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Patriots have been racking up the YAC

If Patriots quarterback Tom Brady gets the ball into the hands of his receivers, big gains often follow. If Patriots quarterback Tom Brady gets the ball into the hands of his receivers, big gains often follow. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / December 9, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — They can punctuate an offensive play with an exclamation point.

They are what Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio calls “the hidden yards’’ that turn a modest pass play into a spectacular one. Or even a touchdown. They are the yards that coach Bill Belichick pointed out “can break a defense in half.’’

No matter the perspective, offensive or defensive, those “yards after catch’’ — or YAC, as they’re known in the NFL — have the potential to be game-breakers.

“That’s one of the goals, I think, of all the skilled guys,’’ said Patriots receiver Deion Branch. “Once we get the ball in our hands, we try to make plays and try to shorten some of the drives, the long drives, that we have. And I think with run-after-catch, it does that for us. We catch the ball in practice, we run about 40 yards.’’

So, as a point of emphasis, every receiver runs a 40 after every catch in practice? “Well, not everybody,’’ Branch said with a laugh.

“Some of the younger guys might,’’ he added. “But me and Wes [Welker], we’re the older guys, and we maybe go about 20 yards. But the main focus is run-after-catch and making sure that we get a lot of YAC yards.’’

That was evident in Monday night’s 45-3 shellacking of the Jets, in which the Patriots amassed a season-high 211 yards after catch. It was a gaudy statistic bolstered by plays such as Danny Woodhead’s catch-and-dash on a backfield shovel pass from Tom Brady for a 50-yard gain to the 12. It set up Brady’s 1-yard touchdown toss to tight end Aaron Hernandez for a 38-3 fourth-quarter lead.

“Any time we can get yards after catch, that’s great,’’ said Woodhead, who led the Patriots with four receptions for 104 yards, including a team-high 92 yards after catch. Of his 334 receiving yards, Woodhead has 289 after the catch, second on the team behind Welker (338), who is 19th in the league and sixth among wide receivers.

“We want to be able to do that, just to get extra yards and help the team out,’’ said Woodhead, who is averaging 10.3 yards after catch and only 1.6 yards at the catch. “We’re going out there and trying to get open and trying to do the best that we can.

“No matter how we can get our yards, or our points, it really doesn’t matter to us, whether it be on a longer pass or shorter pass. We’re just going out there trying to do everything we can to put points on the board.’’

In the third quarter, Hernandez took a short pass from Brady and turned it into a serpentine 35-yard gain to the 24, which set up Brady’s 18-yard TD toss to Welker that made it 31-3.

“Tom’s job is to get us the ball and we get paid to make something happen after the catch,’’ said Hernandez, who has been targeted 55 times this season and has 39 catches for 513 yards, including 283 after the catch, third on the team.’’

Who said the Patriots wouldn’t be able to stretch the field once they traded Randy Moss to the Vikings?

In the eight games since Moss’s departure, the Patriots have rolled up 1,064 yards after catch, compared with 512 during the four games when Moss was on the roster, presumably posing a deep threat. Brady seems content to dink and dunk his way to the end zone, his accuracy allowing receivers to turn short passes into long gains.

Asked yesterday if he felt it was just as effective as the deep pass, Brady replied, “Sure. Any way you can gain them. I think that’s really a strength of what our guys are able to do.

“There’s very good quickness by our team, by Wes, by Brandon [Tate], Aaron, Deion. All those guys can run after the catch. If you get it in their hands, they’re very dangerous with it.

“That was really something that we went into last week saying: ‘All right guys, this is what we’ve got to do. After we catch it, we’ve got to make some yards.’ ’’

The Patriots have done precisely that, racking up 1,576 YAC, seventh in the league. They rank sixth in yards per reception (6.1), slightly behind this week’s opponent, Chicago (6.2).

Is it a function of the Patriots’ scheme to get players in space, or is it a function of what those players do in that space once they get the ball?

“Well, I think you always try to get players in open spaces,’’ Belichick said. “Fundamentally, that’s what offense is. Whether it’s the running game or the passing game, you’re trying to create space in the defense and get the ball to somebody in that area. Making yards in that situation is much more a function of the player who has the ball.

“There are a lot of different ways to gain yardage, whether that’s speed, quickness, power, or some combination of those. So the guys who gain yards, you usually see the same players. The yards-after-catch guys are usually the yards-after-catch guys. If that’s the skill that that player has, then he’s usually able to do it on a consistent basis.

“Some players, some receivers are good at getting open and catching the ball and making positive yards in the passing game, but they’re not great run-after-catch guys. It doesn’t mean they’re not good receivers.

“A lot of times they’re better receivers than the guys who can run with the ball because they’ve got to get open and catch it first. But once you get a guy who can combine all those skills . . . it’s tough for a defense.’’

And that will likely be the case when the Patriots travel to Chicago to face the Bears’ multitalented running back, Matt Forte, who ranks ninth in the league in YAC with 365. Forte got 89 in a season-opening 19-14 victory over the Lions at Soldier Field.

“There’s a minute to go in the half, the [Bears] are on their own [11], they throw the screen pass,’’ Belichick said. “And I’m sure they weren’t expecting to score — they were maybe hoping to get a first down and keep the drive going — but Forte goes [89] yards for a touchdown. Those are the kind of plays that break a defense in half, if you don’t tackle.’’

Said Woodhead, “Any way we can get yards, it definitely helps when you get the yards after catch. Any big play that we get is going to be huge to us.’’

With a capital H. And an exclamation point.

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.

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