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Wes Welker has seen his action increase over the last four weeks.
At this time one year ago, New England ran an offense that heavily relied on dual-tight end sets. Bill Belichick always seems to play a role in igniting league-wide trends, and he really seemed to be on to something with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The two combined for 169 receptions, 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Things have not started so smoothly for the pair in 2012. Hernandez’s last game was in Week 2. Gronkowski, who has had injury issues of his own, is averaging 59 yards a game—a decent number for the position, but well below his 83-yard average in 2011.
So what have Belichick and Tom Brady done in response? The same thing they always do. “This is our situation,” they seem to say. “Now how can we be the best?”
The solution has been to run an offense that moves in hyper-speed—even by their standards. Only New Orleans runs more plays per minute of possession.
New England has also introduced a more retro offense focused on getting the ball to their quick, undersized receivers on short patterns. Only 18.1 percent of Brady’s passes have been to a receiver 15 yards or more downfield (21st in the NFL). His average ball has traveled only 4.2 yards through the air (12th).
Twenty-nine percent of Brandon Lloyd’s targets have come on deep balls. Thirty-three players have a higher percentage, and he has the most frequent long-range looks on the team.
Gronkowski is going deep less as well. His deep-ball targets are down five percent from last year.
An offense focused on speed and quick releases is particularly well-suited against defenses with a dominating pass rush (i.e. Houston and J.J. Watt). Sacks are hard to come by when the linemen are tired and only have less than two seconds to pressure the quarterback.
The rapid action has allowed New England to use the pass to set up the run. With linemen sucking air, the power run game has become, at times, unstoppable. New England has the No. 3 running game in the league. They were the No. 20 ground unit last year…and they still made the Super Bowl.