Coverage is a tall order

Welker, Branch are two big shots

By Monique Walker
Globe Staff / December 16, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — There was no doubt that shipping Randy Moss out of town in October would change the Patriots’ offense. The production generated from the tall and speedy Moss was placed in the hands of two receivers who are short and quick.

Deion Branch and Wes Welker are being moved around like chess pieces and are proving to be difficult to defend. When Branch arrived via a trade from Seattle in October, he said he wasn’t here to replace Moss. Instead, Branch and Welker are making people forget.

During the Patriots’ five-game winning streak, Branch and Welker have combined for 901 yards on 64 catches and added eight touchdowns. Moss may have been a tricky guy to cover, but in the eyes of Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson, defenses face a tougher task trying to contain Branch and Welker.

“I think the biggest challenge is always a guy with the speed of Randy, but [in] this offense, the harder receiver [to cover] is going to be a guy like Branch, a guy like Welker — those quick guys who get in and out of space very well, get in and out of their cuts very well,’’ Woodson said. “For what this team is doing, [Branch] is a better fit.’’

In the 36-7 victory over the Bears last Sunday, Branch and Welker combined for 16 catches and 266 of Tom Brady’s 369 passing yards. It was the first time this season the Patriots had two receivers collect more than 100 yards each.

“I think they’re both great,’’ Brady said. “They’re great players. They’re extremely consistent, dependable, tough, very skilled. They can run a lot of routes. They have a lot of variation to what they do. We’re always trying to put them in different positions. They both played a huge game last week, and they’re both threats out there. If they’re open, they’re going to get the ball. They both know that.’’

Welker leads the Patriots with 787 yards on 80 catches and has seven touchdowns, one shy of his career high. Meanwhile, Branch has 44 receptions for 648 yards and five touchdowns since his return to Foxborough.

Branch’s presence creates more options for Brady, according to Welker.

“Having Deion out there is such a huge help for us,’’ Welker said last Sunday. “The strides he’s made for our offense is very substantial in what he’s been able to do, and with Tom having trust in him and, us just going out there and just spreading the ball around, and just everyone going out there and making plays. At the end of the day, that is what it’s all about.’’

The Patriots’ offense is so much different without Moss that Woodson said he didn’t bother viewing film of New England’s first four games. While Moss may have been a deep target for Brady in those games, Brady is now throwing to receivers who turn short passes into long gains.

“I think they’re definitely a different team now,’’ Woodson said. “I think the ball’s being spread out even more. When [Moss] was there, he was the target of a lot of passes and now it’s just all over the place. Every week, all the guys are getting four or five catches. Brady’s spreading it around a lot more and the offense is just clicking right now for him.’’

Branch, 31, doesn’t view his return to New England as a rejuvenation of his career, he is just excited to have opportunities. He is now part of an offense averaging 31.9 points a game, best in the league. While the Patriots may look like an offense doing everything right, Branch said there is plenty upon which to improve.

“It looks good from afar, but we’re making a lot of mistakes,’’ Branch said. “It may look real good because the numbers look good, but there’s a lot of things that we can tighten up.’’

Welker appears to be closer to a full recovery after having surgery on his knee in the offseason and Branch seems comfortable back in the Patriots’ offense. Branch is getting an up-close view of how Welker has been successful and how that has trickled down to the rest of the offense.

“He does a lot. He takes a lot of pressure off of a lot of guys,’’ Branch said. “Wes has to be accounted for. We all work hand in hand together. It’s not about what I’m doing or what [running back Danny] Woodhead is doing or [running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis] is doing. We all collectively are doing a great job of taking advantage of opportunities.’’

Small wonders

Now that Tom Brady can no longer stretch the field without Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Deion Branch — one of only two tandems in the NFL in which each starting receiver is less than six feet tall — are coming up big.

Welker and Branch the last five games
64 receptions, 901 yards, 8 TDs

The rest of the Patriots
54 receptions, 671 yards, 7 TDs

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