Brady’s new look was impressive
FOXBOROUGH — Tom Brady was the story last night because, when it comes to the Patriots, Tom Brady is always the story.
The quarterback survived the exhibition opener unscathed, a big deal because he remains without a new contract, and impressed in his 17 snaps, which is hardly unusual.
The real development, though, is what happened around Brady. It was how the coaches called the game, and whom the ball went to, and how it got there.
The 2010 Patriots offense is far from a finished product, and it’s not like the 2009 edition, ranked third in the NFL, was some broken-down jalopy. But by the end of the season, it had become a bit one-dimensional, predictable, and, as the Ravens proved in the playoffs, very defendable.
It’s preseason, so maybe what happened during last night’s 27-24 Patriots win — and particularly early — won’t mean much of anything in a month or two. What it did reveal, though, is a willingness to change.
“I think it’s important for us to have balance in all situations,’’ said tight end Alge Crumpler, one of the few offensive players available after the game. “I like running the football. I’m a tight end that likes running the ball. But whatever the job is, we have to get it done.’’
Last year the offense was far less malleable to “all situations’’ than it has been in the past, and that wound up biting the Patriots in the end.
The spread isn’t dead in New England. Its use as full-time offense, however, appears to be flagging, and Saints defenders were quick to mention the Patriots employing more heavy personnel groupings than they had last November.
The Patriots came out for their first offensive series in “13’’ personnel — one receiver (Randy Moss), three tight ends (Crumpler and rookies Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski), and one back (BenJarvus Green-Ellis). That was just the start.
In all, the Patriots lined Brady under center on 14 plays. And that wasn’t purely situational.
On a third and 14 from his 43, Brady was under center, and converted with a 16-yard comeback to Brandon Tate off play-action. Brady was in the shotgun on his two other third downs, but one resulted in a drive-killing incompletion, in the face of pressure, and the other was converted with a 5-yard run by Kevin Faulk on a draw.
Coach Bill Belichick dismissed the idea of a philosophical shift after the game, saying, “You’ll see [Brady] in the ’gun.’’
The aforementioned draw set New England up with a first and goal at the Saints’ 5. And that put the Patriots square in the crosshairs of one of last year’s problems — converting deep in the red zone.
The Patriots went with two tight ends, two receivers, and a back, and handed the ball to Green-Ellis, who was promptly greeted in the hole by Jonathan Casillas and dropped for a 1-yard loss.
It’s easy to surmise last year’s Patriots would have brought an extra receiver, put Brady in the shotgun, and either forced the ball to Wes Welker or Moss, or pushed it to Faulk on a draw or a screen.
Last night the Patriots didn’t do any of that. Instead of taking a tight end off the field, they added one, and ran a power run. Sebastian Vollmer sealed off his man, Dan Connolly pulled and delivered the lead block on Jonathan Vilma, and Green-Ellis scampered into the end zone for a 6-yard score.
Crumpler said the offense is searching for its identity, and it wasn’t all revealed against the Saints. But the emphasis on being physical enough to go right at a defense clearly has been there.
“First day of pads, we went straight to goal-line,’’ Crumpler said. “There are certain things we work on. There are things we’ve got to get better at, there are things we have to continue to work at, and when those opportunities present themselves in the preseason we’ve got to take advantage of them.’’
See, while the pyrotechnics of a spread offense are bound to dazzle between the 20s, it is built to use the open space of the middle of the field and not the closed-in areas near the end zone. That’s why so often spread offenses rack up huge yardage numbers that aren’t always reflected on the scoreboard.
That’s not to say the Patriots won’t be in the shotgun plenty. It’s just the chance exists they have gone too far in that direction of late, and these preseason games are a good chance to rein all that in.
There’s no question the spread will remain a part of the Patriots’ attack. There are still guys such as Welker and Julian Edelman and Hernandez and Faulk who are very much best suited to play in space.
It’s just that it can’t be all the Patriots are. The Patriots need to be more than the Randy & Wes Show, and Brady’s spreading of the ball last night, plus flashes shown by Tate and Edelman, can give you some feeling they’ll be more than that.
“With Brady, you never know who he’s throwing it to,’’ Tate said. “You’ve got to stay alive. He tells me to stay alive on every route, so that’s what I do.’’
While one could argue the smartest play Brady made all night was flipping the ball into an empty area of the flat to avoid a free-coming Will Smith on the third play of the evening, the biggest single thing to happen for the quarterback had to be seeing the offense grow around him.
As good as he is, there’s a lot that’s out of Brady’s control.
An unblocked defender coming is one. The help he needed so sorely last year, as he courageously fought through so many injuries, is another.
On both counts, it seems like Brady came out of last night OK.