Shock and Awe: The state of the Patriots’ offense


The argument was never settled, though we talked well into the morning hours…

…My point was that as far as offensive priorities go, forcing the defense to defend the entire field, no matter the circumstance, is the most fundamental concept in all of football – a notion that was met with rude grumblings from the crowd gathered around the bar at the Rock Bottom Grill Sunday night.

The entire debacle started when I lamented New England Patriots’ offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ propensity for abandoning the run when it isn’t initially successful, which was instantly dismissed as a pile of bad noise.

Dec 10, 2012; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady leads one of the most diverse and balanced offenses in the NFL. Mandatory Credit: Michael Ivins-USA TODAY Sports

It was pointed out that the Patriots have the type of passing attack, and the overwhelming talent to compensate for a lack of running game – which is true in some cases, but doesn’t lend itself to domination of an opponent, nor does it establish any sort of physicality.

Nor is it a recipe for championships.

In the end we agreed to disagree and I kicked all them out of the Grill and into the teeth of a sudden snow squall which had delivered a pristine white crust atop everything, giving a twinge of beauty to this filthy little New England village.

Because they were wrong.

They had stats galore, a few of them even breaking out laptops and tablets, wanting me to look at their statistics that probably backed up their weak arguments very well, but I waved them off like offsetting penalties. “Show me a list of the last 20 Super Bowl Champions” I bellowed, “That’s the only stat that matters to me.”

Hell, they could have done the past 30, the past 40 champions – come up with crap like “They were a passing team” or “They only ran 30% of the time”, and it wouldn’t have mattered.  If, as a unit, you can not make a defense defend the entire field, you will not ever win a championship.

That’s what the New England Patriots will be all about when the Playoffs kick next weekend.

They don’t have to have the greatest statistical running game, nor the most dynamic of passing attacks.  Just the threat of the awesomeness of either is enough to overwhelm any defense they encounter.

Thing is, they do have a good running game and they have perhaps the most dynamic passing attack in the NFL, certainly the most diverse…poised to win 12 games, many are hoping for a top 2 seed and a resultant bye week, but those things are not under their control.  As much as it stinks, the Patriots lost control of their destiny by laying that 1st half egg against the 49ers a couple of weeks ago.

But something that the rest of the playoff field has to be concerned about was what happened after the Patriots gained their composure in that game and started making the 49ers defend the entire field.

Which makes one ask the question: Why do the Patriots abandon the run if it isn’t successful initially?

Unfortunately, there isn’t an answer to that, at least not a good one, and only McDaniels and Bill Belichick know for sure.  But the evidence to support balance has existed in football since advent of the game, and has it’s roots in military tactics since the beginning of time…

…and it’s called blitzkrieg – or to use a more modern term, Shock and Awe.

Usually associated with a crushing assault using tanks and fighter aircraft in war time to annihilate an enemy, it is actually more of an ideal that causes fear and loathing among the enemy.  The idea is to beat them mentally, as a prelude to their destruction or surrender.

Speed, lateral maneuvering and the shock of sudden violence throughout the entire depth of the defense to create conditions of physcological shock in the minds of the defense…

…to wear them down physically as well with a fast paced air superiority combined with a brutal frontal assault to keep them off balance and unable to react faster than than their weakness can be exploited, preventing them from establishing effective defence, particularly late in games.

The Patriots came into this season seeking to accomplish this with the threat of a Tight End heavy attack so large and so fast that it would act as road grading force, leading a powerful running game and paving the way for a play action aerial assault that would so mentally and physically wear down their opponents that they would be psychologically beaten before even taking the field.

But something happened along the way.  Injuries ravaged the heavily relied upon tight end corps as the Patriots most diverse weapon, Aaron Hernandez, went down early in week two with a severely sprained ankle.  New England persevered, the running game still able to follow tight end Rob Gronkowski and the entire right side of the offensive line through huge holes, still able to set the table for quarterback Tom Brady’s passing attack.

The numbers were off the charts, as they racked up yardage and first downs and points in bunches and dominated their opponents to the point that they had nothing left down the stretch.  But that all came to a screeching halt when Gronkowski went down with a broken forearm on November 18th.

Without the All Pro tight end, the Patriots became ordinary on offense and, combined with key injuries on the defensive side, they were unable to dominate consistently.

To their credit, the team lost just once in the ensuing 5 games, a wild 41-34 loss to the San Francisco 49ers – a game that saw the Patriots turn the ball over several times and fall behind 31-3 before scoring 28 strait points in 14 minutes to tie the game before running out of gas.

They abandoned the run in many of these contests as their physicality disappeared as their tight ends began to fall – only establishing their running game in the waning moments, but not enough to close out games.

Establishing the run is the second most fundamental rule in all of offensive football – with striving for balance on offense being first.  So it’s not as if you’re inventing something new when you run the ball.  The basic schemes are the same as they were 50 years ago.  There are still 11 guys trying to stop 11 guys, it’s still a game of violent ground acquisition, its still 3 yards and a cloud of dust…

…with strong-armed quarterbacks throwing the ball 60 yards downfield to world class sprinters mixed in for breathtaking excitement.

The National Football League has evolved into a pass happy institution, but behind the glitz and glitter of a finely tuned vertical passing attack is the threat of an efficient running game – and it is our task to understand why, and the most important of these reasons is that for an offense to be successful in one area, it must be proficient in all.

Forcing the defense to defend the entire field is the best way to achieve balance.

Never allow the defense to crowd the line of scrimmage, stacking eight or 10 men in the box because you are predictable in calling the run. Never allow the defense to flood the zones with extra defenders because you pass eight downs out of 10. The offense should attack all areas of the field and force the defenders to stay at home, thus allowing the offensive coaches to create the basic two-on-one mismatches that lead to success for the offense.

And now that Rob Gronkowski is back and Aaron Hernandez is healed, now that Wes Welker has re-established his rightful position as the best slot receiver in the game, now that Brandon Lloyd has emerged as the intermediate threat that opens up things for the underneath routes and the running game, the Patriots are fully stocked once again and ready to dominate in the playoffs.

Along the way, they discovered much about their offense.  The offensive line, a source of much anxiety in the preseason, has emerged as a strength.  The tight end depth has proven to be NFL quality and will add yet another dimension to the already powerful attack.

In other words, teams that attempt to get into a shootout with the Patriots are going to lose – and lose big.

This is the state of the New England Patriots going into the playoffs.  They are balanced, they are finally healthy and they are looking not just to win, but to dominate.

It took all season to get everyone on the field at the same time, so now it’s time for the Patriots opponents to be shocked and awed.