Patriots strike a fine balance
First-team offense remains efficient
ATLANTA — Striking a better offensive balance between the run and pass is a point of focus for the Patriots this season, and that was evident last night.
New England’s quarterbacks attempted 29 passes and its running backs had 29 carries, and Wes Welker made his return to the field, as the Patriots topped the Falcons, 28-10, at the Georgia Dome in their second exhibition game.
Last year, the Patriots ran the ball on 43 percent of their snaps and Tom Brady seemed to rely almost exclusively on Randy Moss and Welker to move the chains.
This season, with three new tight ends and therefore more reliable options for Brady, in theory defenses won’t be able to key on just two players, opening things up for the running backs.
Veteran back Fred Taylor certainly sees the advantages of being able to rely on the run or pass equally.
“It puts the play-caller at ease when we can have that balance and not be as one-dimensional and allow the defense an opportunity to tee off on that dimension,’’ he said. “So it’s something to grow on; this is game No. 2, or practice No. 2, we want to get better as we go and be able to carry that over in the regular season.’’
Earlier this week, Brady said the offense can “control the whole game’’ if the Patriots are able to run the ball.
Brady, who played three series, was an efficient 10 of 12 for 85 yards and a touchdown, though he did underthrow Moss on a deep ball into the end zone.
Two of Brady’s completions went to Welker, who made his return to game action after tearing his ACL and MCL in early January, and also having surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff.
While Welker’s night was short — limited to New England’s first drive — it was an important step in his return. Brady’s first two passes were to No. 83, the first a 6-yarder over the middle, the other a 14-yard gain. Brady went to Welker a third time, on a screen that Welker has made his forté, but the play was broken up when the receiver was drilled by Falcons cornerback Christopher Owens.
“It’s a step forward . . . We got some plays out there and got some contact, which I hadn’t had this whole time, so it was good to have out there,’’ Welker said, adding that there had been discussion on Wednesday about him playing, though nothing was set in stone.
“I really wanted to play, really wanted to get out there and get the ball in my hands and get everything out of the way of getting hit and things like that,’’ he said.
Last week BenJarvus Green-Ellis got the majority of the first-team snaps at running back. Last night it was Taylor, with some Sammy Morris carries mixed in. Morris played into the second half before Green-Ellis and Thomas Clayton got some late work. Laurence Maroney did not register a carry.
New England’s first possession showed renewed emphasis on the running game. Taylor, who has struggled to catch the ball during training camp, seemed to have no issues carrying it last night.
After Kevin Faulk got the Patriots into Atlanta territory, Brady handed off to Taylor on back-to-back plays, and he picked up 4 yards each time. Morris then had a 9-yard gain on third-and-2.
On first down from the 28, it was Taylor again, and with a tremendous block by tight end Alge Crumpler, the lane was cleared for Taylor to find the end zone.
“That’s what he’s known for,’’ Taylor said of Crumpler’s help.
In five series over the first two exhibition games, the first-team offense has scored three touchdowns and a field goal.
Much as it did last week against the Saints’ first-team offense, the Patriots defense came out strong against Atlanta’s best, led by quarterback Matt Ryan.
On the Falcons’ first possession, Ryan completed passes to his top tight ends, Tony Gonzalez and Justin Peelle; the duo had three catches, the third an 11-yard pass to Gonzalez on second and 8. But the drive stalled, and Atlanta had to settle for a 46-yard field goal from kicker Matt Bryant.
The Falcons’ second possession was a three-and-out. After Michael Turner gained 7 yards on first down, Ryan couldn’t complete a pass to Eric Weems and New England rookie Devin McCourty had great coverage on a third-down pass to Roddy White.
The Patriots got a bit of a gift on their third possession, after the second ended with three downs and a punt.
The drive began well: Brady connected with Moss for 14 yards, then Taylor gained 12 yards on three straight carries and rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez got in the mix with a 14-yard reception, which put the Patriots at the Atlanta 23.
But veteran defensive end John Abraham dropped Taylor for a 4-yard loss on first down. A 10-yard gain to Moss helped make up some ground, but Kroy Biermann got the best of right tackle Sebastian Vollmer on third down, strip-sacking Brady (Stephen Neal recovered) and pushing New England back another 6 yards.
Stephen Gostkowski lined up for a 41-yard field goal, which he pushed wide right. However, Atlanta’s Chevis Jackson was flagged for roughing the kicker, which on replay looked like a ticky-tack foul.
It gave the Patriots a fresh set of downs, and three plays later, after a 10-yard run by Taylor, Brady took aim at Hernandez in the back left corner of the end zone, a pinpoint pass to finish off the 11-play, 63-yard drive.
“I had a corner route and Brady threw me a back shoulder [pass] and I had to react and make a catch,’’ Hernandez said. “It feels good just to go out there and be part of the team. Just a dream to be out there.’’
Brian Hoyer came on at quarterback for the next possession and started the second half. He threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to rookie Rob Gronkowski in the fourth quarter.
Most of the Patriots’ defensive subs entered before the end of the second quarter as well.
The play of Hernandez, Gronkowski, and Crumpler leads one to believe tight ends will play a major role in the offense this year, something New England has been lacking the last couple of seasons.
The Patriots defense gave up its only touchdown late in the game, as Brandon McGowan whiffed on a tackle of receiver Troy Bergeron, taking teammate Terrence Wheatley out of the play in the process. Bergeron trotted into the end zone.