Since Randy Moss got the Jazzy Jeff toss from the New England in the middle of the 2010 season, Patriots fans have spent offseason after offseason squawking about the team's need for a deep-threat receiver. Those people are idiots. The current Patriots do not need a deep threat, because Tom Brady sucks at the deep ball.
This isn't a hot take; it's a statistical reality. Brady's adapted to the current system that relies on short, quick passes, but this shift is out of necessity in the same way that Peyton Manning's late-career route-shrinkage has been. According to Pro Football Focus, out of 25 quarterbacks who played significant time this season, Brady ranks at the bottom half in accuracy on his deep attempts at 33.3 percent (these are defined in this case as 20 yards or more), and has thrown deep on just 10.3 percent of his attempts, one of the lowest figures in the league.
With the short-pass approach in mind, here are the Patriots' "true" wide receivers: Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell, and Danny Amendola. Josh Boyce and Brian Tyms are there, but neither are consequential. Kenbrell Thompkins got cut; Aaron Dobson faded into nothingness with an injury. The lack of receiving depth is absurd. New England only activated that trio for the AFC title game against the Colts, because it believed that much in the running game provided by LeGarrette Blount. That bet paid off, 45-7.
Of course, that personnel package raises the question: Can we really be sure Brady isn't good going deep when these are his receivers? Yes, actually. Sure, he's throwing to short guys like Shane Vereen, Danny Amendola, and Julian Edelman—all of whom have the expected low rates of being targeted on and having success converting deep attempts—but Brady was also miserable throwing deep to LaFell (just 7 of 17 deep attempts catchable, for 6 catches) and Gronk (5 of 13, 5 catches). LaFell is at least respectable deep, and Gronk is the size of a party bus with booster rockets taped to his feet—if going deep was one of Brady's strengths, you'd expect to see it there.
So sure, Emmanuel Sanders coming over would have been swell, but the offense does not—can not—revolve around the deep ball. Instead, it stretches the field horizontally and using a no-huddle tempo in the hopes that a heavily practiced, routine play will catch a defense on its heels and break out for a big gain or score. For the most part, it's worked. To use this season's weirdly corporate slogan adopted by the Patriots, Edelman and LaFell have done their jobs. Edelman fit the slot-receiver, catching 92 passes on 135 targets for 972 yards as he scampered all over the field. LaFell, a free-agent bargain, carved out a role for himself throughout the regular season, finishing with 74 receptions on 119 targets for 953 yards working as the X receiver. Those guys weren't the only ones catching passes, though, and the backfield is important to keeping the Pats passing game cooking.
With Jonas Gray's flash of an impact, LeGarrette Blount's return, and Stevan Ridley's early injury, the Patriots' ground game has been patched together. Shane Vereen saw running-back duties, but he had more of an impact as a receiver, catching 52 passes on 77 targets for 447 yards. He provided the versatility lost by Aaron Hernandez when he (allegedly) killed multiple people. When Vereen lined up outside, he'd use his 5-foot-10, 205-pound frame against lighter cornerbacks; when he went in the slot, he could get open in a linebacker's zone coverage. Or sometimes, he'd do nothing at all.
We obviously haven't mentioned the most important part of the Patriots' receiving squad yet: pass-catching kegerator Rob Gronkowski. Out of Brady's options, Gronk will always be the preferred choice. From week to week, other players chip in—a red-zone appearance for Tim Wright here, a few looks for Amendola there—but everything revolves around how the defense approaches Gronk. Even when the play called doesn't have him as the first look, he still demands steady coverage, which helps his teammates gets open.
That Brady-Gronk connection, as fruitful as it may be, can also the biggest weakness. A one-armed Richard Sherman isn't covering Gronk; I'd expect combinations of safety Kam Chancellor and a rotation of Seattle's competent linebackers. When Brady gets flustered, he forces passes, and his best option at a forced pass—if required—is throwing it up to the biggest target, the 6-foot-6 man rumbling around, regardless of his coverage. Usually, those passes suck.
That's what happened in the second quarter of New England's divisional playoff game against the Ravens. On this play, safety Will Hill played over Gronk, while linebacker Daryl Smith played under. Brady's pocket closed quicker than expected, and when Hill appeared to get out of position, Brady threw.
Brady underthrew it badly, though, and Smith intercepted it easily:
The most infuriating part is there's Danny Amendola, totally open. This was on a first down, by the way. There was no need to try and fit the ball to Gronk in that coverage.
A very similar play happened the next week, against the Colts. This time, safety Mike Adams covered over the top, while linebacker D'Qwell Jackson played under. Unlike the situation against the Ravens, where Brady might have had a chance to connect with Gronk if he threw a little higher, the two Colts had the tight end locked down.
Again, the pocket was closing, so Brady got rid of the ball. Again, he underthrew it.
Again, this was on first down.
Seattle doesn't need to shut down Gronk while minimally covering other receivers, because there are other options, and Brady will find them. The key is illusion. If the Seahawks' pass rush works, the secondary can use coverage that leaves Gronk with space—from Brady's point of view. A linebacker chasing after Gronk is ideal. Even if it's a narrow window, if Brady sees the opportunity, he's going to take it. Seattle can capitalize on that.
Bill Belichick plays to his opponents' weaknesses. He went run-heavy on the Colts because he thought they couldn't stop New England on the ground, and he turned out to be right. Barring something unexpected, the Patriots will likely hope the passing game works in the Super Bowl, which means Gronk will get targets. It'll depend on the Seahawks' linebackers and safeties to stop the main source of receiving yards, and reduce the effect of the rest of the passing offense.
Top photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images