Although trading Randy Moss undoubtedly had an effect on the Patriots' offensive structure, the unit didn't skip a beat in its debut without the mercurial playmaker.
While the Patriots lost some of their quick-strike capability when Moss was dealt to Minnesota, the offense became a more diverse and dynamic unit by reshuffling personnel. The addition of Deion Branch combined with the promotion of fellow receivers Justin Edelman and Brandon Tate, and the expanding roles of tight end Aaron Hernandez and running back Danny Woodhead, has made the offense a unit that will keep defensive coordinators up at night.
In watching the Patriots attack the Ravens, it was interesting to note that New England operated extensively out of its 12 personnel package (one running back, two tight ends and two receivers). While they mixed in some snaps out of 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end and three receivers), the expansion of the 12 package allowed the unit to feature Hernandez as the X-factor. By aligning the rookie in different spots (fullback, receiver and tight end), the Patriots are able to exploit mismatches based on how the defense chooses to defend the various formations.
Hernandez, who ranks as the Patriots' second-leading receiver with 22 catches, is an athletic freak with the speed and quickness to run past lumbering linebackers and safeties. At 6-foot-1, 245 pounds, he is too big for diminutive nickel corners assigned to him in the slot. Given his potential to cause disruption, the new version of the Patriots' offense has thrust him into a pivotal role.
Branch slides into Moss' role as the starter, however, his responsibilities are completely different than his predecessor. Moss provided the Patriots with a vertical threat, but Branch is better suited to run short and intermediate routes. As a result, the Patriots threw more square-ins, quick outs and hitches. In addition, the team cleverly paired Branch on the same side with Wes Welker in several formations to take advantage of any of the double coverage that Baltimore directed at Welker. With Welker occupying multiple defenders in the middle of the field, Branch repeatedly got open on routes outside the hashes. His 23-yard reception in overtime was a great example of the Patriots using Welker as a decoy to create space for Branch on a follow route.
While Edelman and Tate aren't pegged for prime roles in the offense, they each bring dynamic skills, which will be expanded as the season moves forward. Tate, in particular, is being used as the designated deep threat on the offense. His speed and explosiveness will blow the top off deep coverage, and create space for intermediate routes underneath. Though he is not likely to post 50-55 catches, he will produce enough "explosive" plays (receptions over 20 yards) on the backside to eventually attract extra coverage.
The emerging star is Woodhead. A castoff with the New York Jets, he has been an excellent addition as a third-down back. He runs hard between the tackles, and is a crafty receiver out of the backfield. His ability to excel on screens and check-downs gives Brady a quality safety valve in critical situations.
Even though BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Rob Gronkowski didn't play pivotal roles against the Ravens, they are potential wildcards capable of producing big games when given touches. With the multi-faceted approach that coach Bill Belichick takes with his offense, it would not be surprising to see the duo emerge against the San Diego Chargers this week.
The subtraction of Moss was expected to lead to New England's demise, but finding ways to use other weapons has the potential to keep the offense rolling like a well-oiled machine.