That was the collective reaction of defensive coordinators around the NFL when the New England Patriots' offense rolled in their preseason opener against the Philadelphia Eagles. Of course, preseason performances are not always reliable indicators of regular-season production, but the flawless execution by the Patriots' starters suggested that New England's offense will remain one of the NFL's most explosive units in 2013 -- despite missing the services of Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Aaron Hernandez and possibly Rob Gronkowski heading into the regular season.
Although the Patriots' offense might lack the sizzle of previous editions, a revamped approach built around a power running game and a diversified passing attack -- with a few surprises -- could produce better results in 2013. Here are three reasons why:
1) Tom Brady has a history of thriving with no-names.
With his championship pedigree and winning ways, Brady might be the best quarterback in NFL history. He's claimed three Super Bowl rings in his 13-year career while boasting a .777 regular-season winning percentage, the best of the Super Bowl era. Additionally, he's won a record 17 playoff games, while his 42 career playoff touchdown passes leave him behind just Joe Montana and Brett Favre.
While most associate Brady's recent success with a star-studded supporting cast that has included players like Welker, Gronkowski, Hernandez and Randy Moss, the two-time league MVP has truly been at his best when surrounded by unknowns on the perimeter. Consider that Brady reeled off a 10-0 playoff record and won three Super Bowl championships with the likes of David Givens, David Patten, Troy Brown and Deion Branch snagging passes all over the field. Not to discredit the solid careers of the aforementioned players, but few would call them elite based on their individual talents and skills. In fact, it's possible that stars like Welker, Gronkowski, Hernandez and even Moss were transformed and lifted by Brady's incredibly efficient play from the pocket.
Of course, that notion will certainly make some Brady haters roll their eyes in disgust, but it can be quickly validated by taking a look at the careers of each guy before and after joining the Patriots. Such an exercise should serve as a stark reminder that Brady can make those around him better with his collection of passing skills within the Patriots' multi-faceted offensive system.
Reviewing film of the preseason opener against Philadelphia, I saw Brady at his best, displaying superb anticipation and timing while leading his receivers into open areas. Additionally, he continued to showcase the deadly accuracy and ball placement that makes him nearly indefensible.
The Patriots accentuated those strengths with a diverse aerial attack that featured a series of dink-and-dunk passes out of spread formations, complemented by a handful of vertical throws off play-action fakes from run-heavy looks. This is nothing new for the Patriots, but the seamless transition between the different approaches promises to pose problems for opposing defenses, particularly when Brady has New England operating at warp speed.
Take Brady's 13-yard touchdown pass to Shane Vereen on Friday. The clever utilization of an empty formation triggered a mismatch on the perimeter. By positioning Vereen on the outside of a spread formation, the Patriots made it easy for Brady to diagnose the coverage, identify potential blitzers and find a mismatch downfield. When Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks matched up with Vereen in a cocked position (as illustrated in the screengrab below), indicating man coverage, Brady knew he would have a big-play opportunity on the outside.
Utilizing a deceptive vertical passing game from run-heavy formations is a sensible approach for a team with unproven receivers. Aligning in tight formations with multiple tight ends on the field can force opponents into single-high coverage (eight-man fronts), reducing the amount of bump-and-run coverage receivers will face on the outside. Additionally, the deft ball handling of Brady and his running backs will lure linebackers to the line of scrimmage, leaving huge voids between the hashes.
Although the Patriots have routinely featured this tactic in the past, it should become a bigger part of their offensive approach with rookie receivers Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins, who lack the experience and polish to consistently get open otherwise.
2) They have a diverse stable of running backs.
The Patriots quietly fielded the NFL's seventh-best rushing offense in 2012. Although some would say their numbers were skewed by the way they ran out the clock while preserving big leads, the bottom line is that the team could run whenever it was necessary, using a power-based attack that was underrated by most observers. The failure to notice the Patriots' effective running could stem from the fact that the team relied on a workhorse runner (Stevan Ridley) who lacked a marquee reputation coming out of college. Additionally, the team's complementary runners -- Vereen, Danny Woodhead and Brandon Bolden -- didn't receive enough touches to merit much attention.
This season, however, the Patriots' talented and diverse collection of backs promises to pose a bigger challenge for opponents during the regular season. Here's a breakdown of the running backs:
Stevan Ridley: The LSU product enjoyed a breakout sophomore season in 2012, totaling 1,263 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns while showing off a gritty running style predicated on physicality and toughness. He routinely runs through arm tackles at the point of attack, yet he also has the quickness, agility and vision to make nifty cuts in the hole. While Ridley lacks the long speed to routinely take it the distance -- as evidenced by the way he's chased down in the video to the right -- he is an effective grinder capable of thriving with a heavy workload. This is critical in a power-based offense that relies more on a running back's ability to log a lot of carries than it does his big-play potential.
LeGarrette Blount: The Patriots' acquisition of Blount didn't garner headlines, but it might end up taking the running game to another level. Measuring at 6-foot and 247 pounds, he is a sledgehammer with the size, strength and tenacious running style to wear down opponents. Blount doesn't simply pummel defenders like a battering ram, either; he has the agility and quickness to avoid tacklers in traffic, as he did on a 51-yard touchdown run last Friday. This makes Blount both a nightmare to take on at the second level and a threat to produce big plays at the end of games against fatigued defenses.
Shane Vereen: Vereen is a prototypical third-down back; he has the speed, quickness and agility to thrive either as a receiver or as a deceptive runner on draws and delays. His unique skill set allows the Patriots to employ a different style of offense, which complicates matters for opponents. Considering the years of success that former Patriots running back Kevin Faulk enjoyed in a similar capacity, I believe Vereen could emerge as the team's most dangerous weapon by season's end. If he can avoid the nagging injuries that kept him from shining earlier in his career, Vereen could put together a breakout campaign as the Patriots' utility man.
3) The Tim Tebow X-factor.
With Brady entrenched under center, few expect Tebow to play a prominent offensive role, but the former Heisman Trophy winner might carve out a spot in the game plan as a read-option specialist. Of course, putting Brady on the sideline for a play or two wouldn't sit well with the veteran, but I found it interesting that the team had a series of read-option plays ready and available for Tebow during the preseason opener. Of course, the preseason is the perfect opportunity to showcase gimmicks and gadgets with the intention of making future opponents scramble to prepare, but the success of the concept could entice Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to sneak in a few tricks to keep opponents on their toes. Given the success of the pistol read option in 2012, I would expect Patriots coach Bill Belichick to flirt with the idea at some point this season.
In the screengrab below, the Patriots are aligned in the pistol and executing the read option. Tebow places the ball in the running back's belly and reads the reaction of the defensive tackle:
When the Eagles' defender crashes down to take the running back, Tebow pulls the ball and scampers through a hole for a big gain: