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November 22. 2014 8:38PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Expect an aerial display

HAVING TRADED Deion Branch and let David Givens leave as a free agent earlier that year, the Patriots seemed to have re-established their offensive identity by the time they traveled to Minnesota in late October 2006.

Through six games they'd thrown for more than 211 yards only once, the exception coming in their only loss and perhaps precipitated by playing catch-up, considering they trailed by at least 10 points for the entire second half. To that point, 40 percent of their yardage had come by the run, and by season's end it still accounted for almost 37 percent of the Pats' offense. The only season of the last 10 in which New England was more run-reliant was the campaign quarterbacked by Matt Cassel instead of Tom Brady.

But when they arrived in Minnesota, and were welcomed by the NFL's No. 1 run defense led by a dominant line, coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels were wiser than to stubbornly stick to that strategy. The Patriots ran the ball on the second play of the contest, then didn't run the ball again until the second minute of the second quarter.

By halftime the Pats had run 33 offensive plays, 27 of which were passes. And of New England's 61 offensive plays by the end of the night, only 15 were runs: one was a Brady scramble, one was a Cassel kneeldown, and three came during a clock-draining drive with a 31-7 lead and less than five minutes to go.

It's a relevant recollection today. The Pats have long been more likely to target an opponent's weakness than to try to bully its strength. So, despite Jonas Gray's 201 rushing yards and four touchdowns last week, which earned him honors as the AFC's top offensive player, and the re-acquisition of LeGarrette Blount, who was key as the Pats rushed for 501 yards over successive weeks last season, it could be that neither plays much of a role in the Patriots' attack because New England is going up against a Detroit defensive front that has been tough against the run.

They've demonstrated that this season. After setting a tone and forcefully running for 220 yards in a win over Cincinnati, the Patriots took on the talented front of the Bills a week later and ran for only 50 yards in a win. The run-pass ratio wasn't nearly as unbalanced as it was at Minnesota eight years earlier, but Brady dropped back on 22 of 34 first-half snaps, then on seven of 10 plays when New England needed a good drive to put the game away late.

Including that game against Buffalo, the Pats have followed up three of their last four 200-yard rushing performances by running for no more than 87 yards the next time out, the exception coming when they faced Indianapolis' 26th-ranked run defense in last year's divisional playoff.

The other three contests were against units that ranked among the league's 10-best run-stuffers in those seasons, and this year's Lions are better than that. Detroit leads the NFL, allowing 68.8 rushing yards per game, 3 yards per attempt. Only the Jets have run for more than 78 yards against the Lions.

Detroit has been particularly stingy on first down, which is a primary reason why it's the NFL's toughest team to convert against on third down. And that's a factor in why it has yielded fewer points (1.38) and yards (25.81) per drive than any other club.

The Lions' secondary isn't bad, ranking fifth in yards allowed, but Detroit's success begins up front, with Ndamukong Suh's ability to disrupt the game, and that of its linemen and linebackers to control the line of scrimmage. Now that the Pats have established an attitude in their six-game winning streak, it might be interesting to see how New England matches up if they decide to run right at the Lions and engage in a battle of wills.

Though as they showed on that night in Minnesota, and a number of times since, the Patriots don't typically scheme based on asserting their will. The scheme on exposing the enemy's weakness.

So while Gray had the spotlight last week, and there may be big-moment carries coming for Blount, today figures to be first and foremost about Brady.



UNDERRATED: Golden Tate. He was decent in Seattle, but in his first season with Detroit he's already set career highs in catches (68) and yards (950), which rank him third and sixth in the league, respectively. Now that Calvin Johnson is back from an ankle injury, and Tate is a defense's secondary focus, the Notre Dame product has proven to be plenty dangerous.



OVERRATED: Blowout wins. The Patriots have made a number of so-called statements en route to 8-2, but now that they're leading the race for the No. 1 seed in the AFC, holding at least a one-game lead and the head-to-head tiebreaker with every other division leader, they're at the point now where any win is a good win, even if it's uglier or narrower than was expected.



KEEP AN EYE ON...: Detroit's use of the running game. Joique Bell is listed as probable to play, while Reggie Bush is questionable. With both of those backs battling injury, the Lions have plummeted to a tie for last in the league in rushing yards and is averaging only 3.2 yards per attempt. The Patriots' defense thrives on making opponents one-dimensional, though the Lions may take care of that themselves.



KEY MATCHUP: Patriots pass catchers vs. Lions secondary at the line of scrimmage. A major weapon in neutralizing the Lions' defensive front will be Brady's ability to get the ball out of his hands as fast as possible. In order to do that, his receivers will need to get open quickly, whether that means freeing themselves from contact at the line or creating space with their initial move. If routes are being delayed, the more opportunity the front seven has to create havoc.



STAT OF THE WEEK: The Lions have scored 21 touchdowns this season, 14th in the NFC and 25th in the NFL. Of those 21 touchdowns, two have come from the defense, so the Detroit offense has scored 19 touchdowns in 10 games. By comparison, the New England offense has scored 19 touchdowns in its last four games plus three minutes.



Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com


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