Commentary

Can Patriots overcome loss of Welker?

Updated: January 8, 2010, 11:02 PM ET
By Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi | ESPNBoston.com

Join the conversation every week as former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss break down New England's upcoming game. This week, it's the Patriots hosting the Ravens in the wild-card round of the playoffs on Sunday (1 p.m. ET):

Mike: It's the playoffs, which means everything is turned up a notch. The Patriots have to feel good about being at home, where they haven't lost this season.

Tedy: They have done well at home, but they also know that the crowd and noise from fans is not going to help them win this game. What's going to help them win is preparation and urgency in the way you play. Bill Parcells always said "Don't be that guy." What he meant was don't be the guy that made the key mistake, the crucial error, in the biggest game of the year, one that ended the season. The first time I heard that, I was scared out of my mind. I never wanted to be that guy. I used it as motivation to know my job and my responsibility inside and out.

Mike: Running back Fred Taylor made the point earlier in the week that it was "grab a young player" day -- where the veterans sort of pull the youngsters aside and remind them of the importance of it all.

Tedy: This is an incredible opportunity for the young players on the Patriots to make the playoffs for the first time. There are a lot of first- and second-year players that have contributing roles on this team, and it can help to have a veteran attitude in the locker room. When the Patriots had more veteran players, the attitude was always one of urgency. You realized this could be your last Wednesday of work. You came in on Thursday and said, "Don't let this by our last Thursday." Then it was, "Don't let this be our last Friday." We wanted to do everything we could to make sure we were coming back the next week. That's how veterans look at the playoffs, with an incredible urgency. Your season, your chance to become a Super Bowl champion, could be finished if you don't do your job. With more young players on the Patriots' roster, this is a great learning experience for them. I remember when I was a first-timer in '96 and there were veterans like Bruce Armstrong, Ben Coates and Keith Byars. They taught me how special this chance was, and that even though it was my first, to consider it my last. The message was that each chance you have in the playoffs, each chance to become a world champion, must be taken seriously. It isn't an accomplishment to get an extra playoff check and be able to say "I've played in the playoffs." That's not enough. Why can't you be a world champion?

Mike: I like to hear the stories of how veterans pass along that message to the younger players. Junior Seau has spoken to the team before each game and I'm sure he'll have a similar message. I've talked to some of the younger players throughout the season and some seem to rally about his message. As for this game, it's a rematch of a game played Oct. 4 at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots holding on for a 27-21 victory.

Tedy: I think we have a very good idea of how this game is going to go if you look back at that first game. Even though it was a long time ago, I think you can take some of the key indicators from the first game and anticipate some of them having a good chance to repeat themselves. One thing I noticed was that the Patriots really started to attempt to establish a running game, and it helped set up favorable second- and third-down situations. The best example of that came at the end of the first quarter, when it was fourth-and-1 at the Ravens' 3-yard line. Sammy Morris met Ray Lewis in the hole, head to head, and got the first down. The quarter ended and after recovering from a false-start penalty, Tom Brady scored on a sneak through the middle of the defense from the 1. I believe that was a message not only to the Ravens but to themselves -- they were not only establishing the run and able to pick up a yard in critical situations, but they were also telling the Baltimore Ravens, one of the toughest teams in the league, that we can play that game also.

Patriots offense vs. Ravens defense

Mike: The physical presence will be extremely important Sunday. That is a great point about the first meeting between the teams and that telling sequence of plays. Of course, one of the big questions is how the Patriots will recover without Wes Welker and his NFL-high 123 receptions.

Tedy: Julian Edelman is a good young player, better now than earlier in the year. But he is no Wes Welker. Wes Welker has a relationship with Tom Brady that he has developed through countless hours of practice, rep after rep after rep. They have developed a rapport where what Wes sees out there when he's running option routes, Tom sees the same thing. Wes recognizes it's zone coverage and breaks out, Brady sees it the same way, and the ball is in flight as he makes his break. This relationship is what Edelman doesn't have. Don't get me wrong, I like Edelman as a young player with tremendous upside. He will become a big piece of the Patriots' offense, but he just can't do what Welker does for the offense.

Mike: In addition to that rapport that Welker and Brady have, let's go deeper into what makes Welker so effective.

Tedy: You hear the term "separation" used a lot in route running. Welker is a master at using his body, leverage and hands to get separation from a defender. He also has unmatched quickness, with ability to get out of his break. There is straight-line speed and ability to stop and restart, and in football, the ability to stop and restart is valued more than straight-line speed -- especially when it comes to underneath route running. Welker's ability to get out of breaks creates separation, and then you combine that with the knowledge he has, the techniques he uses and his relationship with Brady, and you could be looking at least 3 yards of separation. With that, he can catch the ball without a defender knocking it down and be far enough away from the defender to turn upfield for yards after the catch. That can turn a 4-yard gain in a 10-, 15- or even sometimes a 20-yard gain. Edelman's ability to get separation doesn't match Welker's. His separation can be 1 yard or possibly less, and that's where the defender could be in his hip pocket, knocking the ball down, forcing an incompletion, or just wrapping him up after the completion with no yards after the catch.

Mike: Great point Tedy. Welker totaled 705 yards after the catch this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That was the second highest total in the NFL. So if you're on the Patriots' offensive staff, what are you thinking this week?

[+] EnlargeRandy Moss
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesRandy Moss finished the season with 1,264 yards receiving and 13 TDs.

Tedy: Offensively, I don't think you count on Edelman like you counted on Welker. If your order of importance was Randy Moss/Wes Welker, or Wes Welker/Randy Moss, I think now that order changes to Randy Moss, Kevin Faulk and coming in tied for third would be Edelman and Benjamin Watson. Other players must be utilized. Billy O'Brien has to find ways to get Faulk out of the backfield. They've shown they can get Faulk in empty formations or through various check-downs or the screen game. Watson will run his usual routes but possibly will be targeted more than in the past. I'm still hoping for that infamous tight end screen.

Mike: Let's put you in Coach Belichick's hoodie. What do you tell the team as preparations get underway?

Tedy: Coach Belichick probably won't address the Edelman/Welker replacement in the team meeting. He'll instead talk to the team and give a handful of goals. I'd anticipate it would sound something like this: "Take care of the Big Three -- block Ray Lewis, know where Ed Reed is at all times, and protect Tom Brady from Terrell Suggs." Over the course of his career, Lewis has been his best at flowing to the ball, scraping to the ball, avoiding blocks and being in the hole to take on running backs. He's won a majority of those battles. So the message would be to get a body on Ray Lewis. We know how Belichick feels about Reed. Another reminder came before the Patriots played the Saints in late November and Belichick said safety Darren Sharper is one of the best in the league, but that Ed Reed was still in a class of his own. When Belichick brings up Reed's name in a press conference when talking about a completely different team, that's respect. The message there would be: "Don't try to get the ball into a small window when Ed Reed is in the area." And with Suggs, you can't let him ruin the game like he almost did last time these teams played. He is a great pass-rusher who on any single play can get the trifecta -- sack, forced fumble, recovery for a touchdown. That's what he caused in the first matchup between the teams. You have to prevent him from doing that again. Put a tight end over him. Chip him. Do whatever you have to do.

Mike: The Patriots rushed for 85 yards on 30 carries in the first meeting between the teams. From a pure statistical standpoint, averaging 2.8 yards per carry doesn't look good, but like you pointed out, it created important balance. The Ravens' defense is tough to run on, ranking fifth in the NFL in fewest rushing yards allowed per game (93.3) and first in lowest average yards per carry (3.4).

Tedy: They will have to creatively find ways to gain yards on the ground. The use of draws and pump draws -- that was a big play in the red area in the first meeting -- could be called on. This isn't the type of situation where you line up with a big package and consistently run the ball against this defense. They are too stout.

Mike: I know you feel this will be the Sammy Morris and Fred Taylor show at running back. I think they also need to find a way to get Laurence Maroney back in there, and one wrinkle could be using him as an option in the passing game in two-back sets out of the shotgun. Maroney can be dangerous if they can get him in space. One other thing we should watch out for is who starts at right tackle. Rookie Sebastian Vollmer finished the season there with Nick Kaczur injured, but Kaczur is back. I wouldn't be surprised if it's Kaczur, with Belichick leaning toward experience. Finally, do you put any validity into the thought that maybe Brady and Moss can recapture the 2007 magic now that Welker is out?

Tedy: One thing I remember about '07 is that it didn't matter if there was double coverage or triple coverage, Brady put it up there and Moss did what he does. This year's Buffalo game sort of reminded me of that, consciously trying to get the ball to Moss, and it worked. Does Welker's injury affect Brady's decision-making process, figuring that he doesn't have the underneath option anyway, so he'll put it up there? There are two things to note: Moss will be double covered and that double coverage will possibly be coming from Ed Reed. We've already talked about the respect Reed has from Belichick, and you know Brady feels the same way. So it might be a case where you don't even want to test those waters.

Patriots defense vs. Ravens offense

Mike: In the first meeting between the teams, the Ravens had Joe Flacco drop back to pass 49 times (47 attempts, two sacks) and ran only 17 times. It would be a shocker if the numbers are similar Sunday. The Ravens, behind running back Ray Rice, are more of a ground-based attack now.

[+] EnlargeRay Rice
Jason Bridge/US PresswireRay Rice rushed for 1,339 yards this season.

Tedy: Rice is also a better player now than he was in Week 4. Toward the end of the season, he looked like the Pro Bowler he had become, with a great ability to run between the tackles and also get around the edge. He is an all-around back and also can be explosive though the passing game. Give him a simple checkdown and he can get 50 out of it. You saw the Patriots have some difficulty last week setting the edge against the Texans -- Derrick Burgess had some struggles -- and the easiest thing for a running game to do versus a 3-4 defense is have that runner get around the edge when there is no force. Your outside linebacker has to be a stud, set the edge and force it back to the inside pursuit. If the Ravens notice that the edge is not set, they can pick up a quick 10 yards outside. This should be the first goal of the Patriots' defense -- setting the edge.

Mike: In watching this Belichick 3-4 scheme over the past 10 seasons, the best player I saw at setting the edge was Mike Vrabel. He was very tough. Adalius Thomas and Tully Banta-Cain are the projected starters at outside linebacker, so we'll keep an eye on them setting the edge against the Ravens' tackles and tight ends.

Tedy: The second goal of the defense should be to get Flacco off the spot. The "spot" is an area 4-5 yards behind the offensive center and it is where dropback quarterbacks like to deliver the ball. If you can get pressure through the middle of the pocket to the spot, and make Flacco move, he isn't the same quarterback. He isn't a scrambler and doesn't throw well on the move consistently. So you have a chance to greatly affect passing efficiency if you get him moving.

Mike: One promising sign for the Patriots is that nose tackle Vince Wilfork (foot) and Ty Warren (ankle) both look like they'll play. Both made the trip to Houston and were spotted working out on the field before the game.

Tedy: That should help but when you have two big men with lower extremity injuries, you have to wonder how much running they've done in the past two weeks. Conditioning may come into play. I've had lower extremity injuries -- knee, ankle -- and there is not much running you can do in the rehab process. So when you get into practices again, the hope is to get that conditioning level back. You hope you'll still be effective in the fourth quarter. With that in mind, you could see a rotation, with the idea of keeping them fresh for the fourth quarter.

Mike: On the Ravens' side, tight end Todd Heap is someone the Patriots will need to be aware of, especially in the red zone. And receiver Derrick Mason's consistency continues to amaze as he had another 1,000-yard season.

Tedy: Heap has shown flashes of brilliance, running routes from the tight end position that are receiver quality -- I saw one a few weeks ago in which he turned it up on a DB and made an athletic catch. He's not targeted as consistently as other tight ends like Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates or Kellen Winslow. As for Mason, the guy is made of iron. He is one of those players who you see in pain and you wonder, "How is he still able to do the things he's doing?" He almost has that injury deception, he gets up from a play and you might think he's this broken-down old receiver, and he walks back to the huddle, then when the ball is snapped he's running full speed on you again. Almost like a rope-a-dope, which could sneak up on a young secondary.

Mike: Let's wrap this up Tedy. Will this be our last breakdown of the season?

Tedy: I don't think so. Let's plan on another one next week. I like the Patriots 24-17.

Mike: Sounds good to me. I see it a bit closer, one that could go either way. In the end, kicker Stephen Gostkowski's leg is the difference in a 20-17 Patriots win.

Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th anniversary team. Mike Reiss is the Patriots blogger for ESPNBoston.com. You can reach Mike by leaving a message in his mailbag.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

Tedy Bruschi

Columnist, ESPN.com
Tedy Bruschi spent his entire 13-year career with the New England Patriots after being drafted in the third round out of Arizona. He played in five Super Bowls, winning three. He retired prior to the 2009 season.

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