Tuesday, September 7, 2010

2010 Preview: Offense

Since the updates are getting longer and longer, I decided to split the 2010 season preview into four sections, one each for offense, defense, special teams/coaching, and the schedule.  Last year's season preview clocked in at 2,850 words, and it can be tough to read through it all at once.  Let me know how you like this year's bite-sized portions.

Arrivals and Departures

At the end of 2009, the Patriots cut both of their active tight ends, Benjamin Watson and Chris Baker, leaving them with no tight ends at all.  They signed veteran Alge Crumpler and drafted Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez to shore up the position.

Letting Watson and Baker go constituted addition by subtraction.  Watson never lived up to his pre-draft hype, and had fewer catches than Crumpler last year (even though Alge didn't have a future Hall of Famer throwing to him).  And Baker's best work came in the pre-season; he was mostly invisible once the real games started.

Crumpler did indeed outperform Watson last year, even with Vince Young at QB.  But he will mostly be a blocking tight end here (though he might be used in the red zone) and brings years of NFL experience to help the rookies.  It appears that experience has already paid dividends.  Most observers think Hernandez had a great camp and made some highlight-reel catches.  And Gronkowski showed great blocking, route-running, and receiving skills throughout the pre-season.  The team needs to take pressure off Wes Welker in the short/middle passing game, and the new tight ends should fill that bill.

The only new face at wide receiver is Brandon Tate, who was sort of invisible as a rookie last year.  And of course, Wes Welker returns from his knee injury in record time -- he is likely your week 1 starter.

The improvement at WR will come when they pair Tate's speed opposite Randy Moss.  With two legitimate deep threats, things should open up even more underneath for the new tight ends and "slot machine" Welker.   Add to that a full off-season as a receiver for Julian Edelman, who does a pretty good Welker imitation underneath, and this part of the offense could be much improved.

There are some changes along the offensive line.  Logan Makins continues his holdout, and Nick Kazcur is out for the year with an injury.  They added Quinn Ojinnaka via trade from Atlanta.

For the time being, Sebastian Vollmer swapped to right tackle, with Matt Light returning to left tackle.  And with Kazcur's injury, Dan Connolly would be your starter on opening day, unless Mankins decides to return by then (which seems less and less likely).  This is not a good situation, and they could really use Mankins back.  Connolly played well in the pre-season, but the team has little O-line depth with Mankins at home.

There are virtually no changes at running back or quarterback.

Old Coach, New Tricks

Even though RB and QB remain the same as last year, offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien is not using them the same way.  In three of the four pre-season games, he featured more of Brady under center (rather than the shotgun), a *lot* more two- and three-tight end formations, and more running plays.

This balanced offense, coupled with Brady's re-commitment to play-action fakes, gave them more time in the passing game, and it also kept Brady upright most of the pre-season (sacked only twice in four games).  Defenses were on their heels, trying to cope with the Patriots quick-strike passing game and this newfound running attack.

In the St. Louis game they reverted the shotgun/spread formation, and the offense produced a lot more three-and-outs than scoring drives.  O'Brien appeared to learn from this, mixing in more under-center and running plays in the last game against the Giants.

If the run-pass mix is more than a pre-season experiment, it bodes well for the Patriots.  It always pays to keep the defense honest, and with the shakeup along the offensive line, a more balanced offense will keep Tom Brady healthy a lot longer than the pass-happy offense of 2009. 

Running Afterthoughts 

For the second straight year the Patriots did not bring in a young running back to challenge for playing time or help shoulder the burden.  In fact, three of their five backs have more than 10 years in the league: Fred Taylor (13), Kevin Faulk (12), and Sammy Morris (11).  Other than that, they have hard-working but under-talented BenJarvus Green-Ellis and first round disappointment Laurence Maroney.

Some in the media wonder what is going on at the position, and a few even predicted Maroney would be released.  But the answer is clear if you know football and think about it carefully.

Even with a re-dedication to the run, the primary job of backs on this team is to pick up the blitz and provide an effective outlet for Tom Brady.  It's a passing league, so running backs who can't learn the protection schemes, can't get the timing on outlet passes, or can't catch the ball are of no use here.  That's why young running backs don't play here; the pass protection is difficult to learn, so it's safer to bring in more experienced backs like Taylor.

That is also why Laurence Maroney will have a job here for years to come.  Maroney is very good in blitz pickup, has good hands, and can gain decent yardage on outlet passes because he's better in space than between the tackles.  He will replace Kevin Faulk when Faulk retires because they both are ideal third-down backs -- but in the meantime, he'll have a job here as long as he's healthy enough.

Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris are injury prone.  They will start the season carrying the most, but once one or both break down it will fall to Maroney and Green-Ellis, who have not missed significant time to injury.  That makes a sort of symbiotic sense.

Again, don't expect the Patriots to return to elite status by running all the time.  And don't expect a lot of first and second year running backs to get significant playing time.  It just isn't going to happen.


The Pats made substantial offensive improvements, and if offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia can hold that unit together the Pats could be much more productive on offense.  Brady had an almost perfect pre-season -- the lone blemish being a lazy "bomb to Randy Moss" that was intercepted.   But overall, the offense showed more balance and trickery, and frankly, a lot more skill at the skill positions.

With the new tight ends, more outside speed with Brandon Tate, and a better run-pass mix, the Patriots could improve by 5 points a game this year.  And they scored 27 a game last year -- so that would be impressive.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS.  0-0!

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