Patriots' flexible offense 'double tough to defend'

Ryan Wood
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New England Patriots running backs Jonas Gray (35) and LeGarrette Blount (29) warm up before Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions in Foxborough, Mass.

They have the quarterback with a golden arm and rings — plural — to match. When the New England Patriots come to town, stopping Tom Brady is always the biggest challenge.

But the Patriots present more problems than a future Hall of Fame quarterback.

Just look at the past two weeks. In a prime-time showdown at the Indianapolis Colts, former practice squad running back Jonas Gray rushed for 201 yards and four touchdowns in a big road win. Then, last week, the Patriots signed LeGarrette Blount after he was released by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

A couple days later, Blount led New England with 78 rushing yards and had two touchdowns in a home win against the Detroit Lions, then leading the NFC North.

"They've got a very flexible system," said Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, whose unit faces the Patriots on Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field. "You've seen them throw the ball and win throwing the ball and, when they've felt they needed, to line up and run the ball. Any time you can do both, that makes it double tough to defend."

Yes, Brady stands in the middle of New England's success. Everything hinges on his command of the offense, his ability to out-think and out-execute opposing defenses. Around him, the pieces are mostly interchangeable.

In 11 games this season, the Patriots have had four different leading rushers and receivers. One week, Brady's favorite target could be hulking tight end Rob Gronkowski. The next, it could be the 5-foot-10, former-college-quarterback Julian Edelman.

Part of their revolving lineups come from simple survival. Steven Ridley was the Patriots' leading rusher in five of the season's first six games – including 100-plus-yard outings against the Minnesota Vikings and Cincinnati Bengals – before an ACL and MCL tear placed him on injured reserve.

Since then, the Patriots' running game has stayed afloat, ranked 15th in the NFL with 113.4 rushing yards per game.

Gronkowski said everybody inside the Patriots locker room prepares the same way, whether it's a backup or starter. Cliché as it sounds, it's worked. Patriots coach Bill Belichick said it's dependent on the player to be ready when opportunity arrives.

"We've had our system in place for 15 years now," Belichick said. "A lot of different players have played in it, a lot of different coaches have coached in it. I don't know. In the end, players that perform well are a result of, obviously, talent, but I'd say more importantly preparation, attention to detail and good execution. Players that have been able to do that, thankfully we've had hundreds of them over that period of time be able to do it.

"That's what we need, and if they're successful that's the main reason why they're successful. It's attention to detail and preparation and on-the-field execution in critical situations, obviously against top competition. A player has to do that himself."

Capers knows how it works in New England as well as anyone. He spent the 2008 season as a secondary coach and special assistant to Belichick. The Patriots missed the playoffs that season — in no small part because Brady was lost for the season with a torn knee ligament in the opener — but managed to finish a respectable 11-5.

The challenge of defending New England's offense is daunting, but Belichick said he has "a ton of respect" for Capers.

"Every place he's been, he's had a lot of success," Belichick said. "I learned a lot working with Dom. Very well-prepared, a football guy, really into football totally — totally into it. He's a great resource of knowledge and experience to draw from."

-- and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood

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