Patriots forced to defend their offensive identity
FOXBOROUGH - The Patriots offense has invited countless defensive strategies from opponents in the past three years, but Wes Welker saw something Monday night he had never seen before. The Saints double-teamed both him and Randy Moss, using a safety deep for Moss and bracketing Welker with two defenders.
“That,’’ he said “was a new little twist I saw.’’
With Welker and Moss heavily covered, the Patriots turned elsewhere. Sam Aiken, a seventh-year receiver who had never caught more than 11 passes in a season before this year, ended the night as the Patriots’ leading receiver. The Patriots attempted 10 passes to Aiken. Moss had six chances.
The unique coverage and New England’s response to it with pass distribution underscored an issue the Patriots face every week. They want to attack the defense where it is most vulnerable, and they want to accentuate their strengths.
“That’s the discussion every week, really,’’ coach Bill Belichick said. “What are the things that we do best where we want to attack them?’’
Sometimes, of course, one objective opposes the other. At times this season - such as when they chose to throw nearly twice as many passes to Aiken than Moss - the Patriots, by homing in on an opponent’s weakness, may have allowed their opponent to dictate how they play.
“I think our identity changes every week,’’ quarterback Tom Brady said. “We’re a team that, we’re always trying to find the personnel groupings that will work best against a certain team or the formations based on what we do well and what we think they don’t do very well.
“That’s kind of a balance every week. Some weeks, you really think you have the right idea, and you look back on the game, and you say, ‘Well, we got to tweak that.’
“As an offense, even though it’s Week 11, going into the 12th game, we’re still finding our way. We’re still trying to find ways to attack the defense and get our guys in the best position possible.’’
Playing with two backup cornerbacks, the Saints held Moss and Welker to a combined nine catches for 99 yards. In the 25 games Moss, Brady, and Welker have played together, it was only the fourth time an opponent has held Welker and Moss to fewer than 100 yards and fewer than 10 catches.
The Saints’ success will surely breed imitators. Welker may have never seen the Saints’ coverage before, but he expects to see it again. Against Miami this week, the Patriots could face the same defense.
“It was a great learning experience for us,’’ Welker said. “At least it better be, or we’re in for a long season.’’
The Patriots began Monday night’s game by successfully running at the Saints. But once they needed to rely on their passing game, the New Orleans pass rush exposed their offensive line. Brady gave credit to the line for allowing only 16 sacks this season, but pressure from the edge Monday night forced him to dump passes short over the middle and rarely gave him time to throw to Moss deep.
“What the Saints did well is, they got some pressure on the quarterback,’’ Dolphins linebacker Jason Taylor said.
The Saints were able to pressure Brady at times with only three rushers. When Brady threw his first interception, Bobby McCray sped around Nick Kaczur and forced Brady to throw while dashing ahead in the pocket. Later in the half, Brady was looking downfield to Moss after a play-action fake, but McCray again blew past Kaczur, forcing a sack by Will Smith.
While the Patriots rank second in the NFL with 411.5 yards per game, their sputtering in the second half has cost them in their four losses. The Patriots did not score a point in the fourth quarter Monday, and they have scored 17 points total in the fourth quarters of their four losses.
After the Saints humbled them, the Patriots were forced to confront a discomforting question rarely asked since Brady became quarterback and their dynastic run began: Are the Patriots good enough to win the Super Bowl? When that notion surfaced in the locker room yesterday, players dismissed it.
“The ultimate goal is something you set out early in the season and it’s the reason we’re all here trying to commit ourselves to winning Super Bowls,’’ Brady said. “But that’s not the goal this week. The goal this week is to beat Miami and to play a better game than we played last week.
“We’re 7-4, you know? We’re ahead two games in the division. The season is not lost by any stretch. When you don’t play good football, you lose games. I don’t think that’s a new revelation for any of us.’’
“How many games have we lost?’’ running back Kevin Faulk said. “So we get written off because we lost four games?
“That’s people’s opinion. People have a lot of different opinions. We know that if we can go out there and play football for 60 minutes, it will be hard for us not to play a good football game.
“We’ve got good players. We just have to be able to execute when it’s time to execute in critical situations.’’
Adam Kilgore can be reached at email@example.com.