It seems clear that even without their All-Pro tight end, the Patriots can still piece together a functional offense that gives them a chance to win.
A lot of what the Pats showed against the Dolphins last week was not entirely unexpected. New England turned to lots of three- and four-receiver formations, and even some two-back sets, in an attempt to get their best personnel on the field at the same time.
The intermediate timing routes were the bread-and-butter while the red-zone woes were the expected struggles. The run game was decently successful when utilized, but the Pats seemed to get away from their ground game again in tight situations.
This week, the Patriots face a Baltimore Ravens defense that presents some challenges similar to the Dolphins. The Ravens defense is a stout well-rounded unit, highlighted by one of the league's best front sevens and a secondary that has pleasantly surprised with some spare parts.
So, what should Pats fans expect when New England goes to Baltimore? Here are the key players, adjustments and questions to watch for from the Patriots offense this week.
What Do We Know?
It's pretty clear that the Patriots are a team that will play the majority of its snaps out of three-receiver sets. With Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola occupying two of those three slots, New England ran tons of short timing routes against Miami that were designed to allow their shifty receivers to rack up the yards after catch (YAC). A look at Tom Brady's passing chart from the game illustrates this quite clearly:
|Tom Brady's Passing Chart vs. Dolphins|
|20+ Left||20+ Middle||20+ Right|
|0-0||0-0||1-1, 30 yds|
|10-19 Left||10-19 Middle||10-19 Right|
|1-1, 13 yds, 1 TD||6-11, 91 yds, 1 INT||1-5, 22 yds|
|0-9 Left||0-9 Middle||0-9 Right|
|3-5, 17 yds||11-14, 126 yds, 1 TD||3-5, 19 yds|
|Minus Left||Minus Middle||Minus Right|
|0-0||6-7, 35 yds||2-2, 11 yds|
|via Pro Football Focus|
The vertical element may come into play a bit more when Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins return from their respective injuries, but that is a supplemental part of the offense at this point. Besides, simply because the two rookies are bigger receivers does not necessarily pigeonhole them as "deep threats." If we define deep throws as passes traveling 20-plus yards, only 13 of Dobson's 65 targets have been deep, and only 14 of 69 for Thompkins. That puts them 38th and 34th, respectively, among NFL wide receivers in deep target percentage.
Typically, the Patriots passing game is still extremely difficult to defend because of all the misdirection that comes out of bunch formations like this:
Rubs and pick plays create situations where defenders playing man coverage end up occupying the same space, freeing one of the receivers. Here, Edelman's man ran smack dab into Josh Boyce, resulting in a 22-yard gain on a simple out-and-up:
The above example was a rare big play outside the numbers from such a concept. As you can see by Brady's passing chart, the Patriots usually use those plays to open up intermediate crossing routes that move the chains.
Therein lies the downside. While New England still operates a highly efficient passing attack, it's one with less margin for error. The old adage of "staying ahead of the chains" truly applies because the Patriots no longer have the capability to consistently bail themselves out of second- and -third-and-long situations.
The Ravens are among the stingiest third-down defenses in the league, making early-down efficiency for New England even more paramount this week. Baltimore's opponents average 7.3 yards to go on third down, which is the 14th-longest rate in the NFL. Despite that middle-of-the-pack rating, the Ravens hold opponents to a 35.3 percent conversion rate for seventh-best in the league.
Of course, the passing game is certainly not the only weapon the Pats can use to stay out of unfavorable down-and-distance situations.
What About the Run Game?
Josh McDaniels is once again the ire of armchair offensive coordinators, as many complained about New England moving away from the ground game against Miami. The Patriots compiled 4.4 yards per carry over 22 attempts, but just three of those came in the fourth quarter.
Look, there's no question that McDaniels has had sketchy moments at times this year. I shudder every time I see LeGarrette Blount pound into the line for three yards on 2nd-and-10. Still, the Patriots offense is a flexible unit due to Brady's authority in making calls at the line. For example, here he checked out of a run after the Dolphins linebackers showed a pre-snap blitz, something that would have left New England with a six-on-eight disadvantage in the box:
Miami outwitted Brady on the play, only rushing five and thwarting his first read to Amendola to force the incompletion. Even though this particular situation failed, it makes sense to give Brady that authority. Not every stifled red-zone play is due to incompetence by McDaniels.
The Patriots figure to face rough sledding on the ground this week. The Ravens allow just 3.8 yards per carry, the fifth-best mark in the league. Only Le'Veon Bell and Eddie Lacy have cracked the century mark against the Ravens, and both had big runs—Bell with a 41-yarder, Lacy with a 37-yarder—to goose their final totals.
The Patriots running game is effective in proper dosages. The bruising Blount has run well the past few weeks and has a 2.58 yards after contact average that ranks as the 10th-best mark in the league. Stevan Ridley has averaged a solid 4.3 yards per carry since returning in a limited basis from his fumblitis-induced sabbatical, and Shane Vereen is particularly effective out of shotgun draws.
But New England's backs have fumbled far too frequently to entrust them with workhorse dosages. The issue is not how often the Patriots run the ball, but rather when they choose to run. In fact, redistributing a few rushing attempts might help allay the offense's clearest bugaboo.
What To Do in the Red Zone?
McDaniels acknowledged that much of the red-zone play-calling stems from Brady's reads at the line. According to the Boston Herald's Karen Guregian, McDaniels prefers that his quarterback have the freedom to adjust calls in an area where the limited real estate makes even the slightest mismatch a huge opening:
''It's a tough one because a lot of times, we have mulitple options in the huddle,'' McDaniels explained. ''Sometimes you end up with the perfect balance and the perfect blend when you do that. Sometimes the defense, when you get to certain things against a certain look, sometimes you can get a little skewed and we don't want to take the freedom away from our quarterback to take us into a good play. We certainly don't want to become just a call-it-on-the-sideline team when we have a quarterback that's capable of doing a lot of good things with our offense at the line of scrimmage.''
It's worth noting that the Patriots average 2.7 yards per carry in the red zone, a mark that ranks 19th in the league. That number is skewed lower due to the high volume of carries near the goal line, but even if we limit the range to between the 20- and 5-yard lines, the Pats' 3.3 yards per carry rank 17th.
The impending returns of Dobson and Thompkins should help in that regard. Both practiced on Wednesday, according to NFL.com's Mark Sessler, and a full week of participation might have them ready for Baltimore. Against Miami, the Pats received some beautiful one-on-one jump ball opportunities, but simply did not have the personnel to exploit the matchups:
I detailed Dobson's improved rhythm with Brady on those deep heaves a few weeks ago, and his return should certainly help in that regard. He's no Gronk, but plays like these against the Dolphins and the Steelers embody the type of red-zone difference-maker that Dobson could become.
What's the Key Matchup?
Even if Brady gets his rookie receivers back, they will not make much of a difference if his offensive line cannot block Baltimore's tough front seven. With Nate Solder suffering a concussion for the second consecutive week, it may not be prudent to rush the young left tackle back again. If that is the case, look for guard Logan Mankins to kick out wide and rookie Josh Kline start in his place.
Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs rank first and 12th, respectively, in pass rush productivity among 3-4 outside linebackers. The two have combined for 19 sacks, 24 hits and 70 hurries on the season. The Ravens send Dumervil to the quarterback on 84.4 percent of their pass rushes and Suggs 90.3 percent of the time, so Mankins and right tackle Marcus Cannon will have their hands full for much of the game.
Those two are the flashiest names, but they are far from alone. Haloti Ngata remains one of the league's best workhorse at defensive tackle with the fifth-highest run defense grade among defensive tackles. Left end Arthur Jones—the brother of Chandler—is one of the league's most improved players, and Ray Lewis' replacement, Daryl Smith, has graded out as the sixth-best middle linebacker in pass coverage.
When evaluating how the Pats offensive line might hold up, it's not entirely fair to evaluate their play from the Dolphins game after Solder went out. The Pats were trailing late and thus passing on every down, allowing Miami's pass rushers to rush Brady without worrying about the consequences of overpursuit. Moreover, it's much more difficult to adjust mid-game than with a whole week to prepare.
And yet, the Dolphins were able to get consistent heat on Brady despite only rushing four for much of the drive. The Pats missed a couple plays on the drive because Brady needed just a split second longer for his receiver to come open. The timing on this corner route to Amendola was just a hair off due to the immediate pressure the Dolphins created:
Make no mistake, the Patriots offensive line was actually quite stellar for much of the game, especially early on, but the Ravens present a stiffer challenge and, unfortunately, the nature of offensive line play dictates that success most of the time is not nearly enough. Even if Baltimore only gets to Brady a handful of times, those plays are potentially the type of game-changing sequences that can flip a result.
This week is a nice litmus test for how capable the Gronk-less Pats offense could be in the postseason. If New England drops out of a first-round bye, Baltimore looks like the Pats' most likely playoff opponent. Even if the Patriots do not see the Ravens again, their physical style and personnel match up similarly to the Bengals and Chiefs, two teams the Pats may very well meet in January.
Recent New England offenses have had trouble against Baltimore's defense with better personnel. In their six meetings since 2009, the Pats have averaged just 21.7 points per contest against the Ravens, well below their 30.1 average in that same time frame.
The key to the Ravens' success over the years? Winning critical matchups. The Pats have converted just 41 percent of their third downs (compared to a 45.6 percent rate versus all other teams) and have finished red-zone drives off with touchdowns just 50 percent of the time, as compared to 62.1 percent against other teams.
It seems fairly clear that the Pats will not receive opportunities to score on every drive. The Ravens are simply too talented a defense, and have had consistent success in the past mucking up New England's beloved timing-based passing game. So, when the Patriots do receive chances to score touchdowns, settling for field goals will be even more deleterious than usual due to their smaller margin for error.
Even in defeat last Sunday, the Patriots offense showed positive signs against the Dolphins. If New England can deliver against its recent AFC nemesis, the window might still somehow be open for this year's injury-depleted roster of the Patriots.