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SAN DIEGO – Head Coach Norv Turner sounded like a SportsCenter anchor when describing New England receiver Wes Welker and the Patriots’ pass offense.
“You’re not going to stop him, you just have to contain him,” Turner said.
The phrase first resonated in sports culture referring to Michael Jordan, a 6-foot-6 ball of kinetic energy and athletic prowess.
Welker is nine inches shorter and hardly appears like one of the most successful professional athletes on earth. But he’s become a fulcrum on what some would consider the ’90s Chicago Bulls of the NFL, a Patriots offense that averages a league-best 30.8 points and has been successful for years.
He doesn’t have the facial recognition or pop culture icon status of Tom Brady, but Welker has collected 345 receptions and 15 touchdowns in the last three seasons. He tore his ACL and MCL during Week 17 last year and many expected him to still be recovering instead of suiting up to face San Diego. Instead he’s been as good as ever, on pace to surpass 100 receptions for a fourth consecutive year.
“They’re a very diverse offense. They have big-strike plays and they obviously are very high-percentage,” Turner said. “You have to know where certain guys are at all times starting with Welker. He’s amazing to watch because of all the things they do with him and what he’s capable of doing. He and Brady are on the same page.”
Though the skill players look vastly different than many expected before the season started, there are multiple threats at multiple positions. Fourth-round pick and tight end Aaron Hernandez is second on the team with 22 catches for 301 yards and is responsible for what Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick identifies as New England’s biggest improvement.
“We’ve probably had more production out of our tight end position in five games than we had all of last year,” Belichick said.
With Randy Moss traded to the Vikings, New England got Deion Branch back from Seattle in another trade. Branch, a Super Bowl MVP, already faced San Diego this season, catching five passes for 60 yards. He seemed destined for a 42-yard touchdown but Paul Oliver punched the ball out of his grasp at the 1-yard line.
But it’s Brandon Tate that runs Moss’ former routes, defensive coordinator Ron Rivera said.
Tate, 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, is the team’s third-leading receiver and kickoff returner.
The Patriots are capable of running the football as well with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead, and good luck blitzing Brady. The Jets were able to make a red zone sack-and-strip in New England’s only loss of the season, but opponents have sacked Brady just eight times.
“You have to pick and choose. You’ve got to make sure you hit it at the right time. He’s very dynamic at what he does,” Rivera said. “He understands his offense very well. And from there he will react to what you’re doing because he knows.”
PREACHING DISCIPLINE: Rivera, speaking about the last two games defensively, harped on the need to play assignment defense.
“We need 11 guys making one play at a time, not one guy making 11,” Rivera said.
It’s difficult to train athletes not to go after plays, particularly when their livelihood is in many cases influenced by statistics, but results will come if players do the job they’re asked, Rivera said.
“It’s a production-oriented business and when you do the things that you need to do it’s great, and sometimes you feel you have to do more. It’s just human nature,” he said.
PRACTICE WEATHER: Cloudy, 62 degrees. Read