The Brady-Welker hookup is back
Belichick and Co. are happy to be at the top of the AFC East, a position they have become very accustomed to over the past decade. But in reality, the Patriots are a 4-0-caliber team stuck with a 2-2 record.
Excitement over a revamped defensive unit has subsided during the past couple weeks.
The secondary has looked just as vulnerable as last season's.They rank 25th in opponent passing yards per game at 281.5 and have succumbed three-straight 300-plus passing yard games, none more discouraging than Joe Flacco's 382 yards and three touchdowns in Week 3.
For that reason, the offense needs to be in full gear through all four quarters of the game.
Here are four ways Coach Belichick can continue facilitating the potent offense led by Tom Brady.
Welker has exploded onto the scene over the past three weeks
Did someone utter the words "phase-out".
What? Did you say something?
Patriots fans can pull their boxers out of a bunch because Wes Welker is on track for another 100-reception season.
After Week 1 against the Tennessee Titans, when Welker caught only three passes for 14 yards, analysts and fans of New England erupted into a storm of "Where was Welker," "Is this the end of Welker's Patriot career" and "Has Welker lost Brady's trust?"
Some cited his dropped pass in last year's Super Bowl that would have helped seal the Patriots' fourth Super Bowl ring in the Brady-era. Others thought Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels were altering their focus to a two-tight end front with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
Well, over the next three weeks Welker would be the most targeted receiver, along with Brandon Lloyd, locking Brady's attention 32 times. He also would lead the team in receiving yards during that span.
Welker caught only five passes in the loss to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 2 but made them count for 95 yards. He hauled in eight catches for an astounding 142 yards in Week 3 against Baltimore. Last week, he brought in nine catches for 129 yards.
All of a sudden, we're looking at a Wes Welker with 25 catches for 380 yards. He's bouncing off tackles like his old self, gaining 138 yards after contact, and over half of his receptions (16) have resulted in first downs.
Sure, one could argue that Hernandez getting hurt and Julian Edelman remaining out for the past game-and-a-half has increased Welker's role.
I would call that an excuse, a rationalization to everyone's warped thoughts of a phase-out.
Welker has led the league in receptions in three of the last five seasons.
Belichick would be insane not to use him.
Bolden took full advantage of his increased playing time
The Patriots ran the ball 40 times on Sunday.
No, that's not a typo.
The Buffalo Bills' defense could not stop a nose bleed in the second half of last weekend's 52-28 Patriots thumping.
The New England offense gained 580 total yards on offense, scored 45 points in the second half and rushed for nearly 250 yards.
Sophomore running back Stevan Ridley has been a nice complement to the Patriots' offense in 2012. His 339 rushing yards and three touchdowns are proof that his rushing attack is a serious threat to opposing defenses. This helps open the field for Brady.
On Sunday, Belichick and McDaniels threw another guy in the mix, undrafted free agent Brandon Bolden.
Bolden, who only had seven carries through the first three games, exploded for 137 yards on 16 carries, an 8.6 yards per carry average, and a score. Ridley rushed for 106 yards on 22 carries and two touchdowns.
It was the first time since November 23, 1980 that the Patriots had two 100-yard rushers in a single game.
The lack of respect the Patriots' running game has been given this year is attributed to their pass-heavy offense in recent years, especially since the departure of Corey Dillon. Ridley and Bolden have taken full advantage of that.
There was a bit of a question mark for the Patriots' offense after a 31-30 loss to the Ravens in Week 3. Ridley's opportunities were limited as Danny Woodhead took the majority of the carries.
The Patriots gained just 77 yards on the ground, and that faulty decision cost them the game.
In Week 4 it was back to Ridley, nicely supplemented by Bolden. If something works, why stray? The running game will continue to benefit from a healthy mix of Ridley and Bolden.
Gronk hauls in a 41-yard pass from Brady
Other than a turnover or an important defensive stop, there are few instances in a football game better at building momentum than a big offensive play.
Watching Brady sit in the pocket, scramble and wait for a play downfield to develop is thrilling. Then, one's heart stops as he rears back and launches a deep ball that the cameraman follows to its eventual target.
If the ball drops, the offense resets. If it connects, Brady rushes down the field pumping his fist.
In Week 1, there was a drive late in the first quarter where Brady dropped back from his own 33-yard line and connected with Gronkowski for a 28-yard gain. Three plays later, he found Hernandez for another 20-plus yard reception, this time for 23 yards and a score. They never gave up the lead.
Week 2 witnessed the second half start with a 36-yard hookup from Brady to Welker. That play led to the Patriots taking an early second-half lead, 9-6.
On 1st-and10 from their own 21-yard line in Week 3 against the Ravens, Brady again found Welker for a 59-yard catch-and-run that brought the ball to the Ravens' 20-yard line and set up the first score of the game.
Finally, the big play in Week 4 was a 41-yard strike from Brady to Gronkowski, which was part of a beautiful first drive that initially gave the Patriots a 7-0 lead.
(And how can we forget Brandon Lloyd's smiling touchdown catch).
These momentum-charged plays are made possible by allowing Brady to sit in the pocket and let a play develop. The offensive line has done a solid job protecting their quarterback, allowing eight sacks all season.
The stat could be better but is impressive when considering the pass-rushing ability of the last three teams they faced. The Bills have new addition Mario Williams, the Ravens feature linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and the Cardinals present the explosive defensive end Calais Campbell.
Brady is the commander-in-chief during the no-huddle offense
The hurry-up offense is a tactic, not an offensive scheme.
It is a way to confuse the defense and catch them off balance.
It keeps momentum flowing and can lead to quick points in necessary situations (i.e. under two minutes in the half, at the end of the game, etc.).
The past productivity of the Patriots' offense running the no-huddle has led fans to question why Belichick and Brady do not use it more often.
Here's the answer: it's not easy.
That being said, if the offense is able to function effectively as a unit in the no-huddle and all 11 players can remain on the same page, it should be utilized as much as possible.
Take the Patriots' 45-10 win against the Broncos in last season's AFC divisional playoff game. In that game, Brady had a record-breaking night, throwing for 363 yards and six touchdowns.
According to ESPN Stats & Information (via Chris Forsberg, ESPN Boston):
The Patriots ran 33 of 64 offensive plays without a huddle against the Broncos in the divisional playoffs. In those no-huddle situations, Brady posted an 85 percent completion rate, averaging 11.8 yards per passing attempt (and 7.3 yards per rush) and generating 21 first downs and four touchdowns.
In the 31 plays when the offense huddled, all of those stats dropped. Brady's completion percentage became 64.3 percent. He averaged 9.1 yards per attempt (only 3 yards per rush), gained seven first downs and threw two touchdowns.
So, yes, the no-huddle offense is effective. In fact, some would say the Patriots' offense is groomed and conditioned to run it more often than other teams.
But it's not always practical. As Belichick says, "A lot of times it isn't a real clean look. It's incumbent on everybody, not just the quarterback, but all 11 guys to be able to get the play and execute it based on whatever the look is. A lot of times those looks aren't static."
The hurry-up is one of the best spark plugs the Patriots' offense has.
It is kind of like that fine china your mother keeps hidden away until Christmas dinner; it looks very nice in use but should only be used it when necessary.