By John MacKenna, Patriots Insider
Who is going to stop the New England Patriots' offense in 2005?
Maybe no one.
New England will play half its games against defenses that ranked eighth or better last year (Steelers, Bills, Broncos, Dolphins and Jets), but the Patriots torched even the toughest defenses in '04, and they're only getting better.
And for all their accomplishments, New England's offensive players are ridiculously young.
The starting lineup might look like this:
In that lineup, the average starter is 26 years old, has three years of NFL experience--and has earned two Super Bowl rings as a Patriot.
The offense's performance in last year's playoffs was remarkable. The Patriots averaged 28 points in the three games, including a 41-point outburst against the top-ranked Pittsburgh Steelers. In their last five games against defenses ranked in the NFL's top eight, the Patriots scored an average of 29 points.
Brady and Dillon are the only real headliners now, but look for three others to start getting their names called on SportsCenter and The NFL Today in 2005.
Deion Branch With 21 catches for 276 yards in the last two Super Bowls, the 5'9" speedster is hardly a secret, but neither is he listed among the NFL's elite. Look for him to catch 80 balls for 1,100 yards in 2005 if he stays healthy.
David Givens: It is the versatility of players like Givens that make the Patriots so hard to handle. His 56 catches for 874 yards in 2004 were impressive, and no one is better at catching balls that appear uncatchable. Despite that ability, he doesn't complain when the ball goes elsewhere, as when he caught only 19 passes for 230 yards in the last six games of the 2004 regular season. And at 6'0", 215 pounds, Givens blocks more like a tight end than a wideout.
Stephen Neal: One of the most athletic lineman in the NFL, Neal never played college football ,and he spent two years learning the ropes in New England before stepping into the starting lineup in 2004. He showed what he can do when he got downfield and threw key blocks on both of Branch's end-arounds that went for a combined 37 yards against the Steelers in the AFC Championship game.
Line Should Get Noticed
New England's remarkable success-they are 34-4 since the end of the 2002 season-should finally yield some overdue recognition for the offensive line. The Patriots outscored all but three teams in the NFL last year, with Brady throwing 28 touchdown passes and Dillon rushing for 1,635 yards. Success at the level can only come on the backs of a great offensive line.
OG Joe Andruzzi opted out to collect a well-earned free-agency fortune, but depth is once again on New England's side. Koppen and Light are stalwarts with five Super Bowl rings between them. Reserves Russ Hochstein and Tom Ashworth have each started in a Patriots' Super Bowl win, and rookies Mankins and Nick Kaczur are big, strong and talented. Under the leadership of line coach Dante Scarnecchia, expect this group to continue giving Dillon and Brady what they need.
As long as Dillon and Brady stay healthy, there is no weakness on New England's offense. The line is deep after the drafting of Mankins and Kaczur. The receiving corps is solid with the re-signing of Troy Brown and the signing of former Bears wideout David Terrell and former Charger Tim Dwight.
Many observers believe that Terrell, who was drafted with the eighth pick in 2001 draft, will thrive playing with his former Michigan teammate Brady. At 6'3" and 212 pounds with speed, Terrell could be a formidable addition. He had two 100-plus-yard games last year and caught four balls for 99 yards in his last game as a Bear.
New England has another great weapon in RB Kevin Faulk. From his spot deep in Dillon's shadow, Faulk quietly gained 65 or more yards of combined offense in four of New England's last six games, including the Super Bowl.
Reserve RB Patrick Pass also played effectively in '04, catching 26 passes for 188 yards in the Patriots' last nine regular season games.
Too many threats
Balance sets the New England offense apartment from the rest. Just as the threat of Brady's passes creates running lanes for Dillon, the respect that defenses show for Dillon opens passing lanes for Brady. The Patriots like to keep the opposing defenses guessing by using flexible sets suitable for running or passing.
Head Coach Bill Belichick made a commitment to that kind of versatility in the 2004 draft when he used the 32nd pick of the draft on TE Benjamin Watson. At 6'3" and 253 pounds, Watson is a strong, athletic performer who showed tremendous promise as a receiver before a knee injury ended his rookie season in Week 1.
With Watson healthy, the Patriots can run a highly versatile double-TE offense with Watson and the equally talented Graham. From that set, a power run is possible on any play, so defenses will be tempted to crowd the box. But the Patriots also can run a sweep, throw to Branch or Givens or throw to a tight end..
In Brady and Dillon, New England has the NFL's most dangerous QB-RB combination.
With four years as a starter under his belt, Brady has evolved into a complete passer. He is accurate. He throws a great deep ball. He is mobile in the pocket. His vision is superior. He makes excellent decisions.
Dillon, meanwhile, is fast and powerful and very tough to bring down once he gets a head of steam. He is a surprisingly compact and slippery at 225 pounds, and defenders have a lot of trouble getting a grasp.
There is only one concern at this point: the lack of an offensive coordinator. Belichick has earned our trust and respect, and it is hard to imagine him crippling his offense out or shortsightedness or pride. But if he's planning to make the play calls himself, how can he focus on the big picture?
Expect Belichick to find a formula that works, and expect the Patriots to average over 28 points a game in 2005.
John MacKenna is a regular contributor to Patriots Insider. You can contact him in the forums under the name: oldnslow. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by searching for "John MacKenna" or
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