Since the prompt trade of Randy Moss during their Week 5 bye, one of the most intriguing things to watch this year has been the machine that is the New England offense. The offense is centered by none other than NFL MVP front-runner Tom Brady, who is having an effective season as ever. To me, three things stick out when watching the Patriots offense in 2010: they spread the wealth; it is very matchup oriented based on the opponent; and it is lethal in the red zone.
1) The Robin Hood Offense -- Bill Belichick stole from Randy Moss his 80 catches, 1200 yards, and dozen TDs and has let Tom Brady redistribute the wealth between a plethora of new guys. Even the best slot man in the game, Wes Welker, is on pace for his first season under 100 receptions in a Pats uniform. On top of that, Brady isn't on pace for the gaudy passing yards he put up in his last two full seasons. So shouldn't the Patriots offense be worse now considering those numbers? Guess again because Brady's ability to keep the defense guessing has increased this well-oiled machine into a near juggernaut. As a result, he is on pace for his second 30 TD and single digit INT season and has his team in the perfect position heading into Week 13.
2) The Chameleon Offense -- The coolest part about this offense is its ability to morph itself to fit the weaknesses of its upcoming opponent. An excellent example of this is to look no further than the play of TE Aaron Hernandez, who exploded onto the scene in the Week 2 matchup with six catches for 101 yards by tearing up the weak underbelly of the Jets defense -- the middle of the field. Hernandez is an excellent receiving tight end, but the league's youngest player is a raw blocker. In the last three weeks when facing potent potent pass rushing teams in the Steelers, Colts, and Lions we saw Hernandez's snap counts decline while the snap counts of superior run and pass blockers Rob Gronkowski and former Tar Heel Alge Crumpler's shot up. In those three games Pro Football Focus reports that out of 193 offensive plays, Hernandez was only on the field for 46 of them while Gronkowski and Crumpler were on for 166 and 119 respectively.
To dig a little deeper, let's take a look at the brilliant gameplan used against Pittsburgh. The Patriots used a vast array of formations, anywhere from the spread to max pass protect to jumbo sets. Specifically, Gronkowski and/or Crumpler were used many times to stay home and block in conjunction with FB Sammy Morris (the smaller Danny Woodhead was rarely used) to completely neutralize the fearsome Harrison/Woodley duo. Moreover, by spreading the field the Pats could take advantage of the Steelers solid but thin secondary with their slew of shifty receivers. With early success in the pass game, they were able to achieve the impossible task of finding some semblance of a running game at Heinz Field. From there, Brady and Gronkowski were able to gash the defense down the seam on play action, so much so that the tight end from Arizona ended up with five catches for 72 yards and three TDs. In the last three games, he is averaging 3.7 catches for 54 yards and a TD.
3) The That's Gonna Cost Ya Offense -- This is a deadly group that leads the NFL with a robust 30.4 points/game average. Not only are they capable of sustaining long, healthy drives but when they do they make you pay for seven points and not three. Entering this week, the Patriots lead the league with a whopping 36 rushing and receiving touchdowns, or roughly 3.25 TDs a game. With an impressive combination of accuracy and arm strength, Tom Brady truly makes those around him better. His leadership skills are undeniable and his decision-making is tops when he has time to go through his progressions. If there is one thing the offense does not do a whole lot it is stretch the field vertically outside the numbers with their receivers.
While the Jets defense isn't a complete shut down defense like last year, they certainly took a step in that direction on Thanksgiving by sacking Carson Palmer three times (including a safety), intercepting him twice, and holding him to an abysmal 45% completion rate. But if you read the New York papers up until last week and didn't watch any Jets games you'd find it hard to believe this defense is ranked 4th in scoring.
Unlike last year, the strength of the defense this year lies in the play against the run. Despite losing both NT Kris Jenkins and DE Ropati Pitoitua to IR before the season really took off, NT Sione Pouha (pronounced boe-OOH-ha) has emerged as the line's anchor and is playing at a Pro Bowl level. Inside linebackers Bart Scott and David Harris are sure tacklers and are quick to fill any running lanes. To not allow a 100 yard runner despite facing names like Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Peyton Hillis, and Arian Foster is a major statement.
As Darrelle Revis's health has improved, so has the play of the defensive backfield. The secondary was a liability for the first half of the season but has has really turned it on since, largely due to Revis's play. He has regained his shutdown ability the last five weeks, as evidenced by Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, and Terrell Owens insignificant stat lines. Despite its recent success, it was dealt a blow on Friday with the loss of FS Jim Leonhard. Though he had physical limitations against some bigger players due to his diminutive 5'8'' height, Leonhard was a master of Rex's defensive system and had a knack for a big play at the right moment. Brodney Pool and Eric Smith will be the starters, though James Ihedigbo and Dwight Lowery will see time in certain packages. Smith and Ihedigbo are liabilities in coverage while Pool and Lowery are average against the pass. The safety play and the lack of a one-on-one pass rusher are the weakest links of an otherwise sturdy defense.
Next up, the Jets offense and Patriots defense