4 Ways That Wes Welker's Role Changes After Aaron Hernandez's Injury
Welcome back, Wes Welker!
After his disappearing act orchestrated by Josh McDaniels and Co. during the first two weeks of the season, Welker is back to his productive self.
Amidst the Patriots' heartbreaking 31-30 loss to the Baltimore Ravens on the road, there was a glimmer of hope in the hands of Welker. He caught eight passes for 142 yards for his most effective game of the season.
With tight end Aaron Hernandez out for at least the next few weeks, Welker should see plenty more playing time and a 2011-like proficiency in the near future.
Let's take a deeper look at just how this will happen.
Return as the Primary Slot Receiver
New England implemented many changes to its offensive scheme for the 2012 season. It added a deep threat in Brandon Lloyd and have shown an established running game with second-year back Stevan Ridley.
However, no alteration to the offense was more pertinent to Welker's role than the use of the two-tight end format.
Both Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski are coming off of megadeals in the offseason. It seemed like the Patriots were preparing to transition into an offense centering around these two.
Hernandez, in particular, is a special threat because he can play the tight end position but is also often featured as a slot receiver.
His size—6'1'', 245 pounds—together with his quickness make him nearly impossible for an opposing linebacker to cover.
He, along with Julian Edelman, was taking snaps away from Welker.
Now, after the freak high ankle sprain to Hernandez, Welker returned to the primary slot receiver role in Week 3 against Baltimore. Even more, Edelman, who caught Tom Brady's only touchdown pass, left the game with a hand injury at the end of the second quarter and never returned.
It is hard to say whether these "breaks" that are giving Welker more playing time is beneficial to the Patriots. They are missing Hernandez, one of their strongest weapons, and the unknown extent of the injury to Edelman is unsettling.
It is comforting to know, however, that a player of Welker's caliber is there to fill the void. He stepped up in the clutch and proved there is no reason to phase out a receiver in the prime of his career.
More Three-Receiver Sets
As Welker lines up in the slot position, ready for an in-route, Brandon Lloyd will set up wide on one of the wings and will be flanked by Edelman or Deion Branch.
New England will rewind to the history of 2007 when the three-receiver set featuring Randy Moss was commonplace in the Patriots offense.
It was a record-setting year when Brady threw for 50 touchdowns and over 4,800 yards.
The three-receiver set was the primary mode of transportation for the New England offense against Baltimore, gaining 319 yards through the air and only 77 on the ground.
On Sunday night against the Ravens, Brady favored Welker and Lloyd as he dropped back 41 times and targeted the pair on over half of those attempts (22).
When Lloyd is effective—as he was last night catching nine passes for 108 yards—it opens up the middle of the field for Welker to make his signature quick cuts and gain big yards after the catch.
No play was bigger for Welker than his 59-yard catch-and-run in the first quarter that set up a New England field goal to put the first points on the board.
On the night he was targeted 10 times, catching eight of those balls. Only Lloyd (12 targets) was thrown to more by Brady.
It is safe to say that the three-receiver set will feature Welker quite often, and he will excel.
Rediscover Relationship with Brady
There's no doubt that Welker's career took off when he paired up with Tom Brady in New England. In four of his five seasons with the Patriots, he has eclipsed the 110-reception mark.
That type of productivity is unheard of by most receivers in the NFL, which is why there was much uproar in New England when Welker's snap count diminished at the start of the season.
Against the Ravens, Welker saw the most snaps out of any receiver. He was on the field for 71 of the Patriots' 82 offensive plays, six more than Brandon Lloyd. This number began to increase once Julian Edelman, who saw the most snaps as a receiver in the first half (38), was ruled out for the second half.
However, in a game where the Patriots focused on the passing game, establishing the run only to utilize some play-action passes, Brady looked comfortable throwing to his favorite target over the last five seasons.
The duo of Brady and Welker can be lethal to any opposing defense because the two work as one offensive force.
Ron Borges of the Boston Herald described how Welker's 59-yard catch unfolded:
[He] quickly read the corner blitz on his side and went out and up into wide-open territory. As has happened so many times in the past, he and Tom Brady were as together as Siamese twins, the latter immediately seeing what was coming and sure Welker would react to it.
The two work as an unstoppable tandem game in and game out.
Brady connected with Welker for a first down on five of his eight catches, two of which came as third-down conversions.
The football IQ of Brady and the quick instincts of Welker should continue into the next few weeks and lead the Patriots to a much-needed victory.
Diminished Role of Tight Ends
During the days in between the Patriots' Week 2 loss to the Arizona Cardinals and their matchup against the Baltimore Ravens, the team added free-agent tight end Kellen Winslow to supplement the loss of Hernandez.
With the addition of Winslow, the Patriots roster now features eight tight ends including Hernandez.
The team is clearly prioritizing the position but for what reason?
Rob Gronkowski was in on all 82 offensive plays for the Patriots on Sunday but was only targeted three times. He had two catches for 21 yards.
Of the three other tight ends who saw action against the Ravens—Michael Hoomanawanui (18 snaps), Daniel Fells (five snaps) and Kellen Winslow (four snaps)—only Winslow and Hoomanawanui caught passes, a single catch each.
Overall, tight ends were targeted on only six of Brady's 41 pass attempts.
Without Hernandez on the field for the Patriots, defenses can put double coverage on Gronkowski, completely removing him from the game. The Ravens did just that.
This leaves Brady with unproven options at tight end.
If the Patriots decide to move forward with a pass-heavy offense as they did Sunday night, Brady will firmly rely on the abilities of Welker, Edelman and Lloyd.
New England should return to a more balanced offense against the Buffalo Bills in Week 4, though. The 41 pass attempts to only 34 rushing tries was largely due to an attempt to run the no-huddle offense against a strong Baltimore defense.
Expect to see the same amount of Welker next Sunday. He's sticking around as long as he can.
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