Brandon LaFell could be Patriots’ secret weapon vs. Seahawks secondary
PHOENIX — Surely the Legion of Boom, with a pair of talented cornerbacks and two top-flight safeties, isn’t going to get Gronk’d.
Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots’ 6-foot-6, 265-pound tight end, will likely be bracketed by some combination of Seahawks defensive backs as coordinator Dan Quinn can choose from cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell and safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.
The defense that suffocated Peyton Manning and his wide receivers in the Super Bowl a year ago won’t allow Tom Brady to fixate on his most dangerous target. Gronkowski, who had 82 catches for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns in the regular season, will get chances to make plays, but won’t be running free down the seam.
What should be interesting is how the Patriots respond in the chess game directed by coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
One possibility is Brandon LaFell, the latest Patriots wide receiver to emerge as a big-play target. LaFell has the size at 6-3, 210 pounds and athletic ability to stretch the field on the outside after spending much of his first four seasons playing in the slot for the Panthers, often obscured by Steve Smith.
The Panthers completely overhauled their receivers in the offseason. Smith went to Baltimore, and LaFell landed in New England with a three-year, $9 million contract the Panthers didn’t attempt to match.
He has turned into a bargain addition, producing 74 receptions for 953 yards and seven touchdowns in the regular season, all career highs. LaFell had his biggest game in the 51-23 victory over the Bears on Nov. 26 as he hauled in 11 catches for 124 yards and a touchdown, working largely against undrafted rookie cornerback Al Louis-Jean.
A mix-and-match set of wide receivers has turned out to be pretty solid for Brady. LaFell has paired mostly with Julian Edelman, and maligned Danny Amendola has come on since December.
“It’s a great group,” Brady said. “It’s a really selfless group, guys that are always putting the team first. Everybody has a little different skill set. Once we hit our stride and everybody found a role for themselves, they really embraced their role.
“Julian’s done such a great job. Brandon LaFell in his role has been spectacular. Danny has come alive. Once he got more of an opportunity as the season went on, he’s been phenomenal.”
Edelman and Amendola are similar in that both provide help underneath. Edelman is much like former Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker, a sure-handed and slippery target. Someone will have to create opportunities downfield, and it could be LaFell.
“We can’t let those guys come up to the line of scrimmage and jam us up every snap,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to get out from the jam, get into our routes and get open for Tom.
“We’re physical too. We are not going to let these guys push us around and back down. We’re going to play physical with them.”
LaFell was wise to give the Legion of Boom plenty of credit, saying: “It’s a nickname. They earned it.”
“They get everybody to talk about those guys because they deserve it,” he said. “They’ve played good play for the last two years consistently every week. They deserve to get all the praise they’ve been getting, but everybody’s been forgetting about us.”
Sometimes it’s easy to forget about Brady’s targets. The Patriots seem to shuffle through options for him on a regular basis. Few stick around long enough to get long-term recognition, and the offense is so multidimensional, production is spread around.
The Patriots made a quality find in LaFell, recognizing he had mastered playing multiple spots in Carolina, where he was often the No. 3 receiver.
“I did a lot of things for (the Panthers),” he said. “If I would have come back, I would have gotten even better. I definitely thought they could have used me, but they’ve got the young guy, Kelvin Benjamin, and I tip my hat to him. As a rookie, I know the offense isn’t easy, and for him to come in and catch balls the way he did, going over the top of people and having 1,000 yards as a rookie, that is amazing.”
More amazing to LaFell is that he finds himself on this stage.
“I still can’t believe I’m playing in the Super Bowl,” he said.
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