Balance sheet is better
Patriots profit by running more
FOXBOROUGH - The return of Tom Brady this season made it tempting to envision a re-creation of the Patriots’ 2007 offense, a barrage of passes whipping around the field, records toppling, points skyrocketing like the score on a pinball machine.
Even the Patriots themselves could not resist. They threw the ball nearly three-quarters of the time for the first two games, but given the results from two years ago, something odd happened. It didn’t work. They scored 17 points per game, barely won their opener, and lost their second game.
Over the past five games, the Patriots have adjusted their offense and made themselves more balanced, a response to how much their personnel - especially at wide receiver - has changed since the last time Brady led the offense.
“Every year is different and every year you have different strengths and weaknesses,’’ Brady said Friday on the “Patriots All Access’’ show. “The last time I played a full season was ’07. We had a great receiving group that was very deep. All those guys were very versatile. They were all [able to] play different positions, and we moved those guys around a lot.
“I think this year we tried to do some of those things early, but realized that’s not the kind of team we were going to be. We’re a balanced team. We’re trying to run the ball. We’ve got to do that efficiently, and then set up some of our play-action stuff. I think as a group, we have more clearly defined roles, I think, at this point than we did seven weeks ago, which I think we all feel very positive about.’’
In 2007, the Patriots passed on 741 of their 1,227 plays, not counting kneel-downs and penalties; that’s 60.1 percent. Brady threw to a constellation of weapons, a stable that included Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Donte’ Stallworth, and Jabar Gaffney.
When Brady stepped back into the huddle this year, his options had dwindled. The Joey Galloway experiment crashed and burned, Julian Edelman broke his forearm, and the third wideout position was left to rookie Brandon Tate and special teams standout Sam Aiken.
The Patriots accepted the shift and altered their offensive identity. In the first two games, again not counting penalties and kneel-downs, the Patriots dropped back to pass 102 times and ran a running play 42 times, calling pass plays at a 70.8 percent rate. In the last five games, the Patriots have dropped back to pass 196 times and run 139 rushing plays - a 58.5 percent passing rate.
In that time, the Patriots have gone 4-1 and scored 32.8 points per game. (Even without the 59-0 aberration against Tennessee, they have averaged 26.3 points per game.)
“Nobody wants to be one-dimensional, especially in this league,’’ tackle Nick Kaczur said. “That’s the way it is now. It’s tough to play just by running or passing. Diversity is where you need to be. We play better as a balanced offense.’’
No one has benefited more from no longer relying on the pass, ironically, than Brady. Running more enables more - and more effective - play-action passes and forces safeties to respect the threat of a run. In the last five games, Brady has thrown 13 touchdown passes against two interceptions while averaging 287.6 yards per game.
“We’ve been able to balance off our offensive game - the running game, play-action, and those things,’’ coach Bill Belichick said.
Of course, the Patriots would not have been able to balance their offense if they could not run the ball effectively. They rank 14th in the NFL at 115 rushing yards per game, but they’ve been more productive since their Week 3 shift. They averaged 78 yards per game on the ground after two weeks and 129.8 since.
The Patriots have emerged even after losing Fred Taylor to injury, owing in part to their offensive line. Kaczur said he and his fellow linemen prefer a ground attack, but they believe they have to earn those running plays.
“If we’re not running the ball, it means we’re not really doing our job,’’ Kaczur said. “It’s always been there. Our execution has improved. In order for them to keep calling it, we’ve got to make plays.’’
Unlike 2007, the Patriots cannot rely on a varied, experienced stable of wide receivers, evidenced by Tate’s transition. The Patriots predicated their ’07 attack, in part, on the ability to line up the same receiving personnel in different spots and positions.
As a rookie, Tate will learn only one position for now so he is not overloaded. Even then, it can be difficult for a rookie. In the last game, he ran a wrong route, which led to an interception for Brady.
“It’s hard for any young player, whether it’s him or Julian, to give them a large volume right away,’’ Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio said. “You try to start them at one particular point and let them sort of build on that and get comfortable with one particular thing.
“In the end, you like to have as much flexibility as possible so that you can move players around and you can use multiple formations.’’
At some point in the future, perhaps Tate will play a role similar to the wide receivers on the 2007 team. For now, the Patriots have figured out that their time as a pass-happy scoring machine, even with Brady, has likely ceded to a more balanced attack. The results will be less gaudy, but not necessarily less effective.
“Whatever is working for you to win a game, that’s what you’re going to do,’’ running back Kevin Faulk said. “You’re not going to shy away from it. As an offense, you always want to keep balance between running the ball and passing the ball. But when one is working better than the other, you’re going to go to it.’’
Adam Kilgore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.