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Patriots' targets think big ; 'New Smurfs' excel in Brady's offense

In this age in which NFL teams covet big wide receivers who can outmuscle defensive backs, the New England Patriots have taken the opposite approach.

They have one of the smallest receiving corps in the league, the new Smurfs, if you will.

Deion Branch, Wes Welker and Danny Woodhead are all listed at 5-foot-9 in the Patriots media guide, but only Branch's measurements are accurate. Welker is closer to 5-7 and Woodhead, by his own admission, is about 5-6.

They may be small in stature, but they have provided big plays for the Patriots (12-2), who visit the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.

Welker, the Patriots' leading receiver in each of the past three years, tops the list again with 83 catches for 829 yards and seven touchdowns. He needs 17 receptions in the last two games to join Jerry Rice and Marvin Harrison as the only players in NFL history with four 100-catch seasons.

Branch, the MVP in New England's Super Bowl XXXIX triumph, has 46 catches for 681 yards and five touchdowns since the Patriots reacquired him in a Week Five trade with Seattle.

Woodhead was signed two weeks into the season and has ably filled the shoes of injured long-time third down back Kevin Faulk by posting 31 catches.

The Patriots' passing game was supposed to take a step back trading Randy Moss to Minnesota in October. The 6-foot-4 Moss wasn't just New England's biggest receiver, he also was the team's most explosive player. But Welker, Branch and Woodhead have picked up the slack.

"Those guys are very effective in what they're asked to do in that offense," Bills safety Bryan Scott said. "They are hard to cover because they're very quick, they run great routes, they know how to read coverages and are good runners after the catch. They're doing a great job."

Of course, it helps that the Patriots have arguably the best quarterback in the league throwing the ball. Tom Brady, who is having an MVP-type season, has great confidence in his receivers' ability to get open.

"He knows we're going to be there for him, and we can always trust that this guy is going to do the right thing with the football in his hands," Branch said this week during a conference call. "He's been doing it his whole career. Our job is to make sure we get open and catch the ball."

Green Bay had one of the few defenses to slow down the Patriots' air assault. The Packers held Welker, Branch and Woodhead to a combined six catches and 87 yards. The last team to keep the trio under 100 yards was Cleveland on Nov. 7.

But what makes the Patriots' offense difficult to stop consistently is the variety of weapons it has. When teams take away the little guys, Brady simply looks to his big rookie tight ends, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. They have been a dynamic pair, combining for 77 catches, 953 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Hernandez, at 6-foot-2, 245 pounds and possessing 4.6-second 40-yard dash speed, is a glorified receiver. The Patriots like to split him out wide, in the slot or use him like an H-back. The 6-6, 265-pound Gronkowski is more physically imposing and the better run blocker, but the Amherst native also has good speed and athleticism in the passing game.

"Gronkowski is a very physical tight end," Scott said. "He loves contact. He runs good routes and he catches the ball really well. Hernandez is a very agile and athletic tight end who plays like a wide receiver. They both do a great job in the passing game and what's more impressive is they are rookies and their production is off the charts."

The Patriots also use second-year speedster Brandon Tate, who at 6-1 is the team's biggest wideout. And just when they have you thinking pass, the Patriots hit you with an underrated running game.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis has emerged as the featured back in his third year with 824 yards and 12 touchdowns. The former undrafted free agent from Mississippi is a tough inside runner who is more physical than his 5-11, 215-pound frame would suggest. Woodhead has been the perfect change of pace, rushing for 435 yards (5.3 per carry) and four touchdowns.

"Those guys have been productive for us," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "BenJarvus has just gotten better every year. He has been a good, solid back for us in all situations. Woodhead is more of a sub back, third-down type of guy. But he also plays in some early-down situations. For a guy with a smaller stature, he shows good toughness and willingness to block and run the ball inside as well as create some space plays with spread formations. Both guys have done a good job. They kind of complement each other."

The Patriots may not have the same big-play ability since Moss left, but they don't have an offense that relies on one or two options. Brady's favorite receiver is the one who is open, and all the weapons at his disposal mean a defense can't cover everybody.

"That's the one thing that makes them unique is they have a lot of people that can get open," Bills coach Chan Gailey said. "They spread the field. And I've said before, if you have to monitor enough threats, that means you have to pay attention all across the board, then you become spread thin. And that's what Brady and the offense do to teams.

"They get you thinking about something else and it's a short pass and they throw it down the field. They do a great job with protection; their line has been together, played together and they're a good offensive line. He doesn't have to sit back there and worry too much about protection. So all of that plays together to create problems for a defense."

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com