We have reason to believe this could be the scariest incarnation of a Tom Brady-led Patriots offensive attack.
New England Patriots fans can finally breath a sigh of relief. Tom Brady has been back in full force for the past two Sundays and appears to have picked up where he left off. And apparently still could have some rust. If this is the case, the offense will only get scarier. With fresh faces Chris Hogan and Martellus Bennett lighting up the scoreboard, a sharper Brady will only further exploit defense’s weaknesses.
Through all of this we mustn’t forget that the Patriot’s revelation from a year ago, Dion Lewis, is still sidelined from injury. Dion Lewis had the highest elusive rating ever seen by Pro Football Focus before tearing his ACL against the Redskins last season. Until Lewis can return later this year James White will have his role; and while he is a worthy replacement, his between the tackles running is not at the same level. These new weapons and those waiting for a chance to get on the field give the Patriots a chance to become one of the highest powered offenses in NFL History.
This may seem like a hot take to some, with only two games to go off how can you make conclusions on how good this offense can be? Well the answer lies within the stats of former teams that Brady and Belichick have been on. A year that stands out is the 2007 team that went undefeated in the regular season. Tom Brady set an NFL record with 50 touchdown passes, including 23 to the great Randy Moss. That season stands out because of the addition of two new offensive weapons in Randy Moss and Wes Welker; two of the all time great Patriots. Both additions were playing the best football of their lives, and it allowed the Patriots to average a ridiculous 37 points a game which in comparison to last years 15-1 Panthers is almost 6 points better per game.
I almost left out one small detail, the Patriots were coming off a scandal over videotaping opponents signals (sound similar yet?). If one thing has become clear about the Patriots is that they play their best when they feel it is “us against the world”. The fire that Spygate lit under the Patriots allowed them to play lights out football for almost an entire season, falling only one catch short of immortality.
This years team already has one advantage over that record setting team, a 1 in the loss column. While a perfect season is an incredible feat to accomplish in a highly competitive league, it can also be a hindrance. There is a reason no teams have gone undefeated in the years since the Patriots incredible season; and it’s a simple reason: it is hard. From the increased media coverage, to heightened expectations, and increased nerves, trying to go undefeated is stressful. The increased pressure players feel trying to be perfect, not only are they trying to win the game, they also have to fight to keep their record perfect. It may seem like they are the same end goal, but the constant pressure can deteriorate the focus during the week on the upcoming game. Players minds drift, wondering what happens if they are still undefeated a few weeks down the line. This lack of focus leads to breakdowns on the field, and generally sloppy play later in the season when you need to play your best.
Another reason is the idea that get’s in players minds that they are invincible and can’t lose. Even Tom Brady admits that they thought they couldn’t lose leading up to the Superbowl. This mindset leads to sloppy performances (Belichick’s worst nightmare), and losses in the most critical games where the opposing team is not a pushover. This has been speculated to be a factor in the Patriots stunning loss to the Giants, but thankfully is not something that will haunt the Patriots this year.
With the perfect season already out of the picture the only thing the team has to focus on is winning every week. This will allow greater focus on execution and avoiding negative plays; something that hurt the Patriots during the first half against the Bengals. With multiple 3rd downs being over ten yards, the offense had trouble getting going; and only due to a timely holding call were able to take a lead into the half. While the first half was a reminder that the offense still has a way to go, the second half showed us what this group is capable of.
Almost immediately Brady started to target his tight ends, at one point hitting either Gronk or Martellus on six straight passes. These two players are reason enough to put this offense on a similar level to that of the 2007 or 2011 team. While the 2007 Patriots had two of the best receivers in the game in Wes Welker and Randy Moss; they lacked a physically dominant tight end, let alone two. This years team has the luxury of having two of the best tight ends in the league. Not only can they both block extremely well, they are even better pass catchers. This makes it nearly impossible to cover both players, which has become clear over the past two weeks.
Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports
Against the Browns, both tight ends displayed their ability with Martellus getting the benefit of Gronk drawing double coverages. This was seen on his second touchdown of the day. Gronk drew double coverage in the end zone, which Brady recognized and knew that it would leave Martellus with man coverage. This is a winning situation. One precise throw later Martellus, had his second touchdown on the day. Later in the game the Patriots lined up Martellus on the outside with Gronk in the slot. This created confusion leading to two wide open options for Brady to choose from, he chose Martellus for their third touchdown connection on the day. Despite Martellus getting the touchdowns, it can’t be forgotten that Gronk still had over a hundred yards, a testament to his talent and preparation.
These two tight ends were similarly dominant against the Bengals. While Martellus did not light up the scoreboard, the increase in respect the defense had to give him allowed Gronk to get a career high 162 receiving yards with one touchdown.
While it may be that this offense could put up numbers similar to the 2007 unit, it operates very similarly to the 2011 team. As most fans remember, that team included tight end, Aaron Hernandez alongside Gronkowski, and terrorized the league with its two tight end sets. With Hernandez having since been convicted of murder the Patriots had struggled to find a replacement until they acquired Martellus Bennett in a trade this offseason. With two physically dominant tight ends, the Patriots have similar personal groupings to the 2011 squad.
One advantage that this Patriots team has over the 2011 unit is an abundance of talent at the receiver position. While it is true that the 2011 team had Wes Welker as a dominant force over the middle of the field, it lacked a full set of receivers for Brady to spread the ball around to. The next receiver on the depth chart; the aging Deion Branch only had 51 receptions, more than 70 less than Welker. This years squad will not face that problem.
Leading the receivers into action has been 8th year vet Julian Edelman, who despite being slightly hampered with a foot issue has still been the most productive receiver for the Patriots. Even though he only has 28 catches, he also has only played with Brady for two weeks. As their chemistry continues to build and Edelman’s foot heals, he should be back around the 8 catch per game mark. Next up is the newcomer Chris Hogan who has carried over his training camp chemistry with Brady and turned it into regular season success. Against the Cleveland Browns, the pair connected on 4 passes for 114 yards in what was Brady’s best day throwing deep in recent memory.
The combination of Hogan on the outside and Edelman in the center looks to be a scary combo for opposing defenses. And when Amendola is taken into account, this group of receivers could make any offense successful in the NFL. Each receiver has a different trait that allows them to fit into the offense perfectly together.
While Edelman is shifty and can always make the first man miss, he cannot always bring in tough catches or take the top off a defense.
Hogan gives the Patriots a receiver who can take the top off defenses, allowing Edelman to stay in his comfort zone underneath. Meanwhile Amendola can always be relied on to make the tough catch on a critical play during the game, and is one of Brady’s favorite targets on third down. These three receivers give the Patriots flexibility on offense that the 2011 team lacked, giving this year’s team a slight edge.
Every team in the NFL usually can attest to having a top end player at one skill position in the game on offense. What separates the Patriots is the fact that they have a great player at every skill position on the offense. When you look at the combination of two tight ends lined up on the offensive line (or out wide and in the slot), Julian Edelman in the slot paired with Hogan out wide, and Dion Lewis or James White in the backfield, one thing becomes clear. The Patriots will not be stopped. If the defense tries to take away Gronk down the seam with double coverage, Martellus Bennett will have a field day. Say they bring down the safeties to guard both? Then Hogan will be going over the top hauling in bombs from Brady. And if all else fails, Dion Lewis (or James White) will be there as a safety valve and likely make some men miss to get positive yards if not a big play.
Yes it is early in the year, and yes the offense could not be a dominant as I believe it will be, but as it stand now the only thing standing between this team and victory will be themselves. They may not win out, but if they do, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.