- Mike Reiss, ESPN New England Patriots reporter
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots are preparing to play without do-it-all tight end Aaron Hernandez, who is expected to be sidelined for around a month with a right ankle injury, and quarterback Tom Brady considered Wednesday how the attack might be different without him.
The first thought that came to mind was that the team was in this situation before, on the same week of the 2011 season. And the hope is that it's not deja vu.
"We lost that game," Brady recalled of a 34-31 decision at Buffalo in which Hernandez didn't play because of a knee injury and the Patriots' attack looked markedly different from the first two weeks of that season. "We're going to have to see how it plays out. He's a great player for us and provides a lot of versatility."
What stood out from that game was how the Patriots relied heavier on their receiving corps than their preferred choice, the tight ends.
After running 83 percent of their offensive plays with two or more tight ends on the field through the first two games of 2011, the Patriots did it only four times against Buffalo without Hernandez, using an offensive lineman as the second tight end in short-yardage situations.
The primary package was with three receivers, and then-offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien also introduced a four-receiver package for the first time. One extra receiver, Chad Ochocinco, bombed in dropping a long would-be touchdown pass and running a lazy route across the middle that was undercut for an interception.
Could this approach be a preview of what is to come Sunday night in Baltimore? Perhaps, as the re-signing of ready-to-play receiver Deion Branch might be the tip-off, giving the Patriots four wideouts Brady can feel comfortable with going into a hostile environment in which comfort and familiarity between quarterback and pass-catcher is especially critical.
At the same time, the Patriots are now more equipped to retain some semblance of the multiple-tight end groupings they prefer, mainly because of the presence of just-signed 29-year-old Kellen Winslow and possibly veteran Daniel Fells, the 2012 free-agent signee who has missed the first two games with a shin injury but could be primed for a return this week.
Winslow, at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, projects into a Hernandez-type role, with the ability to line up in various spots. The question is how quickly he can get up to speed with the Patriots' system.
"[We] feel like he might have a chance to help us, so that's why he's here," coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday, citing Winslow's production (432 receptions over the past five seasons).
If Winslow proves to be a quick study and his balky knee holds up, it's possible the offense won't look much different than it did in the season opener at Tennessee, in which every play was run with two or more tight ends on the field. From a conditioning standpoint, it should help that Winslow was in Seahawks training camp this year.
A Rob Gronkowski-Winslow pairing might not be as effective as Gronkowski-Hernandez, but it's not a bad fallback. Not bad at all, actually, especially when considering how the Ravens had trouble with Eagles tight end Brent Celek in a 24-23 loss Sunday.
As for how realistic it is to expect much from Winslow, it wouldn't be the first time a player was brought on by Belichick and played a big role in his team's game plan that week. Offensive lineman Brian Waters did it last year with the Patriots, signed Sept. 4 and starting Sept. 12. Belichick went further back in telling the story of signing Mike Tomczak with the Cleveland Browns in the early 1990s and having him start a game that week.
Still, because of the element of the unknown with Winslow, the Patriots had to cover their bases, and that's probably what led them back to Branch.
Brady used the words "stability", "dependable" and "consistent" in describing Branch, who plays all the receiver spots and thus could back up or complement Brandon Lloyd (limited in practice with thigh injury), Wes Welker and Julian Edelman.
If the Patriots are forced into more three- and possibly four-receiver sets, they need more ready-now depth and are fortunate Branch was still available after he was a surprise cut at the end of the preseason. While second-year target Greg Salas is an intriguing prospect to be groomed for the future (he's returning to the practice squad), Branch helps more in the present.
"We'll see what kind of role he plays," Brady said, adding that he was hoping all along that Branch would return.
Roles are still being defined as the Patriots prepare for life without Hernandez in the coming weeks, but one thing seems clear. Unlike last season, when the direction of the Hernandez-less offense was easier to predict, there are more options this time around.
Bill Belichick is trying to keep his offense moving without Aaron Hernandez.