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No groove without slot receiver

By Albert R. Breer
January 11, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH - Maybe, as some of the Ravens asserted, an extra player or two wouldn’t have made any difference in what wound up being a breezy Baltimore win yesterday afternoon at Gillette Stadium.

Maybe the Ravens were that good. Maybe the Patriots were that bad.

But one thing was clear: New England missed Wes Welker. Sorely.

And if you don’t believe it, follow Bill Belichick’s advice, and “turn on the projector.’’

What you’ll see is a totally different offense than the one Welker excelled in, catching 123 passes this season.

Tom Brady was beat up and beat down all day, sacked three times and picked off on three occasions. The Patriots registered two first downs on their first five possessions, had one first down on four of their 13 possessions, and zero first downs on five of them.

They ended up with 196 total yards, and if there’s a way that low a number can be an empty statistic, then these guys found it.

Bottom line: The idea that rookie Julian Edelman, or anyone else, could just step in and replace the league’s best slot receiver was borderline offensive to Welker. And so the Patriots paid the price for not having him.

“We knew Edelman was his protégé,’’ Ravens safety Ed Reed said as he walked toward the bus. “But you aren’t gonna get that same heart without him. It’s a bigger heart with him in there.’’

And it didn’t take even a couple of minutes for the Ravens to rip the Patriots’ heart out.

On New England’s third offensive play, Brady took a five-step drop out of the shotgun, and stood tall in the pocket. Edelman, coming off the ball, was being pushed outside. Kevin Faulk, Brady’s other safety valve, was blasted in the backfield.

So around the edge came Terrell Suggs, reaching to slap the ball from Brady’s hand, the quarterback left with nowhere to turn.

The next time Brady handled the ball, Ray Lewis came free on an A-gap blitz. Brady had to eat the ball.

Again, it is completely possible that would have happened whether Welker was in the lineup or not. But if there’s going to be someone Brady’s going to throw to in that spot, his hot receiver against the blitz, it was going to be Welker.

“With all credit due, it’s hard to replace a Wes Welker,’’ Lewis said. “No matter what you do, with that type of capability, when you don’t have him, we can shrink the package and keep everything in front of us.’’

And they did.

The Patriots had just one catch for more than 20 yards. Without Welker to worry about, the Ravens could bracket Randy Moss and not have to pay for it.

Moss wound up with five catches for 48 yards, and a long of 19. New England averaged 6.7 yards per catch. Most people would say the Ravens struggled throwing the ball. They averaged 8.5 yards per catch, so that says a lot.

“A lot of our offense goes through [Welker], a lot of it has gone through him, a lot of it was focused on him the whole year,’’ said tight end Benjamin Watson, who finished with one catch for 3 yards and a big drop. “For him not to be out there, it’s huge. Does it change the fact that we have good players and we need to score and move the football? It doesn’t change that.

“But yeah, any time you lose somebody like that, you can’t really replace them.’’

The Patriots could’ve tried to do it with the running game, which improved over the last month of the season, if there weren’t two pretty big problems.

First, the Ravens have the league’s fifth-best run defense. Second, the score was 24-0 in the time it takes Reed to get from a hashmark to the sideline.

The Patriots certainly made an effort to slow the Ravens with screens.

Last week in Houston, nearly all of Edelman’s production came on such plays, but the Ravens made it clear swiftly that the Patriots weren’t going to have the same success against them. Brady took another hit from Lewis on a blown-up screen to Laurence Maroney midway through the first quarter. Two possessions later, Kevin Faulk was dropped for a 5-yard loss on a screen.

As such, the Patriots’ options dwindled. Moss wasn’t going to beat Baltimore, the running game wasn’t going to beat Baltimore, the screens weren’t going to beat Baltimore, and all of that meant nothing was going to beat Baltimore.

And sadly, Welker couldn’t, not from Robert Kraft’s suite. Sitting there, one row behind the Patriots owner, he was what the offense had in ringing up 27 points in October on the Ravens, and he was what it lacked limping to the finish line yesterday.

The only difference? No, it wasn’t. But it was the biggest one.

Chris Carr did a solid job on Welker in October. But the simple threat of what Welker can do - same as with Moss - opens things up for others.

“It was a little different, because you were playing a team that had their best player then,’’ Reed said. “But they didn’t change their game plan as much.’’

The Patriots didn’t, because they couldn’t, which should tell you just how integral Welker was to their success. Edelman could well develop into a very good pro, and he has shown the open-field skills to make a difference in multiple facets of the game.

But for now, yesterday was confirmation of something that everyone should’ve known to begin with.

That guy who wears No. 83?

Yeah, he’s pretty good.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at abreer@globe.com.

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