Spreading the wealth key vs. Ravens
Why Patriots' offense might be better, at least conceptually, without Randy Moss
Every week during the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week's breakdown is on Sunday's contest against the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium (1 p.m.).
Mike: We're back after the bye week, Tedy, but it didn't seem like much of a break. The Patriots were busy, trading Randy Moss and then acquiring Deion Branch in a deal with Seattle. There has been a lot to digest before we even get to the big game ahead. Let's start with Branch.
Tedy: This is a great pickup. Tom Brady loves him. Brady has talked in the past about how he gets emotional about trades and doesn't want to get involved, and I think that goes back to 2006 when Deion Branch was traded to Seattle. He loves his attitude and competitiveness on the field. Tom remembers that experience.
Mike: One of the big questions is how much can be expected of Branch right away, such as this Sunday.
Tedy: Initially, he probably shouldn't start because of the message it sends to Brandon Tate. Tate is the next player in line and you have to be careful there because of all the work he's put in. Branch has been out of this offense for a while now, so I think this will be similar to what we saw from Randy Moss in his first game with the Vikings, where he was talking with the Vikings' offensive coordinator, Darrell Bevell, on the sidelines and telling him which plays he could run. It will probably be similar for Branch. You pick a handful of plays to which he can contribute. His role will grow as the year goes on, but right now, I think you look first to Tate.
Mike: Tate has played 55 percent of the offensive snaps this season, seeing time in both two- and three-receiver sets. It makes sense to think that number will grow a bit as the Patriots look to fill the Moss void (81 percent playing time). As for the Moss trade, things were escalating behind the scenes. That was part of the team's decision-making, as were pure football reasons as this offense starts to evolve into something different than we've seen from 2007 to 2009.
Tedy: On the off-field stuff, there are three instances that stand out. The Kickoff Gala was one of them, and that's when Moss wore headphones throughout the night. That Kickoff Gala means a lot to owner Robert Kraft. It's where he has all his close friends and people who are very supportive of the organization and the Patriots Charitable Foundation. With Randy Moss acting the way he did, it's something you don't want your younger players to see. The second thing was what Moss said after the Cincinnati game, the season opener. It all should have been about the team and Wes Welker's comeback from knee surgery. Instead, it was about Randy Moss and his contract and his situation, the way he wanted things. If you take everything away from it and just focus on those two things, that's a lot right there. Then you add in the halftime incident with Bill O'Brien, and when you consider young, impressionable players on the team seeing that, you just don't want that seed planted inside their heads -- that it's OK to act that way if I'm disgruntled with the organization. The time was coming.
Mike: That all makes sense from an off-field perspective. What would you say about the football side of things?
Tedy: I think Tom Brady is at his best when he drops back and is surveying the entire field and throwing to the open receiver. This is an offense that needs route-runners, and with Randy Moss, at times, it became a little bit one-dimensional -- too much Brady-to-Moss. You almost knew at times that he was going to Moss. So I actually think that conceptually this offense will be a little bit better without Randy Moss.
Mike: The statistics that stand out to me are the contrast between the second week against the Jets -- when Moss was targeted 10 times and there were just two completions -- to the next two weeks when the ball was thrown in his direction just three times. You started to see that shift. In a way, I look at this offense returning to what it was before 2007, when we saw Moss, Welker, Jabar Gaffney and Donte Stallworth in three- and four-receiver sets.
Tedy: That '07 year, the 50-touchdown-passes year with 23 to Moss, that was something special. I don't know if it will ever happen again. Looking back, I think it might have messed some people up in terms of philosophies -- Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and other coaches that are here, the idea that you could relive that, so let's keep trying and trying. Having that magical year when an offense explodes and puts its mark on the history books can mess you up, and I think it did. After the past couple of years, I think they realized it wasn't going to happen. You just have to let it go. Now they're going back to an older approach.
Mike: Part of the reason they can do that is the new personnel at tight end with Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Those two, along with veteran tight end Alge Crumpler, are making this more of a tight end-heavy approach. They've run 65 percent of their snaps with multiple tight ends on the field. But before turning the page completely, I know how strongly you felt about the magical moments that Moss produced. Before we get to the nitty-gritty of the game breakdown, wrap us up with your Moss memories.
Tedy: I think you just have to step back and appreciate what we saw from Moss over his time here. It's something you won't see again -- that talent streaking down the field, the ball in the air. How many things in the NFL make you get up out of your seat? Maybe Adrian Peterson breaking off in the open field, or Tom Brady or Peyton Manning dropping back to pass. When Moss is streaking down the field and that ball is in the air, you get up out of your seat. Patriots fans should feel fortunate to have seen that.
Patriots defense vs. Ravens offense
Mike: One statistic jumps off the page when looking at the Ravens' offense, and it's on third down. They play well in those critical situations, converting 45 percent of the time, which is the third-best mark in the NFL. That, of course, starts with the quarterback, Joe Flacco.
Tedy: He has matured every year and they're not asking him to do that much. In the playoffs last year against the Patriots, he had 10 pass attempts. Last week against the Broncos, it was 25. So he is not airing it out every down, and when he does, the Patriots will focus on trying to move him off the spot. The "spot" is an area 5 to 6 yards behind the center. This is where Flacco feels the most comfortable throwing the ball. Make him move from that spot and he is less effective. But still, it's the running game that is a key when going up against the Ravens. They had 233 yards against the Broncos last week and four rushing touchdowns. They want to run the ball, and Flacco knows that if the run game isn't stopped, then all he will have to is hand it off Ray Rice, Willie McGahee and Le'Ron McClain.
Mike: Rice leads the way with 363 yards on 87 carries and two touchdowns, while McGahee has 143 yards on 40 carries and three touchdowns. For the Patriots, I look for them to be in their base defense more often than anything else. Similar to the Jets in the second week, the Ravens are big and physical, and the Patriots will have to counter with their bulk and power to match the challenge at the line of scrimmage.
Tedy: This is a big line, and one of the things the Ravens do is go unbalanced. This is when they bring a tackle and put him over to the other side and you overload that side with 1,000 pounds of beef. It's a power running formation, shifting the strength of the offensive formation and forcing the defense to adjust. This offensive line gets movement.
Mike: As we work our way through the Ravens' offense, you see the new additions at receiver in Anquan Boldin (28 receptions, 363 yards) and T.J. Houshmandzadeh (seven receptions, 104 yards). They join Derrick Mason (16 receptions, 209 yards) to form a veteran receiving trio. That's a lot of experience against a young Patriots secondary.
Tedy: Those guys get after it as blockers, which helps the running game, too. They know what wins games and what contributes to a team's success. They realize how important it is for them to be able to run the ball and they play a big part in it. In the passing game, none of them have overwhelming athleticism, but they're all savvy. They know the tricks of the trade and don't get rattled.
Mike: Bill Belichick liked Mason enough to bring him in for a free-agent visit in 2005, and hoped to land him in New England. Mason picked Baltimore instead, and his body of work can be defined by two words: production, consistency. You also have tight end Todd Heap (28 receptions, 210 yards) to consider, as well. The other factor I think we should touch on is how the presence of former Patriots defensive coordinator Dean Pees on the Ravens staff might make a difference in this game. Pees is in his first year as Ravens linebackers coach, and you wonder if Belichick might change some things up on defense and perhaps consider the four-man line instead of the standard base 3-4.
Tedy: Maybe the first series or the first couple of plays, you come out with something unorthodox to try to throw them off. You know Pees is over with the offensive coordinator, Cam Cameron, saying, "This is what you should do." Belichick could counter that by coming out with a different defensive look right off the bat to where Pees would say, "This is something new, so all those adjustments we talked about are out the window." You could do that for the first or second play and it might throw them off a little bit. But overall, Pees is smart and he knows this is a young defense. He's probably telling the Ravens' offensive coaches that the key is to make them adjust. Show them empty formations, unbalanced, spread, make them communicate. The more you communicate, the more you have chance for error. When you don't have a veteran defense that can communicate quickly on the fly, before the ball is snapped, then you have some confusion.
Patriots offense vs. Ravens defense
Mike: When looking at this side of the matchup, I'll start with the Patriots. This is an explosive attack. I believe it's the best the Ravens have seen this year. The Patriots rank first in the NFL on third down, converting 55 percent of the time. Meanwhile, the Ravens' defense is first in the NFL in that area, holding opponents to a 26 percent conversion rate. In terms of how to attack the Ravens, they seem like a tough unit to run on, with a big, physical front seven.
Tedy: I think we can look back on the Ravens' game last week against the Broncos and apply some of the things from that to this game. The reason is that the Broncos' offense, under former New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, has some similarities to the Patriots. How many times did they attempt to run the ball? It was 13 times for 39 yards. So basically, it was, "We're going to throw the ball." I think the Patriots might adopt the same philosophy.
Mike: It makes sense, Tedy, although you've made the point that the passing and rushing yards can sometimes be deceiving when it comes to the Patriots.
Tedy: Yes, there are hidden rushing yards in this offense -- the quick little screen to Welker, a check-down pass. So there are ways you can run the ball without running it, with quick little passes. It isn't designed to go 25 yards, maybe 5. A quick little screen or something like that. That's how the Patriots figure to attack in terms of running numbers.
Mike: How about in the more traditional passing game?
Tedy: Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton threw for 314 yards last week against the Ravens. The Patriots have Tom Brady, the best in the league, and that's where you figure the ball will be -- in his hands. I think Brady has the potential to do that and more. The Ravens did get beat deep a couple of times last week, so there will be opportunities down the field. What we're starting to see from the Patriots is Brady surveying the field, dinking and dunking, and they'll have some game-plan shots down the field.
Mike: One of the big questions is how this offense might look different without Randy Moss. I'm curious if you could provide an example that might highlight this.
Tedy: First of all, I don't think Branch should start right away. I know he's played in this offense before, but guys like Brandon Tate have put in the work and deserve a shot. It's going to take Deion a couple of weeks at least to be fully comfortable in this offense. This offense is going to have more elements of quick, short passes. They will continue to spread defenses out by formations and the ball will quickly be out of Brady's hands. The element of the deep ball isn't gone totally; they will pick their spots on when and how they wish to attack the deep part of the field. There is no one better than Tom Brady when it comes to deciphering coverages and finding the open man. Notice how many different receivers have receptions Sunday. That will be the biggest difference going forward: spreading the wealth.
Mike: Overall, this is a Ravens team that some are calling the best in the NFL. They have wins over the Jets, Browns, Steelers and Broncos, with the lone loss coming to the Bengals in the second week of the season.
Tedy: Elite teams in the NFL win on the road against top teams, and that's what the Ravens have done with those wins over the Jets and Steelers. Still, one aspect to watch is that the Ravens have had the potential to fall apart mentally. They sometimes get caught up with matters that have nothing to do with the next play, a tendency to get unraveled. They're so emotional and get so intense, they can forget what's most important -- winning the game. An example is last year's regular-season contest at Gillette Stadium. They let a couple of roughing-the-passer penalties get them so rattled it took them three days to stop talking about it. If you're the Patriots, the key is to stay focused, stay the course, keep playing your game.
Mike: We'll also keep our eye on special teams, which has been a hot topic of conversation with Ravens coach John Harbaugh. He's concerned about Brandon Tate and his two kickoff returns for a touchdown. Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff is tied for the NFL lead with 11 touchbacks. As for a prediction, I think this is a game that will come down to one or two plays. With the Ravens playing their fourth road game already this season, I think it's a good spot for the Patriots. I'll go New England, 24-21.
Tedy: This is a tough Ravens team, but I think we could be seeing an offensive rebirth with Tom Brady spreading the ball around to every receiver with a flying Elvis on his helmet. Jerod Mayo breaks through this week and makes a big play that wins the game. Pats, 24-17.
Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th anniversary team. Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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