How Will Patriots Spread the Wealth on Offense?
It's no secret that Julian Edelman has been the no. 1 weapon for the New England Patriots' offense this season. That is why the 33-year-old receiver is on pace to set career highs in targets, catches and yards. But being the key cog of New England's offense is also taking a toll on the Patriots wideout, which is why Edelman has been on what feels like every injury report this season for the reigning Super Bowl champions.
Week 15 marks a week in which, yet again, the SBLIII MVP is on the injury report. But this week he is listed with a new injury (knee) along with his ailing shoulder that he has been fighting through for several weeks. This is troubling. If New England wants to make a deep playoff run this season, it will imperative for them to keep Edelman healthy down the stretch.
While load management is in full effect, which is why Edelman did not participate in Wednesday's practice and was limited Thursday, what can be done in-game to limit the physical damage put on Edelman, while also finding production on offense?
"If I'm Josh McDaniels, I want to get (N'Keal) Harry involved, I want to get (Mohamed) Sanu, I want to get the tight ends involved, just so that going forward over the last couple games into the playoffs you have these people that you're going to need when you go against top-level competition to be able to step up," NFL on CBS analyst James Lofton told Patriot Maven this week in regards to how New England's offense can get back on track after sputtering out the last couple weeks.
But how specifically will the Patriots get the other pieces of their offense involved? Let's break it down:
Design more plays for N'Keal Harry
“I need to do a better job of finding ways to get (Harry) in space, get him the ball and letting him have an opportunity to do those things,” McDaniels said during his conference call on Tuesday.
As McDaniels emphasized - the Patriots need to get their latest first round draft pick involved in the offense. N'Keal Harry played just two snaps in Week 14's loss to the Chiefs, and had one catch for a 12-yard gain which fell just short of the pylon (even if it shouldn't have been called short). What we did we from that one play? Harry was given open running room thanks to the play design, he broke two tackles and was able to use his athleticism to get inside the five-yard line. That single play shows the exactly what Harry is good at.
Even though Harry needs to do everything on his end to make sure the coaches are comfortable with putting him on the field, whether that be knowing the playbook, showing a bit of versatility, etc., at some point New England needs to put one of their most talented receivers on the field and give him the football. The Patriots offense has been struggling, so designing plays to get Harry open and with lots of grass in front of him seems like the best way to get the most out of their rookie receiver.
Get Rex Burkhead and James White more involved in the passing game
This is a concept that we saw from New England early in the 2018 season. When the Patriots were thin at the receiver position to begin last season, they frequently used the "pony" formation, which had Rex Burkhead and James White line up on each side of Tom Brady in the backfield. From there, the two backs could block, catch a pass out of the backfield, or motion out wide and run a route. The Patriots did use this formation quite a bit early on this season, but have strayed away from it as of late.
While we have seen White get plenty of targets this season as a receiver out of the backfield, he has only cracked double-digit targets once since Week 4, and that was last week against the Chiefs (he caught eight balls for 98 yards). Burkhead has been non-existent in the passing game the last couple weeks, mustering up just one target in each of New England's last two games. That needs to change going forward.
With Sony Michel struggling this season, getting Burkhead more involved will keep opposing defenses guessing, and taking advantage of White's receiving ability can make New England more potent in the passing game. Getting Brandon Bolden more involved in both the run and pass game wouldn't hurt either.
Give Brady more time in the pocket
This one is easier said than done. Giving Tom Brady more time in the pocket will allow him to read through his options and will give the receivers more time to get open. But how can New England schematically give their 42-year-old QB more time?
For starters, if the Patriots started using the "pony" formation a bit more, they could keep one of the RBs in the backfield to pass protect. Or both. Or none. It keeps the defense guessing and also gives Brady more time in the pocket depending on what the RBs assignments are out of the backfield. New England could also keep their tight ends at home to pass protect.
With 3rd string center James Ferentz now being the starter in place of Ted Karras, the Patriots are yet again dealing with a less than 100% offensive line. It's been that way since the start of the season, so it's nothing new. But the coaching staff needs to figure out a way to scheme more protection for Brady, otherwise the bizarre amount of throwaways he has had this season will continue to increase.
Fixing or not fixing any of these three things shouldn't have an impact on who wins Sunday's game. New England is one of the best teams in the league, and the Bengals are projected to have the no. 1 pick in the 2020 draft. But Week 15 marks a good time to right the ship and fix some of the weaknesses that have caused this 10-3 Patriots team to lose back-to-back games. Doing such will have a big impact on how deep of a playoff run they make at the turn of the new year.
"They always say that they don't paint a picture on the score card when they play golf. They just write a number," - this was Lofton's way of saying that - yes - the Patriots have had their struggles as of late. But they are currently the no. 2 seed in the AFC, and it doesn't matter whether they are scoring points or making big plays on offense, defense, or special teams. They just need to end games with more points than the opposing team.
New England has shown a knack for scoring points in all phases of the game, which allowed them to start the season 8-0 despite struggling on offense. But scoring points on offense makes things a whole lot easier for the reigning Super Bowl champions down the stretch.