The New England Patriots spent this off-season attempting to revamp a defense that severely struggled last year. Adding Dont'a Hightower, Chandler Jones, Bobby Carpenter, Steve Gregory and Jonathan Fanene, amongst others, should improve the defense, but there is no doubt that the Patriots' offense enters the season expected to carry the franchise once again.
With Tom Brady at the helm, that should surprise roughly zero people.
While Brady is a superstar, there is a lot more to the Patriots offense that the casual fan doesn't see. Today's NFL may be a quarterback driven league, but it is far from tennis. Today's NFL is still very much a team sport that extends past the quarterback, into his other offensive teammates and counterparts on defense.
However if the Patriots have to rely on their defense, they won't go very far. Instead, the Patriots will be looking to have the most explosive offense in the NFL this year and to use that offensive efficiency to send them to the Super Bowl. Explosion is a key word for the Patriots, it somewhat lacked last season.
Outside of their defensive additions, the Patriots have mostly added players to their offense to increase explosion. Both Brandon Lloyd, Donte Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney should improve the speed and all-around skill level of the Patriots' receiving corps, while Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen's promotion to the head of the running back division should give the Patriots more game-breaking runs.
Amongst those additions there is no household name, however the biggest addition, wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, will have a monumental impact on the Patriots' whole offensive identity.
The Patriots offense is based on personnel matchups. When Aaron Hernandez lined up in the backfield last season, most fans were just excited about the idea of a tight end playing running-back. However the reasoning behind moving Hernandez into the backfield was much more significant.
Hernandez had eight playoff carries, when teammate Rob Gronkowski was fully healthy I might add, because the Patriots didn't want to take him off the field when he was overmatched as a run blocker. Instead of using BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who is not a matchup problem as a receiver at all, or a less trustworthy player such as Ridley, Belichick wanted to keep his top talent on the field and put them in the best position to succeed. Having Hernandez as a running threat and receiver coming out of the backfield allowed him to do that.
The Patriots' tight ends are vital to their offensive identity.
Because of Rob Gronkowski's physical domination at the position both as a receiver and blocker, to go along with Hernandez' combination of size and speed, the Patriots are able to dictate defensive packages against most teams. By keeping the two tight ends on the field, the Patriots can come out in balanced formations that equally support running the ball or passing it.
Last year teams had the difficult task of matching up to both Gronkowski, Hernandez and wide receiver Wes Welker while sustaining defensive integrity against the running game. That was an almost impossible feat for some teams, but both the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers effectively contained the offense with their nickel packages. They were only able to do so because of the personnel on their rosters.
Both took different approaches, but both were just as effective. The Steelers, without James Harrison or a fully healthy LaMarr Woodley, didn't have the pass rushers to disrupt Brady in the pocket. Instead the Steelers trusted their front to control the running game while moving Troy Polamalu into linebacker roles at times. On the outside the Steelers still had to matchup to the Patriots' talent. The did so by using physical cornerback Cortez Allen on Gronkowski and Ike Taylor on Wes Welker. A deep safety often patrolled behind them, but they were essentially assigned the role alone.
Because the Steelers, and the Giants, could handle the run in their nickel defenses, the Patriots lost the most important advantage they get on most Sundays.
The emergence of Gronkowski and Hernandez doesn't just help the Patriots gain leverage after the snap. The two tight ends also make it easier for Brady to diagnose what the defense is going to do to him before the ball is even snapped. Rarely will you see teams try to catch out Brady with aggressive blitzes because they simply can't matchup personnel wise.
Most teams don't have the talented pass rushers of the Giants or the versatile coverage options of the Steelers. Those teams face the conundrum of whether to play with more coverage, in turn sacrificing yards in the running game, or expose their linebackers to difficult matchups. If Brady sees a team with five or six defensive backs on the field expecting the pass, he will simply audible to a run.
With Gronkowski on the field, he acts like an extra offensive tackle in the running game. While Hernandez isn't overwhelmingly physical, he is big enough to handle cornerbacks and some safeties. Essentially, because of the Patriots' talent at tight end, you have to pick your poison. You either give the Patriots running lanes, or ask your linebackers to cover hybrid tight ends in space.
That is only considering the tight ends. Surpassed them you had to deal with Wes Welker last year also. Welker is a difficult matchup, but fortunately isn't the most explosive receiver in the NFL. The worst possible thing the Patriots could have added, worst from the defense's point of view that is, would have been a receiver with the ability to stretch the defense.
Against the Patriots last year, the only saving grace was their lack of a deep threat. The 2012 version of the offense won't have that problem.
This is where Brandon Lloyd comes in. Lloyd is a very clean receiver who runs every route and catches most passes that come his way. However, most importantly, he is also a burner. Lloyd's speed alone is enough to warrant off coverage outside or safety help over the top. Because he is such a polished receiver, you can't afford to give him the underneath and expect him to struggle. Lloyd can run routes or be effective with the ball in his hands.
Ideally, you would press Lloyd underneath with a safety deep. However now that he is a Patriot, it's essentially impossible to do that. The Patriots have four receiving options who conceivably need to be double teamed. There are only so many assignments that a single defender can cover however. If you cover Lloyd deep, Welker will cut you to pieces underneath. If you cover him as well, then Gronkowski and Hernandez will show off their talents against weaker opponents.
Most teams attempted to shut down Gronkowski last year with double teams, something that rarely worked in itself. Prioritizing he and Hernandez allowed Welker to have a huge year with Deion Branch also going over 700 yards. Considering that Welker and Lloyd are both much better receivers than Branch at this point in his career, the possibilities are endless for the coming season.
Even passed Lloyd and Welker, Jabar Gaffney is another more than capable possession receiver who will take advantage of lesser cornerbacks. Then the unpredictability of Vereen and Ridley coming out of the backfield extends the boundaries of the puzzle. BenJarvus Green-Ellis was a great fit with the Patriots, but he didn't scare defenses at all. He took advantage of favourable formations to get his production. Green-Ellis had a 4.0 yard per carry average as a Patriots player, what Vereen and Ridley can do with his opportunities is potentially scary.
This year's saving grace for defenses comes on the Patriots' offensive line. The line is struggling with a variety of question marks and issues. How those issues pan out will determine how effective this unit can be.
Even with a poor offensive line, the record-breaking potential is there on the Patriots' offense this season.