Thursday, November 19, 2015

Is Deep Ball In Play For Patriots With Edelman Out?

No, you weren't seeing things on Sunday evening, Tom Brady was airing it out. The question is, was that a knee-jerk reaction to losing his most reliable receiver, or part of the game plan against the atrocious New York Giants' secondary?

The answer is probably somewhere in between, which seems weird.

Weird, because Brady was working behind a mix-matched offensive line that is in such tatters that their starting center from last season is now their starting right tackle and a guy that was cut, resigned to the practice squad and elevated to the active roster in the space of two months is protecting Brady's 38 year old blind side...
Gronkowski is the Patriots' deep threat

Never mind that the prudent game plan was to attack a Giants' secondary ranked dead last in the league at will, the Patriots instead sought balance through three quarters of the game, a 25 to 20 mix between the pass and the run that had a net gain of just 17 points in that time span - but once the game hit crunch time in the fourth quarter, Brady let the football fly with 17 pass plays compared to only three running plays.

Losing Edelman to a broken bone in his foot took away one of the biggest parts of the Patriots' offense, something that had already been hindered by the loss of running back Dion Lewis for the season the week before: Yards after the catch.

With Lewis, the Patriots had an elusive ankle breaker who could take a screen pass or catch a ball in the flat and make people miss more times than not. With Edelman, they had an elusive space-creator who was one of the toughest short-area covers in the league, but what made them both special in this offense was their ability to create yards after the catch - and now the perception is that's all but gone.

Sure, there are other players and the Patriots have always adopted the "Next Man Up" Philosophy, but the fact of the matter is that if those players weren't the best that the Patriots had, they wouldn't have been starting, nor would they have been getting as many touches as they were.

This is to take nothing away from running backs like James White and Brandon Bolden, nor receivers like Danny Amendola or Brandon LaFell, but they are different types of players, and most likely will not enjoy the same success that Lewis and Edelman enjoyed in their roles - which means that defenses can concentrate more on their pass rush getting to Brady without having to concern themselves with that quick safety valve...

...something that we all saw was frustrating Brady on Sunday evening. The short routes that normally would have gone to Edelman or Lewis weren't available to him consistently, as the Giants went to a zone look to take advantage of not having to man-up on either of the missing warriors - causing him to hold the ball longer than he would otherwise, finally taking to lofting the ball down the field when he did get man looks over the top.
Amendola is more like Welker rather than Edelman

The results were mixed, as Brady went downtown eight times, completing one to tight end Rob Gronkowski for a 76 yard touchdown and one to LaFell, who came down with a contested 54 yard gain - but misfiring on six other balls, including one that should have been intercepted on their final drive, taking three sacks in the process - but it also opened up underneath stuff enough for Brady to target Amendola for short gainers to set up the winning score.

The deep ball really hasn't been a staple of the Patriots' offense since a guy named Randy Moss was running underneath Brady's offerings some eight years ago, relying instead on the talents of pass catchers like Wes Welker, Edelman, Kevin Faulk, Shane Vereen and Lewis instead to "dink and dunk" efficiently down the field, which opened up the intermediate and deep zones to take occasional shots...

...but now without being able to count on Edelman or Lewis, is the deep ball going to become more prevalent to open up the underneath stuff instead of the other way around?

Well, as it is, on throws over 20 yards from the line of scrimmage, Brady is 23 of 47 this season - just a shade under 50%, which actually puts him right around tops in the NFL, with the majority of his deep balls going toward Gronkowski and LaFell - but it remains to be seen if that level of success continues when the defense doesn't have Edelman and Lewis to worry about.

The running game may be just as important to opening up the underneath routes, as a successful day running the ball tends to draw the linebackers and safeties closer to the line of scrimmage and opens up the zone between the second and third levels - so it is more likely that the Patriots remain steadfast in their philosophy that it takes a wide open play book to be successful, which will force the opposing defense to defend the entire field.

For certain, the Patriots have a good nucleus of players that the defense has to pay attention to in Gronkowski up the seam and on crossers and LaFell outside the numbers and between the hash marks down the middle, so it's simply a matter of opening the playbook up to take advantage of what the rest of the pass catching corps offers.

Tight end Scott Chandler could become more involved, and Aaron Dobson possesses the deep speed to take the top off of a defense, but it is a trifecta of Amendola, third-year speedster Keyshawn Martin and recently promoted Chris Harper that hold the key for the continued success of the passing game.

Many look at Amendola as the obvious 'replacement" for Edelman in the Patriots' offense, but he's not that kind of player. Amendola is more along the speed of former Patriot Wes Welker who made up for lack of deep speed and short-area quickness with toughness and great hands - in fact, Amendola may have the most reliable hands on the offense - but doesn't cause enough separation at the top of his route to gain a lot of yardage on his own...

...Martin does, however, and should be the player to pick up some of the slack on the jailbreak screens that made Lewis so exciting to watch, while Harper showed in preseason that he has the fluid hips and a dancer's footwork to break open at the top of his routes and displays a determination to do something with the ball once he has it in his hands, earning the moniker "Poor man's DeSean Jackson" from opposing scouts while in college.

This is not to mean that Harper is going to explode onto the scene the way Jackson did, as he doesn't possess that level of deep speed, but he is elusive after the catch and has tremendous hands - and he even made the Patriots' initial 53 man roster out of camp after catching 15 balls for 150 yards in the preseason, but was cut after the first game and landed back on the practice squad, giving New England's corners fits in practice.

Together with the tough running of LeGarrette Blount and the bonus touches of passing back James White, it appears that New England can still field a pass catching corps that can cause the defense to have to defend the entire field, and not concentrate on just one or two players which would eventually cause the Patriots to scale back what is probably the most diverse play book in the NFL.

So, there really isn't much reason for the Patriots to change up the way they do things on offense, particularly given that Belichick is the master at desgining game plans that take advantage of his players' individual strength, and while none of these guys bring the same game that Edelman or Lewis did, they still must be reckoned with and accounted for.

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