Anyone who has watched the Patriots for even five minutes this season has heard: They had to replace their top five pass catchers from 2012. Even to the most ardent apostles of the Patriot Way, filling the voids left by Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Danny Woodhead, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski seemed impossible.
This is an article from the Jan. 13, 2014 issue
As it turns out, it was. Not one of those five spots was upgraded. Free-agent pickup Danny Amendola is a sturdy route runner, but he's no Welker. Rookie wideouts Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson have flashed, but not enough to match even the low standard of dependability that Lloyd set. Shane Vereen is clearly more talented than Woodhead, but not more durable. Another multidimensional threat like Hernandez simply doesn't exist. And Gronkowski, sidelined by back surgery, returned in October to fill his vacated tight end spot himself—but just for seven games, before tearing his right ACL and MCL.
And yet, here is New England, hosting a divisional playoff game for the eighth time under Bill Belichick. An outsider might guess that the rushing attack has picked up the slack—but it hasn't. Stevan Ridley, who ran for 1,263 yards in 2012, has suffered from fumbleitis and lost much of his PT to LeGarrette Blount, a 240-pound bull who got hot in December but, even on his best day, might be the most average runner you've ever seen. On defense, the Patriots are a mirror image of '12: just sturdy enough around the red zone to offset their propensity for yielding big plays.
So what's driven the Pats' success? As usual, it's the passing game, even in its patchwork form. Tom Brady's brilliance—which at this late point of his career includes prescient pre-snap diagnostics, poise in the pocket, quick coverage recognition, a rapid release and pinpoint accuracy—has been key. But with so few supporting players capable of creating their own opportunities, equal credit goes to coordinator Josh McDaniels, who's used a variety of tactics to manufacture a passing attack.
Most prevalent in McDaniels's scheme is something called "motion to stack," in which a motioning receiver initiates his route from directly behind another receiver. This prevents man defenders from pressing, and against a zone it muddies assignment responsibilities. Often, the stacked receivers' routes are designed to stress a defense together.
On early downs, McDaniels has added deception by infusing principles of the running game into the passing attack, including "hard run-action"—a quicker, more vigorous play-action that Brady thrives on. McDaniels has also dialed up more throws out of condensed formations, which make defenses worry about the run and lean more on predictable base schemes. And out of their standard two-back or two-tight-end personnel, the Patriots use a diverse assortment of pre-snap shifts to dictate favorable matchups for their pass catchers. It doesn't take a star wideout to beat a linebacker in coverage.
McDaniels has also continued to feature New England's hallmark option routes, in which receivers base their patterns on what the D does. This takes awareness, so it's no wonder that veterans Amendola and Julian Edelman (who had 105 catches) have become Brady's go-to targets.
Taken piece-by-piece, nothing about New England's passing game is mesmerizing. But taken all together, it's masterly.
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