For the first 3½ games, the Patriots’ offense was productive but a bit off as it adapted to coordinator Josh McDaniels.
It felt a little clunky, like quarterback Tom Brady was wearing a trenchcoat three sizes too big, instead of one of his impeccably tailored suits.
There were a lot of players being run in and out, some in featured roles that haven’t proven very much (cough, Julian Edelman), a ton of personnel packages, and an unusual number of gadget and deception plays.
It just seemed as if Brady and the primary weapons that have guided this offense the past couple seasons, receiver Wes Welker and tight end Rob Gronkowski (with Aaron Hernandez out), were being made to adapt to the changes McDaniels wanted to bring. He obviously had his reasons, and I’m sure they were well thought out and researched. But it just felt a little much at times.
That all changed in the second half on Sunday against the Bills.
McDaniels worked with what he had, instead of making the Patriots something they are not.
McDaniels stripped it all down, from personnel, packages, and plays. Only a handful of each were used.
McDaniels started everything through Brady, and then attacked with the inside power running game the Patriots have been working on since the start of offseason workouts.
And, man, did it work.
On six successive drives in the second half, the Patriots racked up 330 yards and six touchdowns to run away with a 52-28 victory at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Everything came together. McDaniels had figured out a way to perfectly mesh what had worked for the Patriots before his arrival, with his own twist.
The result was, finally, sweet music.
“I think we’re getting better,” Brady said. “I think that’s what we’ve shown, and you have to keep building on the good things and try to eliminate the bad things.”
Brady, who started 11 of 21 for 167 yards and no touchdowns, completed 11 of his final 15 passes for 173 yards and all three of his touchdowns.
The double-headed running game of Brandon Bolden and Stevan Ridley put up 159 yards and two touchdowns after halftime.
Talk about balance. The Patriots could do no wrong.
“We ran the ball really well,” Brady said. “That was a big point of emphasis this week.”
As it should have been, especially after the Bills showed no interest in playing their base defense against the Patriots.
Usual starting linebackers Kelvin Sheppard (middle) and Arthur Moats (strong side) didn’t even see the field until the game was out of hand and they had to sell out to stop the run.
Every other snap, outside of goal line, the Bills had their four down linemen, linebacker Nick Barnett, and six defensive backs, with strong safety George Wilson playing the role of linebacker.
If the Patriots can’t run against that personnel, they should give up.
“I think they were really challenging us to run the ball,” Brady said. “They had some little guys on the field with our big personnel groupings, so at that point you have to try and take advantage of it. You can’t just keep throwing into a heavy pass defense.”
Oh, but the Patriots have tried that in the past — including the 2010 playoff loss at home to the Jets — and failed.
The run game was certainly a key, as was eliminating the negative plays that plagued the offense in the first three games. The Patriots had just one on Sunday.
But that’s not where things started for the Patriots. It began where it always should, with No. 12.
On each of the eight first-half possessions, the Patriots started with Brady under center on first down. They threw five times out of those heavy sets, but with all the defensive backs on the field, Brady wasn’t getting a clear picture of where to go with the ball.
McDaniels changed that in the second half.
On the first five possessions after halftime, Brady was in the shotgun with no backs and five receivers on the first play.
Spread ’em out, let Brady take his choice of matchups, and deliver the ball:
Boom, 26-yard pass to Welker.
Boom, 11-yard pass to Bolden.
Boom, 13-yard pass to Welker.
Boom, 8-yard pass to Welker (before an incompletion to Brandon Lloyd).
Basically, let Brady be Brady.
“I think so,” said Welker, of the offense feeling comfortable getting back to the spread as a starting point. “Especially the situation we’re in, we’re down two touchdowns [21-7] and we knew we had to get something going and we had to hit some pass plays and kind of spread them out and do some of those things, and we were able to hit up some matchups and take advantage of them.”
And then go, go, go with the no-huddle while the Bills are on their toes.
One other change in the second half, according to two players, was that Brady was given more freedom as far as play calls and adjustments.
“He made a lot of calls and a lot of checks,” said Barnett.
Coach Bill Belichick downplayed that element.
“I’d say not significantly [different],” he said. “That’s part of what we do anyway; we have an element of that in our offense.
“It depends on what play is called. Some are called either or [run/pass], some we just call and run it. Some we don’t change because we get the look that we think we’re going to get to run the play. So there’s no need to change it. I’d say we probably do it about the same every week, and how it turns out may be different, but I would say our method is pretty similar.”
Well, whatever it was in the second half, the Patriots need to keep doing it.
What’s the old saying? Keep it simple, stupid.
The Patriots did just that in the second half.
They even kept running the same run plays, or a variation. There was an inside zone (sometimes with Gronkowski at fullback), a wham play with Gronkowski, and a neat little toss counter.
“The most discouraging thing about it is they literally ran three running plays,” said Bills tackle Kyle Williams. “They ran the same thing over and over and over.”
Everything was inside against the Bills’ vaunted defensive line. And almost everything had a little delay to allow one or two linemen out to the second level to block against the Bills’ diminutive second level.
Back Brady with a running game like that, and he’s going to be tough to stop.
As long as the Patriots and McDaniels stay true to who they are.
Feels like that’s going to happen after Sunday’s explosion.
The players have learned a little bit. McDaniels has learned a little bit. Time to go to school the rest of the season.Greg A. Bedard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.