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Wednesday, October 13, 2010
Updated: October 14, 9:28 AM ET
Patriots evolve a Moss-less offense

By Jeremy Lundblad
ESPNBoston.com

They are the top-scoring team in the NFL, averaging almost five points more than the next team. Through four games, their 131 points are the third most in franchise history.

So why is everyone so concerned with the New England Patriots' offense?

It might have a little something to do with shipping off the most prolific receiver in franchise history -- a man who caught 50 touchdown passes in 52 games.

If nothing else, trading Randy Moss ensured the bye-week discussion wouldn't focus on a defense that's allowing the fourth-most yards in the NFL and can't stop anyone on third down.

Unquestionably, the loss of Moss drastically impacted New England's offense. Deion Branch, the man effectively brought in to replace him, brings a much different skill set to the position. Ultimately, the change is about more than just the names on the back of the uniform. It points to an evolving offensive framework.

Let's break down three facets of the pass attack undergoing a reformation.

Spreading the Wealth on Offense

From a talent standpoint, it's impossible to spin these moves as a net positive for the Patriots' offense. Branch has never topped five touchdowns and last hauled in 50 passes in 2006. No one -- least of all Branch himself -- expects to see Moss-like numbers out of him.

No single player can replace Moss, but perhaps everyone will. That hope of collective production appears to be at the core of a new offensive framework.

In 2009, the pass offense almost exclusively focused on two players. Of the Patriots' 592 pass attempts, 300 went to Moss or Wes Welker. Both ranked in the top nine in the NFL in targets. The next most-targeted duo -- Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin -- saw 20 fewer passes. The numbers are even more startling considering that Welker effectively missed three games. When Julian Edelman was in Welker's starting spot, he saw 34 passes thrown his way. In other words, 334 of 592 passes -- or 56.4 percent -- targeted Moss or the wide receiver starting alongside him. With emerging young targets in Brandon Tate, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots appear poised for a more balanced offense in 2010. Now back in the fold is Branch, a veteran of the Super Bowl-winning teams that used such a diversified approach.

Even before the trade, Moss was losing targets to Tate and Hernandez. After catching only two of the 10 passes thrown his way against the Jets, Moss saw three passes against Buffalo. Against Miami, his lone target was on a fake spike.

In all, Moss caught only nine of the 22 balls thrown his way. When the trade went down, his 40.9 reception percentage was third-lowest among 74 players targeted at least 20 times, better only than Darrius Heyward-Bey and Harry Douglas. Moss' five drops were the most in the NFL.

Take out those passes, and Brady has completed 76 percent of his throws. The Patriots appear to be sacrificing explosiveness for that consistency.

Targeting the Tight Ends

So who are the biggest beneficiaries of a more diverse pass attack? Bill Belichick is known to adapt his approach to suit his personnel. In 2010, it's the new crop of tight ends forcing his hand.

Last season, that position was an afterthought in the passing game. Tight ends combined to catch 43 passes, the fewest since Brady's first season as starter.

That led to a complete overhaul at the position. In came a pair of rookies (Hernandez and Gronkowski) along with a veteran blocker (Alge Crumpler). Now, tight ends are an integral part of the offense.

Last season, Brady had 48 completions in formations that did not include a tight end on the field, third-most in the NFL. This season? He hasn't even attempted a pass without a tight end.

Through Week 4, the Patriots had used multiple tight ends on an NFL-high 146 plays. That puts them on pace for 584, far exceeding last season's total of 360. Brady is on pace for 156 completions in multiple-tight end sets. That's nearly double last season's total (87).

Of course, the tight ends themselves are a big part of that. After targeting the position only 61 times last season, Brady is on pace for 112 this season. Of his 28 throws to the position, 24 have been caught.

Though the sample size is still small, tight ends seem to be filling the receiving void in the backfield. Since Kevin Faulk got hurt, Brady has 15 completions to tight ends and just two to running backs.

The clear standout has been Hernandez. With 17 of his 18 receptions coming in the past three games, he's emerging as Brady's No. 2 target. Hernandez is currently on pace for 72 receptions, a total that ranks fourth in franchise history at the position, and the most since Ben Coates in 1995.

Finding a New Deep Threat

Randy Moss failed to catch more than five passes or crack 80 yards receiving in his final 12 games with the Patriots. His decreased production always came with the same caveat: Moss stretched the field by forcing the defense to key in on him.

After the trade, the conversation began to shift to a changing offensive scheme.

So which is it? Was Moss the deep threat who opened up the field? Or was the offense slowly moving in a new direction?

As usual, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.

According to STATS LLC, Brady has only 12 throws for more than 20 yards this season. Only three were caught, putting him on pace for just 12 long connections. That would be his fewest since 2002, when he had just nine.

To put that in perspective, consider 2007 when he had 13 touchdown passes -- not just completions -- thrown for more than 20 yards.

In other words, the long ball simply has not been part of the offense this season, something unlikely to change without Moss.

In 2007 alone, Moss had 13 receptions on passes thrown for more than 20 yards, according to STATS. That includes an unthinkable 11 catches on passes thrown for more than 30 yards. During four seasons in New England, Branch caught just nine balls thrown for more than 20 yards -- including just four for more than 30 yards. By no means are those numbers a critique of Branch. But rather, they are evidence that he's not the deep threat to replace Moss.

During Branch's first stint in New England, that job fell to David Patten. While with the Patriots, Patten's average reception was 11.5 yards from scrimmage. That falls right in line with Moss (11.1).

Branch's average reception with the Patriots came 9.0 yards downfield, and that was on much younger knees. He's a midrange target, somewhere in between the deep threats (Moss and Patten) and quick-hit artists like Welker (4.4 yards) and Troy Brown (6.3).

Almost by default, the deep-threat job now falls to Brandon Tate, even though he has caught only one pass thrown longer than 20 yards.

With more potential targets to focus on, opposing defenses will be stretched in a different way. However, finding a deep threat remains among the most significant offensive questions going forward.

Jeremy Lundblad is a researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.