Now the focus is squarely on Brady and Moss
HOUSTON - It’s easy to say that when Wes Welker went down, so did any hopes the Patriots harbored of achieving the kind of playoff success they’ve become accustomed to.
Easy, because it’s probably true.
According to a league source, it’s believed Welker tore his left ACL and MCL yesterday in Houston, blowing out the knee while trying cut on the Reliant Stadium grass on the Patriots’ fourth play from scrimmage. He’ll undergo more tests today, but it’s a near certainty he will require reconstructive surgery, which likely would shelve him for 6-12 months.
All one has to do to figure out what it really means is to look at the approach the Patriots took in the second half yesterday.
To the surprise of many, Tom Brady re-entered the game after being yanked midway through the second quarter.
Most wondered what the Patriots were doing. In reality, the thinking was probably sound and remarkably simple - the offense needed reps without Welker.
“We had to double two guys, and now you can focus on doubling one guy, and that was Randy,’’ said Texans corner Dunta Robinson, charged with covering Randy Moss on the afternoon. “We could breathe a little bit easier, knowing we had to take one guy out of the of fense instead of two guys. Yeah, some things did change.
“Now we can pressure Tom a little bit more. Now we can do some things that maybe they couldn’t do with both those guys on the field. The game plan definitely changed when he went down. It pretty much happened at the half. Any time you lose a player like that, I mean, wow, you’re taking away a lot of your offense.’’
Before the half, Brady was 9 of 13 for 130 yards and had escaped any serious punishment. The Patriots went on scoring drives of 63 and 58 yards, and totaled 149 yards on their first 25 plays from scrimmage.
The Texans’ adjustments at the break changed everything. From that point on, without having to deal with the headache that Welker presents, Houston could concentrate on slowing Moss and pressuring Brady.
And boy, did it work. On the Patriots’ first series of the third quarter, Brady took blows from Amobi Okoye and Connor Barwin, and the offense only moved the sticks via a defensive holding penalty.
Brady and Co. responded with a nine-play, 71-yard touchdown drive that featured four tosses to Julian Edelman for 37 yards, but they reverted from there. The Patriots’ next two possessions: a three-and-out, a pick, two big hits on Brady and blown-up screen to Sammy Morris for a 4-yard loss. Total net output of five plays: Minus-2 yards.
And that’s when they needed to move the ball the most. Those spots, in fact, were why Brady was still out there, to work with different players to prepare for live competition in the playoffs.
They can only hope that wasn’t a preview of next week.
“Brady’s always looking for [Welker],’’ said Houston linebacker DeMeco Ryans. “When Brady’s in trouble, Welker is his go-to guy. Whenever he needs a play on third down, you know the ball’s going to 83. I know that hurt him. He’s a big-time player.’’
It might be instructive to look back at Weeks 2 and 3 to figure out what New England might come up against the Ravens Sunday.
In Week 2, without Welker, the Jets simply stuck Darrelle Revis on Moss and turned up the heat on Brady. Other guys made catches that day. Edelman had eight, Joey Galloway had five. But the passing game wasn’t consistent enough to save Brady from a mugging or to get the Patriots in the end zone or to allow the offense any kind of rhythm.
The next week against Atlanta, Moss carried the team past the Falcons by replacing some of Welker’s production by going underneath and grinding out after-the-catch yards, hauling in 10 passes for 116 yards. Atlanta’s vanilla pass rush and pedestrian corners made things easier on New England, too, and Brady was decent but not great that day.
Bottom line: Brady had his worst showing of the year when faced with a stout Jets defense sans Welker, then posted a 98.6 quarterback rating when facing New York in November with his slot machine. And against a struggling Falcons defense that had overhauled half its starting lineup in the offseason, he was just OK without No. 83.
“[Welker] means a lot to this offense,’’ said tight end Benjamin Watson. “He makes a lot of plays for us. But it’s a part of football. It happens on every team. We’ve had guys go down and come back. It’s part of the deal.’’
This deal just got considerably tougher.
The Patriots have ramped up the emphasis on their running game lately. And Edelman has shown flashes, too, and could replace some of Welker’s production.
But to assume that just because Edelman looks like Welker now and again, he can be No. 83 on a down-to-down basis is to not appreciate what the Pro Bowler means to this team.
The Patriots try to get teams in third-and-short situations and then let Welker do his thing. A lot of times it looks like he’s got the option to do what he wants. He’s a big part of their offense.
“They have someone similar to Welker in No. 11,’’ said Texans corner Jacques Reeves, “but you can’t replace a Wes Welker, unfortunately for them.’’
Welker is admired for his consistency in catching the ball, his toughness over the middle, and his intelligence; he’s able to find holes in the coverage like a detective tracking down a suspect. But he means even more than that - opening things in the running game, taking pressure off Moss, and discouraging opponents from tossing the kitchen sink at Brady.
“It’s going to be a big blow for that team,’’ said Robinson. “He’s the heart and soul of their offense. It really doesn’t work without Wes Welker.’’
The Texans spent the second half yesterday figuring that out.
And the Patriots may have a pretty tough time keeping Baltimore from proving it again.
Albert R. Breer can be reached at email@example.com.