Keys to the game
A Durable Fugue
Due to the season's uneven start, it wasn't until late in the season that the 2012 Patriots started to draw favorable comparisons to previous years, even the "18-1" 2007 team. To me, the key difference in this year's offense is a dramatic durability. This quality is more remarkable in comparison to previous record-setting offensive efforts, which had a more delicate, febrile mechanics. It is perhaps counterintuitive, that the durability comes from an increased complexity. Evidence of this can be found in the fugue-like structure of the Pats' compressed, tight-end heavy offense of today.
Like the structure of a fugue, with an initializing subject and reflecting answer, this year's offense achieves durability through complexity by threading repeated sequences through a variety of formations. This shows up in play calling, formations, and personnel. Compare the offensive philosophies of 2007 and 2012.
Five years ago, the offense was decidedly pass-first, with a spread formation, often fielding four or five wide receivers. When the delicate mechanism clicked, it was breathtaking. But teams (notably the Ravens and the Giants) were on key drives successful jamming the gears: usually through backfield disruption, pressure and chipping. Suddenly the Patriots felt one-dimensional and seemed to wilt even with a lead, when possession of the football was critical, because of the delicacy of the machine.
In 2012, the dependance on wide receivers is gone; there is no every-down vertical threat, but what remains is Welker's wily possession style, with variations. Beyond this there are two diversified dimensions: a tight-end squad that can (taken together) block, run, catch downfield and catch in the flats, and a running back squad that can (in composition) block, catch in the flats, and run outside and run inside.
Together these squads treble the durability of every drive, and can do so in hurry-up, in ball-possession, in time-preservsation, and in the red zone. Unlike five years ago, the Patriots have enjoyed games in the last half of the season where drives of each of these types have been executed exactly when needed.
From the line of scrimmage, Brady plays the organ: structuring passages and patterns with far more durability because the running backs are patterned on the tight-ends, the tight-ends often line up like wide-outs, and the wide receivers will likely block five or more plays as running backs might. As the chords and progressions overlap, any defense finds itself struggling to keep up through the fugue.
The memory of a patchwork defense frayed to the breaking point last February still haunts this defenses' reputation. The Patriots loss to the Ravens during the regular season showed how effective "pass to run" could be for Flacco and Rice. It was effective for them a year ago in the AFC Championship, and it was effective for Manning in the Superbowl. An obvious path to victory for the Ravens in this rematch of a rematch (of a rematch) is to get the Pats secondary on its heels. If the Raven's talented outside receivers can't do that on (significant) talent alone, a few DPI penalties will surely help get in scoring position. The net result is a defense that turns its back on Ray Rice, and pays.
The acquisition of Aquib Talib has answered this to some degree. His reliability as competition for any receiver has allowed other shifts to bolster the Pats defense and allow others to play to their strengths. Anchored by Vince Wilfork, the run defense will give the Pats a chance to make plays on any errant passes that might catch the Norfolk County winter wind. Ultimately, sack/hurry pressure is the Pats best defense against the Raven's sideline acrobatics.
When it comes to offensive match-ups, look for the Pats to test the endurance of the Ravens early through hurry-up. They could even pick on the Ravens linebacking corps by throwing quickly from three-step drops--forcing the stunting D to cover more ground in less time. The Patriots will game-plan around long, possession-oriented drives and keep Brady from making the pressured passes that have produced so many playoff interceptions against the Ravens of late.
Belichick's durable, multidimensional orchestrations give them that chance.
Posted January 20, 2013.