Commentary

Patriots will adjust offense to fill void

Bye week gives New England a chance to rework game plan without Moss

Updated: October 8, 2010, 8:51 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain had just returned to the locker room Thursday following the New England Patriots' first practice without receiver Randy Moss.

"It's a good thing this happened now as opposed to leading into the week," he said.

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez
Elsa/Getty ImagesPatriots TEs Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Alge Crumpler could now play an even bigger role.

Banta-Cain's point was that the next game on the Patriots' schedule -- Oct. 17 at home against Baltimore -- is a big one. Absorbing the aftereffects of the Moss trade while attempting to prepare for the Ravens would have been extremely challenging.

Instead, the move with Moss came during the bye week in which the Patriots aren't specifically preparing for a game. This gave them time to recalibrate and emotionally come to grips of losing an important player without the pressure of a game plan hanging over them.

So far, so good.

"We had a good practice," Banta-Cain said. "I think we're confident with the guys that are here. We'll just try to keep building on that confidence."

When attempting to answer where the Patriots go from here, two areas stand out: Emotion and offensive scheme.

Some players described Moss as an emotional sparkplug, someone who could get the team excited with pregame and in-game pep talks, as well as postgame celebrations. Receiver Wes Welker explained that's partly why the trade was difficult to digest, especially if Moss had been looking to be traded all that time, as Welker had read in some reports.

That is one Moss-specific void for the Patriots to fill, and if that's the team's biggest problem they should be OK.

The other, of course, is on the field.

Part of what made Moss so important to the offense was his vertical presence and ability to clear things out for players like Welker. No other player on the roster has that type of skill set, so expect the Patriots to reinvent themselves a bit on offense. One of the trademarks of Bill Belichick's coaching approach is that he doesn't force a system on players, but instead adapts to the players' strengths and weaknesses.

So if the Patriots call on a three-receiver set with Brandon Tate, Wes Welker and Julian Edelman, and pair that trio with tight end Aaron Hernandez, the plan figures to look different than it would if Moss was on the field. Minus a Moss-like vertical threat, this could be a return to the early 2000s New England offense that featured more of a quick-rhythm West Coast style.

While that is a significant alteration, it also remains just a slice of the Patriots' overall pie because they are no longer a three-receiver offense, which was the package in which the majority of their plays from 2007 to 2009 were run.

This year's offense has only been in a pure three- or four-receiver package 36 percent of their snaps. Compare that to the 56 percent clip from the 2009 season and it shows how the offense has changed to feature more multiple tight end packages with veteran Alge Crumpler and rookies Rob Gronkowski and Hernandez.

That should continue, and perhaps increase even more, without Moss.

In some ways, what the Patriots are facing is similar to 2008 when Matt Cassel replaced an injured Tom Brady at quarterback. The Patriots altered what they did offensively that year, but still found a way to move the ball and score points.

That is the challenge ahead for a Moss-less attack. Will it be good enough?

"We'll all see," defensive lineman Vince Wilfork responded. "I can't answer those questions. We can answer them on Sundays.

"We have a lot of football to play. I'm happy with this team, with everybody that's around here, young and old guys. I'm looking forward to seeing how far we can go with this team."

Crumpler, the veteran tight end who has emerged as a locker room leader, believes the Patriots have what it takes.

"All we have to do is focus on playing and staying together," he said. "The one thing I do know about this team is that if we believe in each other in this locker room, we can go out and beat anybody. We showed that Monday night and we'll continue to show that."

Without Moss, the challenge is that much greater.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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