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Hernandez emerges as a potent weapon

Tight end Aaron Hernandez had another strong game Sunday: seven receptions against the Bills for a career-high 138 yards. Tight end Aaron Hernandez had another strong game Sunday: seven receptions against the Bills for a career-high 138 yards. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / January 4, 2012
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Essentially, the Patriots have the same cast of characters on offense heading into the playoffs as they did last year when the unit struggled in a loss to the Jets.

Stevan Ridley’s explosiveness brings an added dimension to the running game, but if there is one reason the Patriots will be tougher to defend this January, it is clearly Aaron Hernandez.

The second-year tight end has developed to the point where he is a legitimate top option to go along with wide receiver Wes Welker and tight end Rob Gronkowski.

For his rookie season and most of 2011, Hernandez was part of the secondary group of weapons Tom Brady had at his disposal. But as the regular season finishes, Hernandez is on a par with Welker and Gronkowski.

Hernandez, despite turning only 22 in November, is light-years ahead of where he was as the playoffs beckoned in 2010. He’ll be hard-pressed to ever be the complete tight end Gronkowski is, but he has matured into a well-rounded player.

And that looms as a very big development for the Patriots.

As 2010 closed, it was evident that the coaches and Brady didn’t have total confidence in Hernandez’s grasp of the game. You could almost take it to the bank that if a team played primarily zone, Hernandez wouldn’t see the ball. He just didn’t have a feel for the dead spots in coverages where Brady would know he would be if Brady looked him off initially.

Against man coverage, the Patriots did go to Hernandez because he could let his natural playmaking ability take over.

Hernandez also couldn’t block his way out of a paper bag.

Now, he can do it all. Even Hernandez’s blocking has become an asset. Give a large amount of credit to tight ends coach Brian Ferentz for the job he’s done with both of the young tight ends - especially after valuable veteran Alge Crumpler departed.

How the Patriots used Hernandez against the Bills illustrates the weapon he has become.

On the 39 pass plays he was in for, and two runs where he got the ball, Hernandez lined up as a receiver near or outside the numbers 26 times. Six times he was alone in the slot, on eight occasions he was in line as a tight end, and he was the fullback on the first pass he caught. He had passes thrown his way in each of the positions he lined up in.

Here’s a look at his seven receptions, which went for a career-high 138 yards.

First: Lined up as the fullback and released out of the backfield to be covered by a linebacker. Gained 4 yards after the catch.

Second: Lined up as the “Z’’ receiver on the numbers. Strong safety George Wilson watched him underneath while cornerback Aaron Williams was faked by the route. Hernandez cut across the middle against zone coverage, made the first guy miss, and picked up another 10 yards.

Third: Lined up in a “Double Y’’ (double tight end formation) in line next to Gronkowski. Hernandez blocked excellent strong-side linebacker Chris Kelsay, then released to find a gap in the zone and picked up another 5 yards after the catch.

Fourth: Another Double Y set. Off of play-action, Hernandez went up the sideline against zone coverage and was wide open on a busted coverage when the safety went to double Gronkowski. Hernandez should have been flagged for taunting - his lone miscue of the game - because his hot dog routine down the sideline was not needed and not appreciated by Bill Belichick once Hernandez got to the sideline. Hernandez gained 20 yards after the catch.

Fifth: This time it was a “Triple Y’’ formation with fullback Loukasa Polite acting as the third tight end. Hernandez flashed underneath the zone coverage, made two players miss, and was finally brought down at the 1-yard line, gaining 42 yards after the catch on a sensational run.

Sixth: Came in motion after lining up wide right. Hernandez was about the last option on the play-action pass and it should have gone for a loss, but Hernandez broke Nick Barnett’s tackle 4 yards behind the line of scrimmage and gained another 11.

Seventh: Inside a “trips’’ formation along with Welker and Tiquan Underwood, Hernandez caught a screen pass 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage. He picked up another 9 thanks to the blocking in front of him and a nifty spin move.

Those were in addition to the two rushes he had for 26 yards, and clearing out two defenders on Welker’s catch to the 1-yard line with 7:23 left in the third quarter.

Basically, teams have no clue right now how the Patriots are going to use Hernandez on any given play. Offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien is doing a great job of mixing things up, and defenses are in trouble when the Patriots use Welker, Gronkowski, and Hernandez in a trips formation.

It’s basically a pick-your-poison scenario for the defense, and Brady has his choice of options once the coverage declares itself.

The Bills, while weak at coverage linebacker, have a very good secondary and they had no answers for Hernandez.

That’s a very good sign heading into the postseason.

Here are the positional ratings against the Bills:

Quarterback Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Brady didn’t exactly finish out the regular season strong. It was an average performance by his high standards. Brady was sacked four times, but two were of his own doing (one was likely taken to keep the clock running late), and the Bills totaled only nine quarterback pressures. After Miami blitzed the Patriots 30 times, the Bills sent an extra rusher only once (three minutes into the second half). Brady threw an interception into coverage, and was very lucky that a careless fumble bounced right back to him.

Running backs Rating: 3 out of 5

Just an outstanding play call by O’Brien and execution on BenJarvus Green-Ellis’s 53-yard catch-and-run. That was a new look for the Patriots. Brady, out of the shotgun, faked a handoff to an in-motion Green-Ellis, then faked the tight end screen to Gronkowski and finally threw back to Green-Ellis. All in 2.32 seconds - which means it could work against quicker pass-rushing teams. Brian Waters, Dan Connolly, and Chad Ochocinco all did a great job blocking downfield. If Ridley wants to keep the lead role, he can’t fumble as he did out of bounds. Ridley is almost boom or bust at this point. More of his runs went for 2 yards or less (six) than for more than 4 (five). But the Patriots have to keep tapping his big-play ability. He broke another two tackles for 31 yards that accounted for 38.3 percent of his yardage. Polite didn’t add much at fullback.

Receivers Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Three drops (two by Welker) and Gronkowski’s worst run-blocking game (three stuffed runs of 1 yard or less allowed) hampered an otherwise very good performance by this group that got better as the game went along. There was some very good downfield blocking by Hernandez, Welker, and Julian Edelman. Outstanding job by Hernandez on Ridley’s 21-yard run in the second quarter taking out linebacker Kirk Morrison twice on the play. Nice job by Edelman and Welker - and Nate Solder - blocking downfield on Hernandez’s 19-yard run to start the second half.

Offensive line Rating: 4 out of 5

The Bills don’t rush the passer very well, but they have some very powerful players up front, and the interior line did an exceptional job for the most part. Ryan Wendell (half-hurry) was terrific filling in for Logan Mankins at left guard, and Dan Connolly (half-hurry) showed a lot of fight against Marcell Dareus all game long. Right guard Brian Waters could use the week off. His play has slid a little the past month to where he allowed a season-high 3.5 quarterback pressures, including 1.5 sacks.

Defensive line Rating: 3 out of 5

Kyle Love flowed with run action on the Bills’ first touchdown. He probably needs to hold his gap. Mark Anderson had a productive game (sack, hurry, two knockdowns, and a stuffed run), which he should against a fourth-round rookie backup tackle like Chris Hairston. Since Andre Carter’s injury, the Patriots are desperately trying to create more pass-rush opportunities for Vince Wilfork by “sugaring’’ one of the gaps around him - sticking linebacker Jerod Mayo in there pre-snap. The Patriots are trying to take one of the blockers off him, as Wilfork is seeing constant double-teams.

Linebackers Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Not much production out of this group. After being outstanding against the Dolphins, Dane Fletcher was sent to the bench for a spell after he missed two tackles and took a bad angle. Fletcher should have taken C.J. Spiller down after a minimal gain but instead allowed a 15-yard touchdown. Mayo bounced between weak and middle linebacker. Brandon Spikes did a much better job jamming receivers off the line.

Secondary Rating: 3 out of 5

If not for the four interceptions, this group would have been a mess again. This was not a game where the Patriots made a ton of defensive adjustments to shut out the Bills on their final nine possessions. It was Ryan Fitzpatrick being limited in his options after receiver Stevie Johnson was benched for his celebration penalty, and then tight end Scott Chandler left with a leg injury with five minutes left in the second quarter. Having already lost running back Fred Jackson and receivers Donald Jones and Roscoe Parrish for the season, Fitzpatrick had no one left besides David Nelson. Before Chandler’s injury, Fitzpatrick completed 81 percent of his passes with 9.4 yards per attempt, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions (137.5 rating). For the rest of the game, Fitzpatrick completed 48 percent of his passes for 4.4 yards per attempt and four interceptions (20.8 rating). Devin McCourty showed some ability at safety but has a long ways to go. Patrick Chung showed rustiness on the Bills’ first touchdown run by not attacking the hole. But on the whole, Chung’s physical, quick-attacking play had been sorely missed. Edelman was solid at star and should be playing. Sterling Moore, playing for Kyle Arrington (who may have been benched briefly for two missed tackles, two poor coverages, and taking a bad angle), drove on the ball well for his interception. Great job reading the eyes of Fitzpatrick for the interception return for a touchdown. Nothing screamed that Moore is some revelation. The jury is still out.

Special teams Rating: 4 out of 5

It looks like Sergio Brown, who had nice tackles on kickoffs and punts, was the person at fault on the fake punt. He’s the off-line floater - the man responsible for the fullback - but got caught trying to disguise in the other gap. That it was fourth and 1 near midfield should have made Brown more alert for the fake. You probably noticed that Brown stopped faking into gaps after that. Stephen Gostkowski (4.2 seconds hang time) had a decided kickoff advantage over Brendon Coutu (3.9). Zoltan Mesko kicked about even with perennial Pro Bowler Brian Moorman in every aspect but hang time (4.14 to 4.67). The coverage units did great to make Justin Rogers and Leodis McKelvin invisible.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.

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