FOXBORO -- The Patriots have always been known as a team with some level of offensive flexibility, but regardless of what happens in Sunday’s AFC title game against the Broncos, the 2013 team will ultimately be remembered as an offensive chameleon, able to change from week to week with an amazing dexterity.
So many of the changes are because the Patriots have been forced to deal with injury. If tight end Rob Gronkowski, wide receiver Danny Amendola, offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer and running back Shane Vereen were able to play the entire season, it’s debatable how many incarnations of the New England offense we would have seen to this point. As a result of injury and personnel decisions, the Patriots had 14 different starting lineups on offense over the course of the regular season, tied for third in the league. (By way of comparison, Seattle, Indianapolis, New Orleans and Tampa Bay tied for the league lead with 16 each.) The league also listed the Patriots with 293 unique offensive lineups, which was seventh highest in the NFL. And among the teams that are remaining in the playoffs, they have the lowest percentage of plays featuring the most common lineup at 2.45 percent.
While the personnel losses have caused them to press some new faces into starting roles -- maybe faster than they would have preferred -- it’s also made for something of a scouting problem for opposing defenses.
”They still do a great job of finding ways to move the ball up and down the field and score points and score touchdowns,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “The system has been in place, and they do a great job of bringing guys in and plugging them in and putting them in the right spots. [Offensive coordinator] Josh [McDaniels] does a phenomenal job with them, and they put them in a position to make plays. I think with all those other guys, it’s a matchup nightmare across the board.”
Despite the fact they’ve been forced to change so dramatically from week to week, the bottom line is that they’ve been able to score points almost as consistently as they have in years past. The Patriots outscored the high-powered Broncos over the second half of the season by a 265-263 count. And a New England team that was 24th in scoring through the first month of the season (an average of 19 points per game through four contests) ended up tied for second in the league with 27.8 points per game, trailing only the 37.9 points per game put up by Denver
”That just goes to show you the kind of coaching staff we have -- getting our players into situations where they can play well and have an opportunity to succeed,” wide receiver Danny Amendola said. “It all comes down to getting guys in the right spots and preparing and playing hard.”
Much of the success is rooted in the ability of the quarterback, as well as the fact that he’s enjoyed a remarkable run of consistency with the head coach and offensive coordinator. But unlike previous seasons when the New England offense consisted mostly of a high-octane passing game with a familiar cast of characters and just enough ground work to keep opposing defenses honest, the 2013 Patriots were a work in progress on the offensive side of the ball. In truth, the offensive evolution of the Patriots went through three phases: Weeks 1 through 4, when they were still grinding and searching for an identity; Weeks 5 through 12, when they were clearly a pass-first bunch powered by one tight end (Rob Gronkowski) and one receiver (Julian Edelman) that looked an awful lot like the teams of recent vintage; and Week 13 through the postseason, when a renewed focus on the running game has allowed them to head into Sunday’s AFC title game with a real sense of offensive balance.
“I think we’ve always strived to be more balanced,” said offensive lineman Logan Mankins. “It’s just, what is the strength of your offense? At time, we’re a better passing team than a running team.
“Right now, I don’t know if we’re a better running team than a passing team, but the running is working. So, why go away from something that’s working?”
That wasn’t always the case. Without Gronkowski at the start of the year, and forced to make do with a ton of new faces, the Patriots spent the bulk of the first month of the season searching for an offensive identity. In the opener it was Shane Vereen, Edelman and Amendola who carried the load, accounting for a whopping 342 of the 431 yards from scrimmage. But injuries to Vereen and Amendola in that first game against the Bills -- and the waiting game around Gronkowski -- forced Edelman to step up and take more of the offense on his shoulders. (Edelman’s 34 catches through the first four games represent one of the best starts of any receiver of the Bill Belichick era.) In the process, New England was able to take advantage of some favorable matchups to start the year 4-0. Throughout this stretch, the Patriots offense was as balanced as it had ever been: 122 rushing attempts and 158 pass attempts. (The Patriots also were able to benefit from some very solid complementary football, as the defense was one of the best in the league through the first four games.)
Whether it was because of an itchy trigger finger on the part of the quarterback, a belief in strength of schemes and matchups or a desire to ramp things back up in anticipation of the return of Gronkowski, the Patriots became a pass-first team in October, compared to where it was the rest of the season. Gronkowski saw his first action of the season in the October game against the Jets and really opened up the passing phase of the season for the Patriots. From late October through the first week of December, over the course of eight games, New England went back to the air, with Gronkowski and Edelman emerging as the primary targets. In that stretch, Brady threw for 2,091 yards, an average of 261 yards per game. Meanwhile, things bottomed out for the running game -- in an Oct. 6 loss to the Bengals, the Patriots had just six carries in the second half, despite the fact that it was a one-score game. And in an Oct. 20 overtime loss to the Jets, they ran it twice over the last seven-plus minutes and into overtime. In those eight games, New England had 891 rushing yards, an average of 111 rushing yards per game. In all, New England had almost 100 more passing attempts in this stretch than rushing attempts: 313 pass attempts and 228 carries.
But the injury to Gronkowski -- as well as matchups, scheme and weather -- caused the Patriots offensive approach to pivot again in early December. Since the Dec. 8 win over the Browns, the Patriots running game has been on a steady rise -- against Cleveland, they ran the ball 21 times. That increased to 22 carries (Dec. 15 vs. Miami), 34 (Dec. 22 at Baltimore), 43 (Dec. 29 against Buffalo) and 46 (Saturday against the Colts). All the rushing numbers have spiked in that span, including total rushing yards and yards per carry. Meanwhile, in that same stretch, the passing attempts went from 52 against the Browns to 25 Saturday against Indy. In the most recent five-game stretch, the Patriots have averaged 165 rushing yards per game and 242 passing yards per game -- 40 passing yards per game less than the middle of the season. In that time, the run-pass ratio is closer to an even split than at any other time over the course of the season: 166 carries, 182 pass attempts.
Going into Sunday’s AFC title game, odds are good that the Patriots might have to call upon their chameleonic nature and go back to a pass-first team, as the Broncos are far better at defending the run than the pass. (In the regular season, Denver was 27th in passing yards allowed 254.4 yards allowed per game, while it was tied for seventh at 101.6 rushing yards allowed per game.) But in a season where New England’s offense has gone through a variety of looks just to get to this point, the possibility of one more transformation doesn’t seem all that far-fetched, especially when it could mean the difference between heading to North Jersey next month or heading home for the offseason.