For New England Patriots fans, the Pats 55-point outburst this week was a sight both foreign and familiar. On one hand, the Patriots' year-long offensive struggles are well-documented, as Sunday's performance exceeded the point and yardage totals of the last two weeks combined. However, with a brisk no-huddle pace, Rob Gronkowski dominating like an irrepressible beast and Danny Amendola appearing positively Welker-esque, it truly looked like old times in Foxboro.
Of course, it was only one game against a moribund Steelers team, albeit one that had the second-ranked pass defense going into the contest. If the Patriots mission is to establish consistency headed into the postseason, then one spectacular performance does not accomplish that task.
However, the Pats have been gradually moving towards that breakout for a few weeks, and with nearly a full arsenal, it was encouraging but also anticipated that the offense would finally put everything together. The new expectation is to continue building upon that foundation and churning out consistently excellent production.
Breaking down the last few weeks, here are three signs that have emerged to signify that the healthy New England offense is once again an elite unit.
Last week, I broke down how Gronkowski's re-insertion into the offense had a particularly poignant effect on the Patriots' red-zone production, drawing coverage away from other receivers and providing bigger windows for Brady to throw into. Well, with Gronk active the past three games, New England has scored 11 touchdowns in 15 red-zone possessions, good for a 73 percent touchdown clip. For reference, the Packers led the league with a 68.5 percent red-zone touchdown percentage in 2012.
And yet, while opening up opportunities for other receivers is a wonderful ancillary effect, there is still no red-zone weapon in the whole NFL as potent as Gronk. He proved that again this week with his first touchdown reception of the year, a truly unstoppable play:
What else was Pittsburgh supposed to do on the play? I suppose you could quibble with 6'2" linebacker Jarvis Jones being assigned to cover Gronk, but he stuck to him fairly well on the play. And even though Troy Polamalu is feared because of his playmaking ability in the box rather than back in coverage, he came over and delivered a well-timed (albeit penalized) hit. None of that mattered against Gronkowski, however.
Some fans have suggested that the Patriots' red-zone woes earlier this season were due to a decline in Tom Brady's accuracy. Well, it is true that Brady's 68.7 percent accuracy percentage is a lowly 27th in the league, and he has had his share of particularly heinous misses.
However, the margin for error has been so miniscule that it was unreasonable to expect Brady to perpetuate his historic numbers from the past few seasons. Passing windows are already tiny in the NFL, but in the confined area of the red zone, extra precision is necessary for sustained success. Now that Brady once again has a reasonable margin of error to work with, the red-zone results are returning:
|Weeks 7-9||5||7||71.4||9.1 (!)||3||0||139.3|
Indeed, Brady is not the problem with the Patriots, nor has he ever been. That is not to say that he has been perfect (because he hasn't), but there were several much more concerning factors holding the offense back. As you'll see, the rest of this article discusses how those factors have nearly caught up to the standards set in Foxboro. Even at age 36, Brady is just fine, and he should silence the lingering doubters going forward.
"12" Personnel and Stevan Ridley
For much of the year, the Patriots have operated out of three- and even four-receiver sets. The lack of reliable receiving options has necessitated the presence of more threats, often causing passing back Brandon Bolden to receive a lion's share of the snaps as New England attempted to bludgeon teams with quantity over quality.
The deleterious side-effect of that was the minimization of Stevan Ridley, by far the Patriots most talented runner. A year after breaking out and playing 44.3 percent of the snaps, many expected Ridley to receive even more reps, becoming the Pats first true workhorse back since Corey Dillon.
However, Ridley has only played 40 percent of the snaps on the year, as game-planning limitations have victimized the third-year back at times. But with Gronkowski getting healthier, the Patriots played nearly the entire game in "12" personnel (one back, two tight ends, two receivers), continuing a trend from the second half of the Miami game. Those heavier packages kept Ridley on the field for 68.8 percent of the snaps, his highest playing total of the season.
The center of those personnel packages is still Gronkowski, whose equal potency as both a blocker and a receiver keeps the defense guessing. Nevertheless, Ridley's presence makes the running option significantly more dangerous. Even in limited reps, Ridley is still in the top-15 in yards after contact per rush and broken tackles.
LeGarrette Blount is bigger, and both Bolden and Shane Vereen are superior passing backs, but none of them can run as decisively with the combination of speed and power like Ridley. These two runs from the Steelers game exemplify the underappreciated hidden yardage Ridley churns out:
In both instances, he should be stopped short of the end zone and first-down marker, respectively. But he makes it in both instances because of quick decisions and hard running. It's not as pretty as, say, a dancing explosive run by Jamaal Charles or C.J. Spiller, but it's a reliably effective running style that wears down opposing defenses.
Oh, and for the small minority who hold a paranoia about his past fumbles, Ridley has actually only fumbled twice this year. It's not as if he's putting it on the ground every game, and Belichick wisely kept his best back in the game after a brilliant strip by Polamalu.
Gronkowski's snaps should continue to elevate the rest of the season, and we can probably expect him to be an every-down player by the time the Pats face the Broncos in Week 12. If the Patriots can turn to their bread-and-butter "12" personnel on a more consistent basis, that not only maximizes the passing game, but it keeps Ridley on the field and adds a new dimension to the New England offense.
Aaron Dobson's Development
Say what you will about the horrific drop rate, tied for the highest in the NFL at 22.5 percent. Like you, I hold my breath every time I see the ball sailing towards Aaron Dobson's fickle hands. But the development is undeniable, and despite angry (and unreasonable) accusations of another wide receiver bust, it appears Dobson is finally starting to come around.
First off, it's clear that Belichick and Josh McDaniels trust him. There's a misconception that the Patriots only design plays for slot receivers Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, but Dobson has actually played the most snaps of any Pats receiver the past two weeks. Yes, Brady targets Gronk and the slot receivers more frequently, but they generally run higher percentage routes and will naturally attract more throws.
Furthermore, there is concrete proof that Dobson is finally developing a rapport with Brady, and it goes beyond the highlight-reel touchdowns. After missing Week 1, Dobson has played eight games. Dividing them into four-game stretches, here is how Dobson has performed in each half:
courtesy Pro Football Focus
OK, so the drops are still there, but he is starting to haul in a higher percentage of passes for more yardage, a reflection of his increasing grasp of the offense. If you need visual proof, take these two eerily similar plays from the Pittsburgh game:
They are both back-shoulder throws that require precise timing with Brady. On the first one, Dobson gets his around, but he never really cuts off his route, resulting in an awkward leap and drop. However, rather than pouting and cowering amidst the boo birds, he gets it right the next time, timing the leap and keeping himself in-bounds. It's little adjustments like this that which reflect Dobson's growth.
If New England plays more two-receiver packages going forward, that should only enhance Dobson's productivity. As the third or fourth option in the passing game, he will bear a significantly smaller burden than he did early in the year, when he was a primary option by default instead of merit.
The Patriots offense has repeatedly stalled in past postseasons when opposing defenses could take away Plan A, namely the short and intermediate timing routes. Those are still the first options in the 2013 offense, and they remain the most important ingredients in a successful New England passing attack.
But when those options inevitably dry up for a stretch, the Patriots will need a Plan B they can trust. Shaky hands aside, Dobson has shown the talent and aptitude to serve as that Plan B, making him one of the most important cogs in a rapidly improving Patriots offense.
*All stats courtesy Pro Football Focus' premium section (subscription required), and all photos courtesy NFL Game Rewind.