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For Brady, all routes lead to Welker, Moss

By Albert R. Breer
Globe Staff / December 23, 2009

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FOXBOROUGH - Tom Brady, in his early years as the Patriots’ starter, was consistent when asked which receiver was his favorite.

“The open one,’’ he would swiftly respond.

Has that changed? After the Patriots lost to the Saints, who held Randy Moss and Wes Welker in check, Brady’s tune seemed to change.

“Most teams focus their coverage on those guys,’’ the quarterback said. “The Jets did, Indy does, I mean, everybody does. I think some weeks we do a better job of getting them the ball. They’re playmakers on our offense and every team tries to take away your best playmakers.’’

And that’s the balancing act for offenses.

Do you take what the defense gives you? Or do you work to get the ball in the hands of your biggest threats?

The truth is, it’s both, and the best offenses do the best job of toeing that line.

“On certain plays some guys might have a better chance to get the ball than others, based on what you expect the defense to do,’’ coach Bill Belichick said Monday. “But they change, too, so you don’t always get the exact look that you think you’re going to get. You might think, ‘All right, if we get this defense, here’s what will happen on this play,’ but you don’t always get that.

“You have to read it out . . . When the defense takes one thing away, then hopefully we have options somewhere else. It’s not like we’re just standing there looking for one guy.’’

That doesn’t mean having Welker and Moss hasn’t affected the offense.

Five years ago, the season of the club’s last Super Bowl victory, six players had 26 or more catches, 10 receivers had 10 or more, and no one exceeded 56.

The Patriots are far more pass-happy now (Brady’s thrown 39 more times already than he did in all of 2004), so the numbers aren’t the same. Still, it’s easy to see what’s happened.

Welker has 109 catches and Moss has 74, and then it drops down to Kevin Faulk with 37. Moss and Welker have been targeted on 53 percent of Brady’s throws, and that’s even with Welker missing two games, and Moss being the constant apple of the opposing defensive coordinator’s eyes.

Figures like these are not unusual in other NFL locales. They used to be here, but this kind of change isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as it’s not taken too far.

“I think there’s a fine line,’’ former NFL quarterback Rich Gannon said. “If a team doubles a guy, and cuts coverage there to try and take that player out, and schematically you should go the other way, it’d be foolish to press the issue, particularly if you have other personnel that can make plays. But the [offensive coordinator], those are the things he should pride himself on, finding a way to get guys touches.’’

The Patriots clearly did it with Moss on Sunday.

On New England’s first possession, the offense came out in a run set (three tight ends), ran play action, and went deep to Moss, who was covered underneath by cornerback Drayton Florence and picked up deep by Jairus Byrd. The pass was incomplete, but the threat of Moss going deep was established.

The next time the Patriots had the ball, they had three receivers to the right side of the formation, all running vertical routes and clearing out the underneath area. Moss ran a drag from the left side into that vacant turf, giving him the easy catch and an opportunity to turn upfield.

New England’s next drive kicked off with a nearly identical play.

Welker conceded that on some plays, “You have a good idea of what’s going to come open. But it all depends on what coverage they’re running, and receivers reading the play [the way] it needs to be read.’’

Still, there are ways to push the envelope. Gannon recalled Raiders coach Jon Gruden having a package to get Tim Brown involved early in games. And the quarterback would meet with the receiver Saturday night before Sunday games to discuss ways to get him going.

“He may have seen something with Champ Bailey on tape, and I’d ask, ‘What two or three routes do you feel comfortable with?’ ’’ Gannon said. “He’d say, ‘I can get a double move here and maybe get a shot.’ So we might try to give him a double move, on a slant-and-go or something early, and if it wasn’t there, there’d be a combination situation on the backside.’’

So in that way, he was conscious of the receiver’s involvement. In others, though, he wasn’t. Like the time, in 2004, when Jerry Rice’s streak of consecutive games with a catch ended at 274.

“I didn’t find out until two minutes were left,’’ said Gannon. “We won, but he was not happy. But there was never a point in a game when I could tell you how many catches one guy or another had, I was so entrenched in my reads and progressions.’’

It is, Gannon said, the playcaller’s responsibility to say “We’ve got to get this guy into a rhythm.’’

Which brings us back to Moss. The Patriots’ star was targeted eight or more times in eight of the first 10 games. He’s been targeted fewer than eight times in each of the last four games.

Is it a problem? Depends on the circumstances.

“We certainly don’t want to throw it into double coverage - if the receiver’s covered, we’d like to find somebody that’s open,’’ Belichick said. “If they are doubling the guy, then they’re probably going to respect his ability or respect him on those routes anyway.’’

The coach emphasized that if the receiver’s doubled, it doesn’t always mean he’s covered. There’s no question that Welker and Moss have been open in such situations.

And that’s just one reason the offense isn’t as balanced as it once was.

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