unfortunate for them, but it helped us out as a unit."

So now the question becomes where the Patriots go from here, as this situation is precisely why Belichick stocked up on tight ends in the offseason. If you're going to emphasize the position as much as the Patriots have, depth is critical, as we saw in Super Bowl XLVI when Gronkowski wasn't 100 percent and the team didn't have a backup on the roster.

The status of veteran tight end Daniel Fells, a free agent signed to a three-year contract in March, becomes that much more important. He has been inactive for the first two games of the season with a shin injury. Third-year pro Michael Hoomanawanui also is on the tight end depth chart, but it wasn't inspiring to see him pushed back by Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson on a key fourth-quarter play, a third-and-1 outside run to Woodhead that was stopped for a 4-yard loss.

If Fells and Hoomanawanui don't take on larger roles, look for more of the three-receiver attack we saw in Sunday's loss.

Veteran free agent Lloyd, through two games, is the team's clear-cut No. 1 receiver. He played every snap against the Cardinals and 57 of 67 against the Titans, and has been targeted a team-high 21 times (13 receptions). The numbers suggest that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is committed to seeing Lloyd, who has followed him from Denver and St. Louis, become the biggest part of the receiving corps.

Then there's Edelman and Welker in a 2a/2b battle, with second-year player Greg Salas -- acquired in a trade from the St. Louis Rams on Sept. 1 -- fourth on the depth chart.

The Patriots could reach out to veteran Deion Branch, who is open to returning, for more receiver depth. Veterans Jabar Gaffney and Donte' Stallworth, who also were with the team in training camp, are available too.

Whatever they decide, Welker's declining role in the offense -- which comes after an offseason in which he couldn't come to a long-term contract with the Patriots and is now playing under the $9.5 million franchise tag -- bears watching.

"He's a phenomenal player and when he makes plays, it really sparks our whole offense and he made a bunch of them [Sunday]," quarterback Tom Brady said after Welker caught five passes for 95 yards. (Edelman had five catches for 50 yards.)

That's what made Welker's reduced playing time, for the second week in a row, stand out.

While Hernandez was forced off the field due to injury, Welker was kept on the sidelines at times due to a coach's decision -- two significant developments that headlined the Patriots' disappointing home-opening loss.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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