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Patriots pulling off rare feat of winning while rebuilding

  • By Pat Kirwan NFL.com
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As we reach midseason, the cream is finally starting to rise to the top. That usually happens as the best quarterbacks start to dominate.

In Week 8, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady reminded all of us that a great quarterback can overcome problems with injuries, questionable protection schemes, shaky defenses, and disappearing run games.

Speaking of Brady, what stands out the most is the beautiful job the Patriots are doing to rebuild a football team and remain a contender as the project continues.

New England owns the league's best record at 6-1. Still, the Patriots are perceived as good at many things but not great at anything, aside from that guy under center. Make no mistake about it, Bill Belichick's squad is in a youth movement, but unlike most teams that go through the teardown and redo, the Patriots keep winning.

The 2010 Patriots remind me of some of the teams last decade that won three Super Bowls in four years, because the offense is perceived as Brady and a bunch of average guys. In truth, they do a lot more than that on the field.

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There is some legitimacy to this Patriots squad having similar traits to the teams that hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, at least offensively. Belichick knows that the offense must work in harmony with the defense if the team is going to continue to win. During the Super Bowl seasons (2001, 2003 and 2004), the Patriots gave up an average of 16 points a game. They surrender 22 points a game this season, and the offense has to make up the difference.

The five goals of this offense are to protect the defense, be careful with the ball, have a high rate of completions, protect the offensive line with quick passes, and occasionally take a shot down the field.

With the defensive deficiencies, Belichick and Brady have built the perfect offense to support a defense in development. That's why some found trading away Randy Moss to be a strange move when the offense needed to protect the defense with lots of points. To others, however, Moss wasn't really a Patriot.

Once Brandon Tate took the top off the defense against the Vikings with a 65-yard touchdown, the package was complete, and the need for Moss was gone.

With so much attention dedicated to the transition from Moss to Tate, the adjustment from Kevin Faulk to Danny Woodhead has taken a backseat, but it might be even more critical. Woodhead has grabbed a big role in this offense and gives Brady a guy who can do all the things Faulk did as a receiver and runner.

Another essential part of the offense is the slot position. In the past 10 years, the Patriots have really developed the concept of the slot receiver, who is a mainstay of the offense today. The player in that position is usually considered the third wide receiver and used extensively in the "11 personnel" package (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers). Initially, guys like Troy Brown and David Patten handled the duties. In 2001, Brown caught 101 passes -- although he lined up in many spots, he was first and foremost a slot receiver.

Wes Welker came along in 2007, and the slot receiver grew into an even more important role. Welker caught 123 passes last season and remains the only constant in the receiver group from just a year ago. If you look at the present group, you see small, explosive receivers that understand coverage and know how to get open.

The average age of the receivers is 25, with the height being 5-foot-11. So, the real questions are why the shift to these types of receivers and the short pass attack?

Robert E. Klein / Associate Press
The Patriots have undergone an array of changes in the passing game over the past year, leaving just Wes Welker as the lone familiar face.
Primary production from positions in 2009
Position Player Catches YPC TDs
Z WR Julian Edelman 37 9.7 1
Tight end Ben Watson 29 13.9 5
Slot Wes Welker 123 11.0 4
X WR Randy Moss 83 15.2 13
RB Kevin Faulk 37 8.1 1
Production from positions in 2010
Position Player Catches YPC TDs
Z WR Deion Branch 14 11.3 1
Tight end Aaron Hernandez 29 13.4 0
Slot Wes Welker 40 8.0 3
X WR Brandon Tate 15 15.9 1
RB Danny Woodhead 14 9.7 1

People might call this a group that really doesn't do anything great, but I beg to differ in a few critical areas. Let's break down how this offense works by down and distance first.

The Patriots are second in the NFL in percentage of plays that gain 4-plus yards. The short pass attack is a very effective way to take a sizeable chunk out of 10 yards. Overplay the short pass game, and you will get a dose of the first down run, which consist of 54 percent of first down calls at 4.7 yards per carry.

In either scenario, second down looks manageable. New England is fourth at moving the chains on second down with a 36 percent conversion rate. Things get better still with the short pass attack on third down, where the Patriots rank second with a 46.4 percent success rate. Brady has only been sacked four times on third down and only once when it's third and less than 7 yards.

When it comes to big plays, the Patriots aren't impressive, but they make up for it in other ways. For example, they only have 79 plays over 10 yards; the league average is 90. They only have seven touchdowns from 10 or more yards away from the end zone; the league average is eight. The red zone is where New England is all business. The Patriots are second in red-zone scoring with 25 scores in 28 trips (seven rushing touchdowns, nine passing and nine field goal). Again, the short pass attack and the underrated run game come through.

Despite being 32nd in possessions, New England is in the top three in scoring efficiency and leads the league in points per game.

The Patriots have to be efficient offensively because the defense is last in preventing third-down conversions (47 percent), 31st in passing yards a game (282.4) and 29th in opponent's time of possession. When your defense gives up 384 yards a game and is tied for 22nd in sacks, the offense needs to stay on the field whenever possible. With each passing week, the offense is buying the defense time to improve.

The final piece of the puzzle is a quarterback with great accuracy and sharp decision-making skills. Brady has this band of receivers starting to chew up zone coverage, and they already look better than the 2001 offense that made it to Belichick's first Super Bowl. That team scored 23.2 points a game and threw 21 touchdown passes. This team is scoring 29.3 points a game and is on pace for 27 touchdowns.

Can the defense live up to their end of the bargain? That is the question because there's no doubt that the short passing game can. These young, small receivers are proving that, in this offense, quickness and separation are more important qualities than size and deep speed. This group is going to be together for some time.

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