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Maza's Musings

Unsolicited sports opinion and insight

How the Patriots beat the Rams – a tutorial (with pictures)

How did this happen? How did a defense that was too slow and lacked talent take on and beat one of the league’s top passing offenses? How did the offense with Brady’s worst supporting cast finally break through against a defense with a line that was said to be too dominant?

Come with me. I’ll show you.

In all seriousness, this post won’t explain all the ways the Patriots were able to find success against the Rams, but I picked out some plays that that I think demonstrate their general approaches on both sides of the ball. Defensively, it revolved around mixing up looks not only in coverage, but along the line of scrimmage. Offensively, it was about taking Aaron Donald and Ndamakong Suh out of the equation to spring big runs and exploiting matchups with their two best offensive weapons in the passing game. They did all of these things spectacularly.

These aren’t necessarily the biggest impact plays, but they are some of my favorites that I pulled together as a representative sample.

Enjoy.


The first is the 3rd and 8 on the Rams’ possession right after Tom Brady’s first-quarter interception. Dont’a Hightower and Adrian Clayborn are both lined up to Goff’s right. They’re the guys to look for on this play.

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Both Clayborn, who starts in a three-technique (just outside of the guard) as the defensive end and Hightower both make a move upfield, then peel to the inside like they are going to run a stunt around defensive tackle Adam Butler.

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A stunt is exactly what Clayborn is doing here. He is freed up because at the same time, middle linebacker Kyle Van Noy goes to his left, attempting to circle around the right side of the Rams’ offensive line. The right tackle, who was blocking Trey Flowers, passes flowers to the right guard to engage Van Noy and holds him off. They did it right on that side. But on the left side, it’s chaos. Butler penetrates between the center and right guard. The right guard reaches for Clayborn, but can’t get to him and Clayborn has a wide open lane to the quarterback.

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Meanwhile, Hightower has peeled back into coverage. Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth suddenly has no one to block, so he tries to help on Butler instead of locating Clayborn.

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In addition to creating confusion on the line, Hightower is right in the lane into which Goff is looking to throw. In addition to having Clayborn in his face, Goff has to adjust his throw around Hightower. Josh Reynolds can’t handle it and ends up getting popped after the play for good measure.

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Here’s Julian Edelman’s first-quarter 25-yard catch. This is a simple one, but it illustrates well the Patriots’ receivers’ responsibilities and how they have to make sure they’re seeing what Brady is seeing.

Edelman starts outside the numbers, then motions inside to just about the 30 painted on the field.

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At the snap, he breaks heads straight downfield. This is where it gets interesting. This is an option route. Edelman, based on what the defense is showing, has the choice of at least two different routes on this play. He can cut over the middle, or work back to the sideline.

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In this case, cornerback Aqib Talib is in man coverage and Edelman gives him a little move that forces him to play the inside. Then Edelman runs a flag route to get wide open. Easy pitch and catch for Brady.

Screen Shot 2019-02-05 at 10.47.40 AMThis one is specifically noted here because later in the game, the Patriots ran the same play, but seeing zone coverage, he cut inside and found a soft spot over the middle for an 8-yard completion on a 2nd and 13 play in the third quarter.


Here’s John Simon’s pass breakup early in the second quarter. Goff and the Rams were backed up on their own 9-yard line for this third-down play. This play is a great example of one of the exotic looks the Patriots threw at Goff.

The Patriots line up with just one lineman with a hand on the ground and that’s defensive end Trey Flowers. The Patriots are showing man coverage on the receivers and a cover-zero look, meaning there is no safety help. That’s because Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and Duron Harmon are all down around the goal line.

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At the snap, Harmon drops into coverage, heading to the deep middle portion of the field. McCourty, who as in the middle of the field, runs to the left suggesting he’s going to blitz to Goff’s right side, but instead, he drops back into a short zone as well. Chung, who was to McCourty’s left, crosses the formation and engages the Rams’ left side.

Safeties

While this is happening, Van Noy (in the middle) and Hightower (to Goff’s right) run a cross, while linebacker John Simon attempts to break through the line on the other side with the help of Chung.

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No one gets to Goff in time and he attempts a throw over the middle. Simon is held up at the line, but reads Goff’s eyes and gets his hands up.

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Truthfully, this play was likely doomed whether Simon got a hand up or not as Goff appeared to not recognize McCourty in zone cutting in front of his receiver. The result may have actually been better for the Patriots, but this was a good opportunity to show how the Patriots mixed up their looks to confuse the young QB.


No real scheme analysis here. Just a slideshow of Danny Shelton blasting his way through the line and stopping a 235-pound C.J. Anderson in his tracks. Yikes.

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Here’s another great concept involving Julian Edelman. This one resulted in a 26-yard catch and run in the third quarter on 3rd and 4.

Edelman starts on the right side of the formation, then motions left, setting up on left tackle Trent Brown’s hip. It’s man coverage with Marcus Peters following Edelman across the field.

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Edelman runs up the seam, right past Peters who tries to jam him. Meanwhile, Rob Gronkowski, who was set up to the outside, runs a crosser, taking Mark Barron (in man coverage) and Dante Fowler (dropped into a short zone) with him, giving Brady a clear lane to lead Edelman. Edelman catches the pass in stride and turns it into a big gain.

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This is the play everyone is talking about. Or at least they should be. Jason McCourty saves a touchdown and perhaps the game in the third quarter.

The Patriots are playing a Cover-4 zone on this play. Brandin Cooks, on the bottom of the photo, runs a straight go route. Robert Woods, who starts in a stack with tight end Gerald Everett to Goff’s right, runs a deep crosser.

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As Woods crosses the field, both safeties Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon follow him. It’s possible Harmon was supposed to pass Cooks off to Gilmore. It’s possible he thought he was supposed to, but wasn’t. Either way, no one stays with Cooks. Cooks has called for the ball. Goff sees him, but seems to pause, perhaps to make sure one of the safeties or Gilmore doesn’t make an adjustment.

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But both safeties continue to pursue Woods and Gilmore minds his zone, leaving Cooks in the clear. The benefit of this zone scheme is that Jason McCourty, with no one in his zone, has eyes on the quarterback and reads what Goff is seeing. Even before Goff releases the pass, McCourty is making a break for the back of the end zone.

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The rest is just a matter of speed and time. It’s a 50-yard or so throw for Goff. The hangtime benefits Jason McCourty and the Patriots. Still an amazing effort. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, McCourty’s top speed was nearly 20 miles per hour and he covered 19.5 yards in 2.4 seconds. But the Patriots’ defense has no speed, right?

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Sony Michel had a number of chunk runs in this game. This at the end of the third quarter is one of my favorites because it is a mix of some great blocking as well as good vision by the runner.

The Patriots are in their favorite personnel group – 21 (two backs, one tight end, and two receivers). Michel is in I formation behind fullback James Develin. Edelman starts in the left slot and then motions over to the right side.

It’s a pretty straight-forward run over the right guard, but there are a couple of things that you have to love here. First off, Rams linebacker Cory Littleton adjusts when he sees Edelman in motion and anticipates the run. He tries to fill the hole, but gets absolutely buried by Develin.

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Secondly, the Rams opened up this play with Donald in a three-technique (on left guard Joe Thuney’s outside shoulder) and Ndamukong Suh lined up over the center. The Patriots get two bodies on both guys initially. Thuney and left tackle Trent Brown take on Donald while center David Andrews and right guard Shaq Mason double Suh. Right tackle Marcus Cannon is one-on-one with Michael Brockers. Rob Gronkowski is assigned Samson Ebukam. Because the run is to the right side, the line completely disregards Dante Fowler.

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But here’s where the fun begins. Both guards release. Mason moves on from Suh and ensures linebacker Mark Barron (26) is out of the play. Thuney, meanwhile, works his way upfield and engages safety Lamarcus Joyner. This creates a nice lane and Michel makes a nice cutback and accelerates through the hole.

Lane

One other small note here is the headiness of Tom Brady on the play. He doesn’t turn into a full out blocker on this play, but he makes sure to cross in the path of Donald and Fowler, impeding their progress to Michel before he hits the hole. It’s a little thing, but it played a big role in how this one played out.

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Rob Gronkowski had two great catches on the Patriots’ touchdown drive. There’s been a lot said about the big catch that brought them down to the 2, but here’s a look at the play that started the drive off. It’s an 18-yard pass from Brady to Gronk.

The Patriots are again in 21 personnel with the fullback in front of Sony Michel. Gronkowski is lined up across from linebacker Samson Ebukam up top.

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It’s play action. Gronk engages Ebukam as a blocker, then releases, running a wheel route up the sidelines. Ekubam is at a disadvantage because he’s still watching the backfield, honoring the run.

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Ebukan already knows he’s already overcommitted inside and panics, actually holding Gronk’s left arm as he attempts to run the route, but the big tight end is too strong and too fast. Brady has already identified this as the target.

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Suh is closing in on this play in a one-on-one battle with left guard Joe Thuney, but with Gronk beating Ebukan with no help over the top, Brady is able to loft the ball over the linebacker and right into the bucket for Gronk.

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Sony Michel with the game’s lone touchdown. This is pretty much just more fullback love. James Develin absolutely takes Mark Barron’s soul. Not much nuance here.

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Here’s the interception that stopped what really was the Rams’ best possession of the game until this play. The Patriots are showing Devin McCourty close to the line of scrimmage and Duron Harmon starts out high, but walks down toward the line. The Patriots are in man cover zero. The corners are on an island with their receivers.

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Both McCourty and Harmon come with the blitz to Goff’s right. The right guard has to honor Dont’a Hightower coming off the edge and the right guard has to engage Deatrich Wise, leaving a hole through which McCourty and Harmon both shoot.

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There are just too many guys on that side to block and the running back has to make a choice. He takes McCourty out of the play (highlighed in red), but Harmon has a clear path at the quarterback.

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With a defender in his face, Goff has to put more air under his pass than he normally would and ends up shorting it. Gilmore makes the adjustment and comes down with what was an easy pick.

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The game wasn’t over at that point, but the Patriots made sure it was shortly after. Sure, the extra three points from Gostkowski made it so on the scoreboard, but two huge runs by Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead really took the air out of what was left of the Rams. Here’s Michel’s big run, which got them out from under the shadow of their own goal posts as they say,

The Patriots lined up with a single back and two tight ends. Donald is to Brady’s right this time, and that’s where this play is going. Mason and Cannon are going to double Donald, while Andrews is responsible for Suh. Thuney is the pulling guard on this play, swinging out to clear the hole for Michel.

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Cannon and Mason start with a double on Donald and drive him to the inside. Andrews turns Suh aside, completely taking him out of the play. Thuney pulls, and Cannon disengages from Donald and works to the next level.

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Cannon and Thuney meet defenders at the second level and tight end Dwayne Allen holds the edge against the linebacker, allowing Michel to waltz into the secondary for a 26-yard run.

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Whew.

Well, there you have it. I’ll note that there weren’t any sacks on this post. That’s not because I didn’t love them. I just might have something else planned for them.

 

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AFC Championship odds and ends

While we’ve already moved on to the Super Bowl, I’ve had a bunch of thoughts about the AFC Championship Game rolling around in my head. Before we go too far down the road en route to Atlanta, I’d like to touch on some of them. So here we go…


Box score creepers would tell you that Patrick Mahomes vastly outplayed Tom Brady, but in reality, the opposite was actually true.

Brady completed 30 of 46 passes in the AFC Championship (65.2%). Of the 16 misfires, I can think of 5 drops:

  • James White dropped an inside screen.
  • Julian Edelman let one go through his hands for an interception.
  • Hogan dropped what would have been a first down on the Patriots’ final fourth-quarter drive.
  • Cordarrelle Patterson dropped two passes on the overtime drive.

In addition to these, his back-shoulder throw to Phillip Dorsett that fell incomplete during the overtime drive was also on target but well defended.

Without having access to the tape and charting all of the plays, I estimate that 36 of his 46 passes were catchable balls that hit receivers in the hands (78.3%). One of those off-target throws was essentially a throw-away on the overtime flea-flicker attempt. So in reality, Brady was probably on target on all but 8 of his throws.

Now, Brady was far from perfect. His goal-line interception on an attempt to Rob Gronkowski was a case of misreading the linebacker, for instance. Those seven points proved crucial. But he was still very good.

He was pretty effective at all levels. Evidence:

  • Behind the line of scrimmage: 5 for 7 for 59 yards (8.4 YPA)
  • 0-10 yards: 13 for 17 for 91 yards (5.3 YPA), 1 interception
  • 11-20 yards: 10 for 15 for 142 yards (9.5 YPA), 1 interception
  • 20+ yards: 2 for 6 for 54 yards, 1 touchdown

Brady and the offense were also incredibly good in key situations where they did not fare nearly as well during the regular season.

During the regular season, the Patriots converted just 40.8% of their third downs, which was 13th in the league. In the red zone, New England was 15th in turning red zone appearances into touchdowns at 59.6%.

Against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Patriots converted on an astronomical 13 of 19 third downs (68.4%), including a 3rd and 9 and two separate 3rd and 10 situations in overtime. They were also 4 for 5 in the red zone (80%).

Tom Brady was money in these situations and maybe it shouldn’t surprise.

On the season, Tom Brady completed 56.9% of his third-down passes and had a 95.6 passer rating. On 3rd and 7 or longer, Brady completed 40 of 69 passes (58%) for 504 yards, 6 touchdowns, and 1 interception. That’s a rating of 103.8.

In 3rd and 7 or longer situations against Kansas City, he was 5 for 5 for 69 yards (13.8 yards per attempt) and a 118.8 passer rating.


Tyreek Hill is a special talent.

The Patriots did well keeping him in check with a corner and a safety doubling him all game long, but his physical abilities are still incredible. Case in point: his 42-yard reception. Keion Crossen was assigned Hill with help from Devin McCourty and gets left in the dust. Crossen runs a 4.3 40 and needed a pair of binoculars to see Hill.

It’s also a well-designed play because Hill is running right at the safety, which freezes him a bit because he has to honor a cut over the middle of the field or toward the sidelines. Hill ran a similar route in my preview post in which he did cut across the field. You can see McCourty’s hips are actually turned inside anticipating that. Truthfully, the only way this isn’t a touchdown is because Mahomes underthrew the pass and Hill had to wait for it.

 

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The Patriots did a terrific job in taking Hill’s vertical game away with the exception of this one play. What is amazing is the Chiefs never seemed to do anything to adjust or to find other ways to get the ball in his hands. With his game-changing abilities, one touch on just three targets is just dumbfounding, especially when one of those targets was a throw into the end zone into double coverage by Mahomes that he had no chance of catching.


The Patriots’ blockers made a ton of terrific plays in this game, but one of the ones that really stood out to me was Rex Burkhead’s run to set up first and goal in overtime.

There are so many great blocks on this play.

First, look how far downfield right guard Shaq Mason gets. Burkhead is still in the backfield and Mason is five yards downfield, completely taking linebacker Anthony Hitchens out of the play. Marcus Cannon turns defensive end Allen Bailey inside. Meanwhile, Rob Gronkowski stands up Justin Houston. Linebacker Reggie Ragland appears ready to plug the hole, but fullback James Develin meets him at the line and forces him outside. On the left side of the line, David Andrews and Joe Thuney get perfect position on defensive tackle Derrek Nnadi and Justin Hamilton, giving them the outside and letting them take themselves out of the play. Left tackle Trent Brown has linebacker Dee Ford locked up.

Just really impressive.

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Penalties were also a big talking point regarding this game as well. It was not a well-officiated game. We know the roughing the passer penalty against the Chiefs was a bad call. We know, in spite of protests from some, that Dee Ford was, in fact, offsides.

But one of the things some people are confused about is offensive pass interference, specifically on two plays during the game.

The first one is Phillip Dorsett’s penalty, which gave the Patriots a 2nd and 19 from the KC 33 instead of a 3rd and 4 from the KC 18. Patriots fans have lamented this, incorrectly stating that it shouldn’t have been offensive pass interference because the ball didn’t cross the line of scrimmage. That would be true in college, but in the NFL, OPI is called regardless of whether the ball crosses the line. Rule 8.5.4 says “Blocking more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage by an offensive player prior to a pass being thrown is offensive pass interference … It is also pass interference by the offense to block a defender beyond the line while the pass is in the air, if the block occurs in the vicinity of the player to whom the pass is thrown.” This applies to all forward passes thrown from behind the line of scrimmage. In the first photo, you can see that Dorsett is clearly a) more than 1 yard downfield and is not attempting to run a route and b) (probably) blocking with the ball in the air in the vicinity of where the ball was thrown. He’s completely out of the picture before Brady tosses it to White. And his pass to White was a forward pass. I have no problem with this being called OPI. They got it right. It’s pretty cut and dry.

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The second one, however, I think they got wrong. You can see in the second graphic that Chris Conley runs and lowers his shoulder into JC Jackson at approximately the New England 37-yard line. The line of scrimmage is the New England 40 on this play. According to Rule 8.5.4, this is also an illegal blocking beyond 1 yard of the line of scrimmage and should be OPI. There is no rule allowing for incidental contact. Rule 8.5.2 notes that if there is a question of incidental contact, there should be no OPI, but this only applies if the ball is in the air. When Conley initiates contact with the defender, Mahomes still has the ball in his hand. What’s more, he continues on and contacts Jason McCourty when the ball was in the air, which is blocking in the vicinity of where the ball was thrown and also violating Rule 8.5.2(3), which prohibits “cutting off the path of an opponent by making contact with him, without playing the ball.” A correct call in this play would have made it 2nd and 20 from midfield as opposed to first and goal at the New England 2.

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There’s been a lot made about the overtime rules. I promise this isn’t going to be a “if the Patriots didn’t get the ball no one would care” argument.

This is just the reality. The assumption that winning the toss guarantees victory is astronomically incorrect. The evidence:

• There were 17 overtime games in 2018 (including playoffs).
• Teams that received the ball first in overtime were 8-7-2 in 2018. So in the regular season, toss winners were 7-6-2.
• There were 4 overtime games in which the game was decided by a touchdown on the opening drive (24%). More than 3/4 of overtime games featured possessions by both offenses.
• Teams that won the toss failed to score any points on their first drive 47% of the time (8 of 17).
• 6 of 17 (35%) overtime games resulted in three or more combined possessions (as in both teams had the ball once and the game wasn’t decided).
• Home teams that lost the toss were 4-3 (.571 winning percentage) in 2018. Home teams overall had a .602 winning percentage in 2018.

Those pushing for the adoption of a college-style rule might be surprised to know this little tidbit from The Athletic’s Ross Tucker:

For the record, I didn’t have a problem with the old system where a field goal could win it either. I didn’t think that needed to change, even though a lot more games were decided on the first offensive possession. 44% of games were won by the toss-winning team on the first possession (TD or field goal) in overtime postseason games from 2000 until the rule change. 25% of overtime games during that span were decided by a first-possession field goal and 19% were won on a first-possession touchdown.

I just don’t like the idea of legislating the game for the sake of legislating it. I’m not here for that. You want to talk about taking a look at review rules and protocols? We can have that discussion.

(Photo: Nancy Lane/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)

The New England Patriots – chameleons of the NFL

Another year, another Super Bowl. It wasn’t supposed to happen. Not with the ragtag group of receivers many called the worst supporting cast in Tom Brady’s career.

But here we are. Because the Patriots are the best at one thing: getting the most out of what they have.

Perhaps one of the most impressive parts of the 2018 season has been the way the Patriots’ coaching staff has been able to adapt. The Patriots don’t try to fit square pegs in round holes. The coaches don’t commit to running one “system,” personnel be darned. They play to the strengths of their roster, try to put players in the best position to succeed, and put their faith in them to execute. More often than not, they are rewarded. This season and into the postseason, they put their faith in their strengths – the offensive line, Sony Michel, and, of course, Tom Brady – and it’s paying dividends.

Offensively, there have been few seasons in which the Patriots have had the amount of upheaval to its core personnel as it did this year. Yet, in spite of it all, New England managed to find success. One of the top scoring offenses in the league yet again, they put up 41 and 37 points in a pair of playoff wins against teams that on paper were better.

New England’s personnel grouping usage for the season is usually game plan and opponent specific, but this year changes to and limitations of the roster, namely the addition and then subtraction of Josh Gordon and Julian Edelman, threw an extra wrinkle into what needed to be done.

Early in the season, 11 personnel usage was way down. Gordon’s insertion bumped those numbers way up. But since Gordon left the team, the team’s use 3-receiver sets has dropped again dramatically.  Evidence:

Weeks 1-3 (without Josh Gordon and Julian Edelman)
11 personnel (3 WR): 42%
12 personnel (2 WR): 12%
21 personnel (2 WR): 32%
22 personnel (2 WR): 12%
(2-back sets: 44%)

Weeks 1-4 (without Julian Edelman)
11 personnel (3 WR): 43%
12 personnel (2 WR): 12%
21 personnel (2 WR): 31%
22 personnel (2 WR): 11%
(2-back sets: 42%)

Weeks 5-15 (with Josh Gordon and Julian Edelman)
11 personnel (3 WR): 63%
12 personnel (2 WR): 1%
21 personnel (2 WR): 27%
22 personnel (2 WR): 3%
(2-back sets: 30%)

Weeks 16-AFCCG (without Josh Gordon)
11 personnel (3 WR): 50%
12 personnel (2 WR): 6%
21 personnel (2 WR): 28%
22 personnel (2 WR): 16%
(2-back sets: 44%)

One thing to note with the 22 personnel specifically is there were injuries to the tight end position that had Belichick basically ignoring its existence at times. That said, there was a clear deviation away from that grouping that probably had a lot to do with increased options at receiver. The Patriots had 3 receivers and 1 back on the field far, far more frequently. Now, without Gordon again, it’s “old school” football with two-back sets – most of which include fullback James Develin – which is, in fact, the same offense they used to start the season.

The difference is they are doing it better.

A lot of that has to do with Sony Michel’s health and better familiarity with the offense. Remember, he missed the entire preseason and Week 1. The Patriots entered Week 1 with Rex Burkhead, Jeremy Hill, and James White. Hill got hurt in Week 1 and was done for the season. Michel joined the backfield in Week 2, but Rex Burkhead sustained a neck injury Week 3 and was out for an extended period of time.

In this latest stretch of increased 2-back sets, Michel has been fully immersed in the offense and it shows, especially in 21 personnel. Evidence:

Weeks 1-4
21 personnel
Usage: 31%
Success rate: 44%
YPC: 4.2
Rush TD: 0

22 personnel
Usage: 11%
Success rate: 44%
YPC: 2.2
Rush TD: 0

Weeks 16-AFCCG
21 personnel
Usage: 28%
Success rate: 59%
YPC: 5.1
Rush TD: 5

22 personnel
Usage: 16%
Success rate: 39%
YPC: 1.9
Rush TD: 3

Big takeaways: 0 touchdowns in 4 games (Weeks 1-4) from the most-used 2-back sets in spite of high usage vs. 8 touchdowns in those packages in 4 games (Weeks 16-AFCCG). Also, nearly a yard per carry better in 21 personnel of late than early in the season.

The passing offense out of these sets has improved tremendously as well, again, specifically out of 21 personnel. Evidence:

Weeks 1-4
21 personnel
Success rate: 34%
Passer rating: 58.5
YPA: 5.4
TD-INT ratio: 1-2

22 personnel
Success rate: 31%
Passer rating: 67.1
YPA: 3.6
TD-INT ratio: 0-0

Weeks 16-AFCCG
21 personnel
Success rate: 66%
Passer rating: 113.1
YPA: 9.6
TD-INT ratio: 2-1

22 personnel
Success rate: 64%
Passer rating: 37.1
YPA: 4.2
TD-INT ratio: 0-1

Once again, the Patriots have found a way, then when they had to, they found a way again.

To this point, I had thought the Jacoby Brissett-led victory in 2016 was Josh McDaniels’ best coaching effort all the way around, seeing as he had to completely reinvent his offense for a week with a third-string quarterback. But this year has been a yearlong Jacoby Brissett game and the Patriots once again are surprising winners.


For all of the talk about the Patriots’ adjustments this season, the Rams are the exact opposite. They know exactly who they are and so do you.

The Rams are pretty predictable from an offensive personnel/scheme standpoint. Including the playoffs, they ran 89% of their plays out of 11 personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end, 3 wide receivers). Another 8% of the time they ran with 12 personnel (1 running back, 2 tight ends, 2 receivers). They didn’t run a single play out of the Patriots’ favorite personnel grouping of late – 21 personnel (2 running backs, 1 tight end, 2 receivers).

For comparison, Green Bay was second in rate of 11 personnel usage. At 77%.

This, of course, does not mean they are easy to stop. Their 32.9 points per game in the regular season are a testament to that.

Out of 11 personnel, the Rams had a 96.0 passer rating and averaged 8 yards per reception. Thirty of Jared Goff’s 33 touchdown passes came out of this grouping. Running backs average 5.3 yards per carry and 25 of their 27 touchdowns in 11 personnel.

Now, the Patriots have not performed particularly well defensively against 11 personnel over the course of the season, but in recent weeks, they have been better.

In the AFC Championship game, the Chiefs ran 25 of their 47 plays out of 11 personnel. Patrick Mahomes completed just 6 of 16 passes and was sacked once, though he did make the most of his completions, notching 123 yards and touchdown. One of those completions was the 42-yard bomb to Tyreek Hill, his only catch of the day. Kansas City had their most success running the ball from this grouping, but overall, the running game wasn’t a huge factor.

A week earlier against the Chargers, the Patriots were impressive against Los Angeles’ 11 personnel, which they ran 84 percent of the time. Philip Rivers only completed 22 of 45 passes. took two sacks, and threw an interception. He also threw for two garbage-time touchdowns from three-receiver sets, which saved his passer rating of 75.0, but overall, the Patriots did a masterful job in coverage. The Chargers were also incredibly predictable, rushing the ball just 5 times from 3 receiver looks for 1.8 yards per carry.

Outside of the two playoff games, the Patriots have fared fairly well in the passing game against 11 personnel of late. Since their bye in Week 11, the Patriots have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 56.5% of their passes with 7 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. They also recorded 13 of their 30 total sacks on the season against this grouping in Weeks 12-16. Evidence:

Patriots pass defense vs. 11 Personnel
Week 12 vs. NYJ: 15 for 58 (53.6%), 1 TD, 0 INT, 5.2 YPA, 2 sacks
Week 13 vs. MIN: 27 for 39 (69.3%), 1 TD, 2 INT, 7.3 YPA, 1 sack
Week 14 vs. MIA: 6 for 10 (60%), 2 TD, 0 INT, 13.2 YPA, 5 sacks
Week 15 vs. PIT: 9 for 18 (50%), 1 TD, 2 INT, 6.1 YPA, 2 sacks
Week 16 vs. BUF: 17 for 35 (48.6%), 1 TD, 2 INT, 5.4 YPA, 0 sacks
Week 17 vs. NYJ: 9 for 17 (52.9%), 1 TD, 0 INT, 6.4 YPA, 3 sacks

Now, the acceptance here is that the Rams are a more formidable offense than any of these, with Pittsburgh being the closest comparison. But when you take into account the numbers against the Chiefs and Chargers, it suggests the regular season improvement was not necessarily a mirage.

Where the Patriots may find trouble is in defending the run. In the regular season, the Patriots allowed almost 6 yards per carry against 11 personnel after the bye. Some of this was by design, like against Pittsburgh, where the Patriots played almost exclusively nickel and dime packages and conceded the run to stop the Steelers’ passing attack. But overall, in six games after the bye, they allowed 7.8 yards per carry or more four times when teams ran out of 3-receiver, 1-back sets.

Enter the Rams, who ran 83% of their run plays out of 11 personnel to the tune of 5.1 yards per carry. Los Angeles had 23 rushing touchdowns during the regular season and 22 of them resulted from this grouping. In the playoffs, it’s been more of the same with 74% of their runs coming from 3 receiver, 1 back sets for a 5.1-yard average and 4 touchdowns through two games.

As if Todd Gurley wasn’t an imposing enough challenge, C.J. Anderson has provided an extra boost. While the Rams have some great talent in their receiver corps, finding a way to stop the run will likely be the priority. Don’t be surprised to see Patriots corners on an island with receivers.

A Patriots team this healthy is a historical anomaly

A clean injury report.

It’s a sight rarely seen in Patriots football history. It is, in fact, something that has never been seen during New England’s recent string of AFC Championship Game appearances.

Now, final reports are not out yet and anything can happen, but this is the healthiest a Patriots team has been at this point in the playoffs in a long, long time.

First, the evidence. This is a list of all of the players listed questionable or worse on the final injury report for the AFC Championship (or in 2018’s case, the most recent report) and the players on IR for each year of the Patriots’ current AFCCG appearance streak:

2018
IR (10): Darren Andrews, wide receiver (knee); Ja’Whuan Bentley, linebacker (arm); Braxton Berrios, wide receiver (undisclosed); Jeremy Hill, running back (knee); Jacob Hollister, tight end (hamstring); Ryan Rizzo, tight end (ankle); Ulrick John, guard (foot); Eric Rowe, cornerback (groin); Christian Sam, linebacker (undisclosed); Brian Schwenke, center (foot); Isaiah Wynn, tackle (Achilles).

2017
Questionable (5): Tom Brady, quarterback (right hand); Alan Branch, defensive tackle (knee); Rex Burkhead, running back (knee); Mike Gillislee, running back (knee); LaAdrian Waddle, tackle (knee).
IR (17): Martellus Bennett, tight end (shoulder); Marcus Cannon, tackle (ankle); Keionta Davis, defensive end (neck); Nate Ebner, safety (knee); Julian Edelman, wide receiver (knee); Chase Farris, guard (Achilles); Antonio Garcia, tackle (illness); Dont’a Hightower, linebacker (pectoral); Andrew Jelks, tackle (knee); Cyrus Jones, cornerback (knee), Jonathan Jones, cornerback (foot); Harvey Langi, linebacker (back); Matt Lengel, tight end (hip); Shea McClellin, linebacker (concussion); Malcolm Mitchell, wide receiver (knee); Derek Rivers, defensive end (knee); Vincent Valentine, defensive tackle (knee).

2016
Questionable (7): Danny Amendola, wide receiver (ankle); Martellus Bennett, tight end (knee); Brandon Bolden, running back (knee); Dont’a Hightower, linebacker (shoulder); Chris Hogan, wide receiver (thigh); Malcolm Mitchell, wide receiver (knee); Jabaal Sheard, defensive end (knee).
IR (7): Jacoby Brissett, quarterback (thumb); Jonathan Freeny, linebacker (shoulder); Rob Gronkowski, tight end (back); Tre’ Jackson, guard (knee); Greg Scruggs, defensive end (knee); Sebastian Vollmer, tackle (knee); Michael Williams, tight end (knee).

2015
Out (2): Tre’ Jackson, guard (knee); LaAdrian Waddle, tackle (shoulder)
Questionable (15): Danny Amendola, wide receiver (knee); Scott Chandler, tight end (knee); Jamie Collins, linebacker (back); Nate Ebner, safety (hand); Julian Edelman, wide receiver (foot); Darius Fleming, linebacker (back, shin); Jonathan Freeny, linebacker (hand); Rob Gronkowski, tight end (knee, back); Dont’a Hightower, linebacker (knee); Chandler Jones, defensive end (abdomen, toe); Rob Ninkovich, defensive end (shin); Matthew Slater, wide receiver (shin); Bryan Stork, center (ankle); Sebastian Vollmer, tackle (ankle); LaAdrian Waddle, tackle (shoulder).
IR (17): LeGarrette Blount, running back (hip); Tarrell Brown, cornerback (foot); AJ Derby, tight end (undisclosed); James Develin, fullback (shin); Aaron Dobson, wide receiver (ankle); Dominique Easley, defensive tackle (thigh); Dane Fletcher, linebacker (knee); Trey Flowers, defensive end (undisclosed); Tyler Gaffney, running back (knee); Brandon Gibson, wide receiver (knee); Rufus Johnson, defensive end (illness); Chris Jones, defensive tackle (calf); Dion Lewis, running back (knee); Jerod Mayo, linebacker (shoulder); Darryl Roberts, cornerback (wrist); Nate Solder, tackle (elbow); Brian Tyms, wide receiver (foot); Ryan Wendell, guard (knee).

2014
Out (1): Bryan Stork, center (knee).
IR (9): Michael Buchanan, defensive end (ankle); Alfonzo Dennard, cornerback (hamstring); Dominique Easley, defensive tackle (knee); Tyler Gaffney, running back (knee); Cameron Gordon, linebacker (undisclosed); Jerod Mayo, linebacker (knee), James Morris, linebacker (ankle); Greg Orton, wide receiver (Achilles); Stevan Ridley, running back (knee).

2013
Out:
Steve Beauharnais, linebacker (illness)
Questionable (3): Ryan Allen, punter (shoulder); Aaron Dobson, wide receiver (foot); Kenbrell Thompkins, wide receiver (hip/concussion).
IR (10): Tyronne Green, guard (undisclosed); Cory Grissom, defensive tackle (knee); Rob Gronkowski, tight end (knee); Tommy Kelly, defensive tackle (knee); Jerod Mayo, linebacker (shoulder); T.J. Moe, wide receiver (Achilles); Sebastian Vollmer, tackle (leg); Vince Wilfork, defensive tackle (Achilles); Adrian Wilson, safety (hamstring); Markus Zusevics, tackle (undisclosed).

2012
Out (1): Rob Gronkowski, tight end (forearm).
Questionable (5):
 Chandler Jones, defensive end (ankle); Kyle Love, defensive tackle (knee); Nick McDonald, guard (shoulder); Aqib Talib, cornerback (thigh); Danny Woodhead, running back (thumb).
IR (12): Will Allen, safety (undisclosed); Jake Ballard, tight end (knee); Josh Barrett, safety (undisclosed); Jeff Demps, running back (leg); Ras-I Dowling, cornerback (quad); Julian Edelman, wide receiver (foot); Dane Fletcher, linebacker (knee); Brad Herman, tight end (Achilles); Spencer Larsen, fullback (undisclosed); Myron Pryor, defensive tackle (shoulder); Jamey Richard, center (concussion); Donte’ Stallworth, wide receiver (ankle).

2011
Questionable (14): Deion Branch, wide receiver (knee); Marcus Cannon, tackle (ankle); Patrick Chung, safety (knee); Dane Fletcher, linebacker (thumb); Aaron Hernandez, tight end (concussion); James Ihedigbo, safety (shoulder); Kyle Love, defensive tackle (ankle); Logan Mankins, guard (knee); Rob Ninkovich, linebacker (hip); Nate Solder, tackle (concussion); Brandon Spikes, linebacker (knee); Sebastian Vollmer, tackle (foot/back); Wes Welker, wide receiver (knee); Tracy White, linebacker (abdomen).
IR (8): Josh Barrett, safety (calf); Andre Carter, defensive end (quad); Brandon Deaderick, defensive tackle (hamstring); Ras-I Dowling, cornerback (hip); Dan Koppen, center (ankle/fibula); Myron Pryor, defensive tackle (shoulder); Jeff Tarpanian, linebacker (head); Mike Write, defensive tackle (concussion).

There are two seasons that I would like to focus on here – 2013 and 2015. Two years in which the Patriots had to go on the road for the AFC Championship Game and lost. There has been a lot made about how the Patriots have not had recent success in this round on the road, but the health of those teams compared to this one make it hard to look at them in an apples-to-apples kind of way.

2015 is especially tough from that standpoint. The Patriots had an astounding 15 players listed as questionable and two downgraded to out before the game. That’s on top of 17 players on IR. The Patriots’ offensive line was a mess. Left tackle Nate Solder was gone with a torn bicep, forcing Sebastian Vollmer, a solid right tackle but poor on the left side, to protect Brady’s blindside with a high ankle sprain. Guard and captain Ryan Wendell was on IR. Starting center Bryan Stork also had an ankle injury. He had played guard and tackle at times earlier in the season because of all of the injuries to the line. Throw on top of that LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis were on IR, leaving the Patriots without any legitimate threat to run the football. Brady got hit 17 times and sacked four times in maybe the most brutal and gritty performance of his career. Defensively, Dont’a Hightower’s injury was an apparent drag on the defense and a host of other playmakers – Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Jaime Collins – were all dealing with various nicks.

2013 wasn’t as drastic, but it did mean the absence of some key members – namely Rob Gronkowski with his torn ACL, Vince Wilfork with his torn Achilles, Vollmer breaking his leg, and Jerod Mayo.

Now, injuries alone didn’t cost the Patriots these games, but with that said, here come the 2018 Patriots into Kansas City with perfect attendance at practice this Friday morning and things feel a little different.

Of course, perfect attendance is a relatively loose term because it only describes the players who are on your active roster and doesn’t take into account players lost to IR over the course of the season. The Patriots are pretty good there, too.

In 2015, the Patriots’ IR was filled with starters and important pieces of all three phases – offense, defense, and special teams. In 2013, it was two of the best in the middle of the defense, a starting right tackle, and Rob Gronkowski. In 2018, the Patriots managed to avoid major catastrophes. Losing rookie Ja’Whaun Bentley hurt for sure as he was carving out a prominent role in the offense, but the health and relatively steady play of the rest of the linebackers, including Dont’a Hightower, has made it easier to absorb that loss. Isaiah Wynn’s impact was blunted by how well Trent Brown has played. Of course, Josh Gordon’s absence isn’t included here, but it hurts to lose a guy with that amount of talent.

Does that mean the Patriots are guaranteed a win? Absolutely not. But everyone is in the best position to do their jobs and that decreased the likelihood of breakdowns, especially defensively. Stop the breakdowns, stop the Chiefs (or at least slow them down). There will be no shifting of personnel. Players know their responsibilities, understand their roles, and won’t get overextended and exposed the way we’ve seen in the past. Offensively, it doesn’t just mean the best talent available. It gives Josh McDaniels options in terms of playcalling and creativity. It gives the opponents more things to think about. It gives Brady more targets and more time. And it gives everyone a lot more confidence.

They say if you’ve got your health, then you’ve got everything.

This time, they might be right.

Patriots can beat the Chiefs if they don’t beat themselves.

It’s all been well-documented. The Patriots’ road record in 2018. The sheer amount of talent on the opponent’s offense. The noise level of Arrowhead Stadium.

So can the Patriots beat the Kansas City Chiefs on the road? Absolutely. The keys to the game are embedded in the first meeting between these two teams in October – most notably in the Patriots’ failures.

The first time around, the Patriots seemingly did almost everything right offensively.

They ran the ball effectively with Sony Michel against a defense that is, quite frankly, not very good at all against the run. They spread the ball around to seven different receivers. They converted 54% of their first downs. They controlled the clock, holding the ball for more than 34 minutes. All of that seems like the path to success, and overall, it was.

The Patriots were able to dictate the tempo of the game and should ultimately look to do the same, beating the Chiefs up with 21 personnel. New England ran 22 of its 78 plays out of sets with two running backs and one tight end and did so with great efficiency. Brady completed 4 of 5 passes for 77 yards (15.4 yards per attempt) and a 118.8 rating with this personnel. Seventeen of New England’s 38 running plays (45%) came out of this set, picking up 5.1 yards per carry and one of their three rushing touchdowns.

It looks like a blueprint to success, but the offense wasn’t completely clean either.

Offensively, lack of discipline from an unlikely source in a key moment opened the door for an offense that is far too talented and well coached. Late in the third quarter, Tom Brady tried to do too much. On third and 10 from the New England 36, he rolled right when nothing opened up downfield, then peeled back left, only to be enveloped by Kansas City defenders, losing the ball deep in Patriots’ territory. Four plays later, the Chiefs scored on a well-designed crossing route to free Tyreek Hill and instead of possibly putting the game away, the Patriots found themselves in a dogfight.

It’s a case of no matter how well you’ve played, there’s always a way to play better, and if you don’t, good teams are going to capitalize.

Brady has fumbled just once since. This isn’t an area fans should be particularly worried about.

Defensively, however, there were enough gaffes to raise flags, but those issues are also correctable. It comes down to playing assignment football, plain and simple. The Patriots are among the league’s best at defending the deep pass. The Chiefs? They are the league leaders in deep passing – attempts, yards, touchdowns, you name it. Maintaining discipline in assignments is crucial. Here are a couple of examples of how a lack of discipline cost the Patriots the first time around.

Tyreek Hill’s fourth-quarter touchdown in the Patriots’ October win is a clear example. Hill starts to the left of Mahomes in a sort of stack formation, runs upfield, then cuts his way across the field. The Patriots leave Hill wide open to make the catch and run. To make it worse, Harmon takes a bad angle, fails to get Hill out of bounds, and no one else can catch him.

hill

I don’t know what the call was on this play, but it looks like it was supposed to be a Cover-3 of some kind. There appeared to be some defensive confusion near the line to Mahomes’ left pre-snap and as a result, the Patriots ended up with a wad of defenders all defending Travis Kelce, leaving them all 15 to 20 yards behind Hill in no position to make a play. This is not how it was drawn up. Neither Devin nor Jason McCourty honors the deep pass behind them, leaving a huge vacant area behind them. Both McCourtys have played very well this season, but this is one play for which at least one of them probably had to run a lap or two. Harmon is essentially where he’s supposed to be on the play, but he doesn’t know which way Hill is headed before the catch, and with Hill’s speed, he is ultimately beaten to and down the sideline.

hill2

The lack of discipline on the play wasn’t limited to coverage. It also doesn’t help that Adrian Clayborn was able to be redirected behind the quarterback by the tight end, rendering him virtually useless for the remainder of the play. It actually allows Mahomes to step up and to the left a bit before delivering the ball. It has been a bad habit for Clayborn, especially early in the season.

hill3

Kareem Hunt’s 67-yard touchdown was another case of poor assignment football. On this play, Hunt starts in the backfield and runs a wheel route up the right sideline. Mahomes wants to go there initially but sees Jason McCourty in coverage. A throw at that point probably results in a pick-6 the other way, so he holds it and looks to the middle of the field. The Patriots collapse the pocket with a three-man rush, but here’s where the problems start.

Discipline issue #1: Adam Butler gets too far inside, allowing Mahomes to roll out to his right.

hunt

That leads to discipline issue #2. Mahomes actually puts this ball in the air while McCourty is in a good defensive position with Hunt running up the sideline, but he gets caught cheating. He looks back and to the middle of the field and peels off of Hunt just enough to allow Mahomes to put the ball over his head to Hunt.

hunt2

Obviously, with Mahomes’ talent, there’s always a chance for a run or a crazy pass across his body over the middle, but in this situation, McCourty has to know the defense’s responsibilities. Even if Butler isn’t able to corral Mahomes, Van Noy and Hightower are also between him and a first down and there is coverage over the middle. McCourty doesn’t mind his assignment and gets burned.

Two plays along accounted for almost 1/3 of the Chiefs’ total offense for the game. Outside of those two plays, Mahomes completed 21 of 32 passes for 210 yards, 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. That’s 6.2 yards per completion and a 78.9 rating. Mahomes did well in exploiting some mistakes to make this a completely different game and limiting those mental errors will be the deciding factor in this Sunday’s contest.

Now, obviously, this is easier said than done. The Chiefs, like the Patriots, thrive on motion to create confusion and mismatches. A week ago against Indianapolis, Kansas City absolutely dismantled the Colts defense with motions that had them scrambling. Coupled with a hard count that yielded a number of offsides/encroachment type penalties, the Chiefs had their opponent on their heels all game long. The Patriots didn’t commit a single penalty the first time these two teams played, though that was at home.

Do Your Job isn’t just a catchy slogan. It’s exactly what each Patriots player has to do with precision if the Patriots want to beat Kansas City. Some are saying it would take a flawless game to upset the Chiefs. Will it take that much? Maybe not, but why leave it to chance?

(Photo: Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

No, the Patriots aren’t abandoning the pass

One of the great narratives of this season is that the Patriots have abandoned the pass and have become a running team.

It’s also totally false.

The days of Tom Brady throwing the ball 50 times a game are over for sure. There’s no denying that. But that has been the case for several years now. What hasn’t been the case is that with Brady getting older, the Patriots have been relying on him less. This storyline is partly an attempt by some to discredit Brady and point to the inevitable cliff that always seems to be just on the horizon. But there is something to the “eye test” argument as well and we’ll get deeper into that in a bit.

But first, let’s just get the whole myth out of the way right off the bat with some facts.

Patriots plays per game, last three years
2018 – 67.1 (2nd)
2017 – 66.9 (4th)
2016 – 67.7 (3rd)
 
Patriots passing play percentage, last three years
2018 – 55.45% (26th)
2017 – 58.13% (16th)
2016 – 56.41% (27th)
 
Tom Brady’s average pass attempts, last three years
2018 – 35.6
2017 – 36.3
2016 – 36
Patriots rushing attempts per game, last three years
2018 – 29.9
2017 – 27.2
2016 – 29.5

Yes, folks. It’s true. Tom Brady is attempting 0.7 fewer passes per game this season than last season.

This team’s offense still flows through Tom Brady’s right arm. As I’ve mentioned before, his 31 touchdowns (29 passing, 2 rushing) seventh time since 2010 that Brady has accounted for 30 or more touchdowns in a season. What’s more, the Patriots just as capable of scoring as it had been previously – 51 touchdowns in 2016, 49 touchdowns in 2017, and 51 touchdowns in 2018.

Inside the red zone, the team has had to get more creative in the way they punch it in, due to the decline of Rob Gronkowski and the lack of consistent talent in the receiver corps, hence anomalies like fullback James Develin registering 4 touchdowns this year. But overall, this is still Brady’s team to command.

Where some of the confusion might be coming from is in the way the Patriots have operated in 2018. The personnel groupings, thanks in large part to a constantly changing group of offensive skill players, have indeed looked different. Here’s a breakdown of how the Patriots have lined up most over the past three seasons.

The Patriots actually used far more three-receiver sets in 2018 than they had the past few years. In fact, in 2017, the Patriots only used 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) 37% of the time. In 2018, they used it 56% of the time. The Patriots were successful running out of this grouping, too, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. New England ran 41% of its running plays from 11 personnel, a sharp increase from 28% in 2017, caused by the greater volume of plays run out of those formations. My theory: for some, the assumption with three receivers on the field is a pass, so when a run was the call, it prompted a trigger in the mind to think the Patriots are bypassing Tom Brady in lieu of the run more often.

Throw on top of that the increased use of James Develin in 2018. The Patriots used two-back sets more this year than in 2016 or 2017 – 36% in 2018, 31% in 2017, 27% in 2016. While the Patriots have toyed more with two running backs in the same set, it remains more of a gimmick than a staple of the offense and Develin has seen a bump in his snap counts – 35.6% of offensive snaps in 2018, 30.2% in 2017, 31.3% in 2016. While Develin remains a blocker primarily, his targets in the passing game and touches have increased.

As a matter of fact, the Patriots used 21 personnel (2 running backs, 1 tight end, 2 wide receivers) more than any team in the NFL other than San Francisco in 2018. All about the run, right? Well, the Patriots still passed regularly. Getting more specific, the Patriots have run 307 plays out of 21 personnel (2 running backs, 1 tight end, 2 wide receivers), nearly twice as many as last year when they ran 187. Of the team’s 564 total pass attempts, 125 – more than 20% of all passes – came out of this set.

The point of all this is to point out that the product on the screen has been a bit deceiving. The Patriots have run out of passing sets. Meanwhile, they have also called an inordinate amount of heavier packages compared to the rest of the league, but that has not, in fact, resulted in a higher percentage of running plays.

So is the Patriots’ passing game going by the wayside? Not by a long shot. It just looks a little different.

Patriots postseason reset

The Patriots finished the regular season with a flourish, dominating a New York Jets team that had all but packed their bags before the game started.

In some respects, it was a disappointing season, though using hindsight, this team is probably exactly where they should be. A lot was made about how Tom Brady’s play declined in 2018, and while he had his off moments, overall, he had another fine year. How many other quarterbacks could have had the success he had, both in terms of record and statistics, with the talent and fluctuation in personnel he dealt with this season? Not many. In fact, it marked the seventh time since 2010 that Brady has accounted for 30 or more touchdowns (29 passing, 2 rushing in 2018). What’s more, the offense was just as adept at scoring as it had been previously:

2014: 52 touchdowns
2015: 52 touchdowns
2016: 51 touchdowns
2017: 49 touchdowns
2018: 51 touchdowns

The win on Sunday locked up an important bye week for the Patriots, who have been getting healthier, but still has a 41-year-old quarterback, a top receiver who is 31, and a beaten up tight end. Sony Michel could probably use some time off that troublesome knee and the Devin McCourty concussion situations is one that benefits from a week off.

We won’t learn much from the actual box scores, but the last two weeks probably gave an indication as to how the Patriots are going to line up offensively against opponents in the playoffs now that Josh Gordon is no longer in the picture.

In Weeks 16 and 17, the Patriots lined up in three-receiver sets just 58% of the time. In two-receiver sets, they lined up with two backs and one tight end 34% of the time and two backs and two tight ends another 15% of the time. With Gordon from Weeks 5 to 15, the Patriots ran out of three-receiver sets 63% of the time, two back and one tight end sets 27% of the time, and two backs and two tight end sets just 3% of the time. Basically, the Patriots are going heavy and making adjustments based on what the opposing defense show.

The Patriots now await their divisional round opponent, which will be either Houston, Baltimore, or the Los Angeles Chargers. There’s no an easy out among that group.


Making the grade?
Patriots starters and impact players and their Pro Football Focus positional rank.
(Green = trending up; Red = trending down)

Offense
QB – Tom Brady, 5th (+1)
WR – Chris Hogan, 111th (+5)
WR – Phillip Dorsett, 65th (+7)
WR – Julian Edelman 30th (+2)
RB – James White, 33rd (-3)
RB – Sony Michel, 19th (+2)
FB – James Develin, 5th (-1)
TE – Rob Gronkowski, 13th (-1)
TE – Dwayne Allen, 65th (-5)
LT – Trent Brown, 44th (-4)
LG – Joe Thuney, 13th
C – David Andrews, 9th (-2)
RG – Shaq Mason, 1st
RT – Marcus Cannon, 26th (-1)
T – LaAdrian Waddle, 78th (-1)

Defense
DT – Malcom Brown, 103rd (-1)
DT – Lawrence Guy, 10th
DT – Adam Butler, 110th (+1)
DT – Danny Shelton, 36th (+4)
EDGE – Trey Flowers, 3rd (+1)
EDGE – Deatrich Wise, 86th (+4)
EDGE – Adrian Clayborn, 41st (-5)
LB – Kyle Van Noy, 38th (-3)
LB – Donta Hightower, 38th (-5)
LB – Elandon Roberts, 43rd (+13)
CB – Stephon Gilmore, 1st
CB – Jonathan Jones, 67th (+7)
CB – Jason McCourty, 6th (+3)
CB – JC Jackson, 27th (-5)
S – Devin McCourty, 16th (-1)
S – Patrick Chung, 43rd (-3)
S – Duron Harmon, 47th (-2)


Final stats

Tom Brady
375 for 570 (65.8%), 4,355 yards, 29 TD (5.1%), 11 INT (1.9%), 97.7 passer rating
• Brady finished off the 2018 campaign with his best statistical performance of the season. While his numbers overall were down and his offense often in flux, Brady was still in the top 10 in yards and touchdowns. It won’t go down as one of his best seasons, but it was certainly very good.

Rob Gronkowski
47 catches, 682 yards, 3 TD
• Gronkowski had his least productive season as a Patriot since his rookie season, at least from a per-game standpoint. Gronk is capable of putting together some big games, but as the season wore on, those became fewer and fewer. In the second half of the season, Gronk had more games with yardage totals in the 20s than he had 100-yard games.

James White
87 catches, 751 yards, 7 TD; 94 carries, 425 yards, 5 TD
• White was the Patriots’ MVP for the first half of the season and Brady consistently looked to him to keep the chains moving. At one point, he was on pace for more than 100 receptions, and while his role has been scaled back a bit, he’s still posted career highs in both receiving and rushing. His 12 total touchdowns are by far the most by a Patriots player (Sony Michel and Julian Edelman are tied for second with 6 apiece). Those 12 touchdowns are tied for sixth on the Patriots’ all-time single-season touchdown list, joining Robert Edwards (1998), Rob Gronkowski (2014), Mack Herron (1974), and Stevan Ridley (2012). LeGarrette Blount, Curtis Martin, Corey Dillon, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and Antowain Smith are the only Patriots running backs to record more touchdowns in a season. His 87 receptions and 751 receiving yards are both Patriots records for running backs and his 1,176 yards from scrimmage is 19th best among Patriots running backs.

Sony Michel
209 carries, 931 yards, 6 TD; 7 catches, 50 yards
• Michel missed three games and still managed to put together a rookie season that is among the best in Patriots history. His 931 yards is the fifth-most among Patriots rookie rushers. It’s the best season from a yardage standpoint since Robert Edwards’ first year in 1998. The 6 touchdowns are fourth on the all-time list for Patriots rookie running backs. Provided he stays healthy, Michel should be a productive and successful part of the Patriots’ offense for the next several years.

Chris Hogan
35 catches, 532 yards, 3 TD
• Hogan’s 803 snaps in 2018 were the second-highest among skill position players behind Rob Gronkowski. With that said, he was only targeted 55 times and caught 35 passes. The yardage was actually the second-highest total of his career and to his credit, he managed to stay healthy after a banged-up 2017 campaign, but he didn’t deliver on expectations when pressed into a larger role in the offense.

Julian Edelman
74 catches, 850 yards, 5 TD
• Edelman cost himself four games with a suspension, but that has been largely forgotten because has been incredibly productive since returning. His 11.5 yards per catch are a career-high. As long as he’s out there, Tom Brady is going to keep drilling him with pass after pass. Since he became a full-time player in 2013, Edelman has been targeted 100+ times in all but one season and in that season, he missed seven games due to injury.


Tom Brady vs. the world
How Tom Brady’s passer rating matched up against opponents’ season averages
(Green = above opponent’s average; Red = below opponent’s average)

Week 1 vs. Houston: 102.2; Houston’s season: 92.7
Week 2 at Jacksonville: 106.1; Jacksonville’s season: 84.4
Week 3 at Detroit: 65.1; Detroit’s season: 102.7
Week 4 vs. Miami: 94.2; Miami’s season: 94.1
Week 5 vs. Indianapolis: 102.6; Indianapolis’ season: 93.5
Week 6 vs. Kansas City: 109.2; Kansas City’s season: 92.7
Week 7 at Chicago: 108.2; Chicago’s season: 72.9
Week 8 at Buffalo: 85.8; Buffalo’s season: 82.6
Week 9 vs. Green Bay: 99.0; Green Bay’s season: 100.9
Week 10 vs. Tennessee: 70.6; Tennessee’s season: 88.4
Week 12 at New York Jets: 115.4; New York’s season: 93.1
Week 13 vs. Minnesota: 102.5; Minnesota’s season: 83.3
Week 14: at Miami: 112.4; Miami’s season: 94.1
Week 15: at Pittsburgh: 89.9; Pittsburgh’s season: 95.2
Week 16: vs. Buffalo: 48.3; Buffalo’s season: 82.6
Week 17: vs. New York Jets: 133.8; New York’s season: 93.1


Best of the best
The Patriots were top-10 as a team in the following statistical categories:

Defense:
Scoring (7th, 20.3 points per game)
Touchdowns allowed (T-9th, 2.2 touchdowns allowed per game)
Passer rating against (7th, 85.4 rating allowed)
Yards per pass attempt (T-7th, 6.5 yards per pass attempt allowed)
Turnovers (T-5th, 28 turnovers forced)
Interceptions (T-3rd, 18 interceptions)
Interception percentage (6th, 3.0%)

Offense:
Scoring (4th, 27.3 points per game)
Points per drive (8th, 2.27 points per drive)
Passing yards (8th, 4,238 passing yards)
Yards per pass attempt (6th, 7.2 yards per pass attempt)
Rushing yards (5th, 2,037 rushing yards)
Rushing touchdowns (T-4th, 18 rushing touchdowns)
Scoring percentage (7th, 40.8% scoring percentage)
Turnover percentage (4th, 9.2% turnover percentage)
Sacks allowed (3rd, 21 sacks allowed)
Sack percentage (3rd, 3.5% sack percentage)
Average drive start (8th, own 29.9)

Patriots weekly reset

With a week to go, the Patriots are just one win away from once again claiming a first-round bye in the playoffs. Even still, there is a measure of hand wringing among fans and the media alike, specifically regarding Tom Brady. Brady had a particularly un-Brady-like performance against the Buffalo Bills last week. In fact, last week’s game was the first since 2006 in which Brady failed to surpass a passer rating of 50. Is this the cliff everyone has been talking about? Is this about his supposedly injured knee? Is this a symptom of a lack of weapons? It’s been a week of consternation for a fanbase that is not used to uncertainty this late in the year.

One other note about Tom Brady’s passer rating: This was the first time Brady has had such a game and the Patriots won. The running game, which has been a much-maligned part of the offense was the savior, racking up 273 yards on the ground and a 5.8 yards per carry average. For years the complaint has been about a lack of a rushing attack and then when one is produced, it is overlooked for questions about why Tom Brady didn’t have a better game. Is it a fair question to ask? Of course. But when the team can find ways to win in multiple ways, that should be considered a strength.

With panic at every corner of New England, the New York Jets coming to Foxboro with the Patriots still holding an outside chance of capturing the AFC’s top seed. Of course, that requires Kansas City to lose at home to Oakland and the Los Angeles Chargers to fall to the Broncos, but the possibility still exists as more than just an abstract. At the very least, a win would lock up a first-round bye for the Patriots.

The 4-11 Jets are playing out the string, having lost eight of their last nine games and Sunday’s tussle at Gillette figures to be Todd Bowles’ last season at the helm.


Making the grade?
Patriots starters and impact players and their Pro Football Focus positional rank.
(Green = trending up; Red = trending down)

Offense
QB – Tom Brady, 6th (-1)
WR – Chris Hogan, 116th (-3)
WR – Phillip Dorsett, 72nd (-9)
WR – Julian Edelman 32nd (+5)
RB – James White, 30th (-5)
RB – Sony Michel, 21st (+7)
FB – James Develin, 4th
TE – Rob Gronkowski, 12th (-4)
TE – Dwayne Allen, 60th (-1)
LT – Trent Brown, 40th (-10)
LG – Joe Thuney, 13th
C – David Andrews, 7th
RG – Shaq Mason, 1st (+1)
RT – Marcus Cannon, 25th (+1)
T – LaAdrian Waddle, 77th (+1)

Defense
DT – Malcom Brown, 102nd (+3)
DT – Lawrence Guy, 10th
DT – Adam Butler, 111th (-7)
DT – Danny Shelton, 40th (+5)
EDGE – Trey Flowers, 4th (+4)
EDGE – Deatrich Wise, 90th (+6)
EDGE – Adrian Clayborn, 36th (-2)
LB – Kyle Van Noy, 35th
LB – Donta Hightower, 32nd (-2)
LB – Elandon Roberts, 56th (-1)
CB – Stephon Gilmore, 1st
CB – Jonathan Jones, 74th (-10)
CB – Jason McCourty, 9th (+5)
CB – JC Jackson, 22nd (+29)
S – Devin McCourty, 15th (-1)
S – Patrick Chung, 40th (+9)
S – Duron Harmon, 45th (+9)


Current paces
Patriots players are currently on pace for the following stats for the season.

Tom Brady
374 for 573 (65.4%), 4,379 yards, 27 TD (4.7%), 12 INT (2%), 95.4 passer rating
• Brady’s first game against a good Bills defense was a solid, workman-like effort. Not flashy, but effective. Last week against Buffalo was different. Brady looked out of rhythm, quick to get rid of the ball, and overall uneasy with the looks he was seeing. It’s possible that neither interception was his fault, but even at that, it was maybe the worst we’ve seen him this season. Let’s hope we can chalk it up to an offense still adjusting to the loss of one of its biggest playmakers against the league’s top passing defense.

Rob Gronkowski
48 catches, 702 yards, 3 TD
• Gronkowski was not only blanked in the passing game, but also subbed out routinely on running plays, something we haven’t seen before. This is most likely the beginning of the end for Gronk in New England and perhaps in the NFL. The Patriots will surely ask him to take a pay cut in the offseason, which he is more likely than not to balk at.

James White
89 catches, 759 yards, 6 TD; 96 carries, 421 yards, 5 TD
• White’s involvement in the passing game continues to be sporadic, but he has still been a big contributor to the offense. He’s shouldering more of the load as a true change of pace runner and is also excellent in pass protection. He’s already set Patriots receiving records for running backs this season.

Sony Michel
208 carries, 940 yards, 6 TD; 7 catches, 53 yards
• Michel has 100 yards from scrimmage, the Patriots win. It sounds absurdly simple, but it’s the truth. The Patriots are 5-0 in games in which Michel eclipses the century mark in yardage. They are 2-5 when he does not. In spite of missing three games, Michel’s season ranks 5th among Patriots rookie running backs in rushing yards and is the best season by that measurable since Stevan Ridley in 2011 (Ridley had 441 yards). This shows an amazing amount of confidence (albeit somewhat out of necessity) in the first-round pick.

Chris Hogan
31 catches, 499 yards, 3 TD
• Hogan remains unable to get open on a regular basis and when he has gotten free, it usually hasn’t been in time for Brady to do anything with it. According to Evan Lazar of CLNS Media, Hogan has the fewest targets (44) among the 39 receivers with 700+ snaps.  Gross. The projected 31 catches would be his fewest since 2013, his first year in Buffalo.

Julian Edelman
74 catches, 833 yards, 5 TD
• Edelman was the Patriots’ only productive receiver against the Bills and figures to be a focal point of the offense with Josh Gordon gone for the season. considering he missed the first four games of the season, Edelman’s numbers are pretty remarkable.

Cordarrelle Patterson
22 catches, 263 yards, 3 TD; 45 carries, 243 yards, 1 TD
Patterson continues to be a Swiss army knife for the Patriots. His 66 rushing yards last week were a season high. His 3 receiving yards were the fewest he’s had in a game in which he’s recorded at least one catch.


Tom Brady vs. the world
How Tom Brady’s passer rating matches up against opponents’ season averages
(Green = above opponent’s average; Red = below opponent’s average)

Week 1 vs. Houston: 102.2; Houston’s season: 94.9
Week 2 at Jacksonville: 106.1; Jacksonville’s season: 84.0
Week 3 at Detroit: 65.1; Detroit’s season: 107.5
Week 4 vs. Miami: 94.2; Miami’s season: 93.0
Week 5 vs. Indianapolis: 102.6; Indianapolis’ season: 95.4
Week 6 vs. Kansas City: 109.2; Kansas City’s season: 94.4
Week 7 at Chicago: 108.2; Chicago’s season: 72.5
Week 8 at Buffalo: 85.8; Buffalo’s season: 84.5
Week 9 vs. Green Bay: 99.0; Green Bay’s season: 99.6
Week 10 vs. Tennessee: 70.6; Tennessee’s season: 86.9
Week 12 at New York Jets: 115.4; New York’s season: 90.6
Week 13 vs. Minnesota: 102.5; Minnesota’s season: 83.1
Week 14: at Miami: 112.4; Miami’s season: 93.0
Week 15: at Pittsburgh: 89.9; Pittsburgh’s season: 96.7
Week 16: vs. Buffalo: 48.3; Buffalo’s season: 84.5


Sizing up the competition

Remember that whole thing about Sony Michel and 100 yards? Well, the New York Jets are one of the five wins the Patriots have when that happens. The Jets have been one of the worst at defending the run in 2018, allowing 1,890 yards and 16 touchdowns in 15 games. The Patriots ran over New York for 215 yards in their first meeting in New Jersey and the Jets have allowed more than 100 yards rushing in 10 of their 15 games.

Against the pass, the Jets are middle of the road pretty much across the board. Trumaine Johnson will play after getting held out of practice for an “in house” (see: disciplinary) reason earlier in the week, so the Jets will have their best corner in terms of takeaways. Morris Claiborne, leading the team in pass breakups, won’t play, however. Jamal Adams remains the best player on the defense and perhaps the team. He effectively handled Rob Gronkowski one-on-one several times throughout the game. Avery Williamson has been a tackling machine at linebacker.

Offensively, the Jets are down to Elijah McGuire at running back with Isaiah Crowell and Bilal Powell both on IR. Since taking on the lead back role, McGuire has been ineffective, averaging a paltry 2.8 yards per carry his last three weeks. That leaves the bulk of the offense to fall on rookie quarterback Sam Darnold, who has played well since a disastrous 4-interception game against Miami, a 13-6 loss. Since then, he has thrown 6 touchdowns and just 1 interception, averaging nearly 255 yards with a 66% completion percentage and a 106.2 rating. This will be the Patriots’ first look at Darnold, who was injured in the first meeting of these two teams. The Jets will be without Quincy Enunwa and Jermaine Kearse, leaving Robby Anderson as the top pass-catching weapon. Chris Herndon played reasonably well against the Patriots in the first matchup and is coming off his best game of the season against Green Bay.

The Jets have not beaten a Tom Brady-led Patriots team in Foxboro since 2006. The Jets haven’t picked off Brady at Gillette Stadium since Oct. 9, 2011. He’s thrown 255 consecutive passes without an interception at home against the Jets.

(Photo: MassLive/Steven Senne)

Let’s trash the ‘tomato can’ narrative already

Another year, another division title.

10 straight years, an unprecedented streak, yet wholly underappreciated, largely because of a narrative that states that rather than one team being exceptional, it has been the shortcomings of those around them that has led to such success. A prominent New England sports columnist refers to the AFC East opponents as “tomato cans.”

Am I here at my keyboard to tell you the AFC East has been a dominant force in football? That the rest of the league quakes at the thought of drawing an AFC East matchup? No. What I am saying is simply this: No such division exists. It’s all in your head.

The 2018 season is undoubtedly a bad season for the AFC East. Even by the Patriots’ lofty standards, it is a down year. But overall during this recent run? The combination of the New York Jets, Miami Dolphins, and Buffalo Bills have been as competitive as anyone else. That’s not to say there haven’t been bad squads for those teams. There have been. But show me the perennially dominant division in football. You can’t. It’s a fairy tale that has been conjured by various fan bases and/or those who want to discredit greatness. It doesn’t exist.

In trying to determine the best way to measure divisions in an apples-to-apples fashion, I decided to look at the combined records of the teams that didn’t win their respective divisions, subtracting their record against the division winners. This way, the argument that records might look worse for the other teams because they each played the division champion twice could be nullified. For the purpose of this exercise, we’ll call it the adjusted record. I calculated the adjusted records for each division since 2009, when the Patriots’ 10-year stretch began. 2018 was not included because not all divisional races have been decided.

The results might surprise.

In those 10 years, the AFC East has recorded an adjusted record of 180-198, a .476 winning percentage. The AFC East has produced four wild card teams in those 10 years. It’s not great. But how does it compare?

During the same span:
AFC North: 178-199-1 (.471), 8 wild card
AFC South: 150-228 (.397), 2 wild card
AFC West: 175-203 (.463), 4 wild card
NFC East: 169-209-1 (.447), 2 wild card
NFC North: 184-194 (.487), 7 wild card
NFC South: 173-205 (.458), 4 wild card
NFC West: 169-209 (.447), 3 wild card

With the exception of the AFC South, which has been absolutely dreadful, divisions league-wide remain overall pretty comparable.

Admittedly, there have been few “great” seasons in recent memory in the AFC East, but you can certainly say it’s been consistent: 20-22, 21-21, 19-23, 19-23, 20-22, 19-23, 22-20, 21-21, 19-23.

Compare to the rest of the league:
AFC North: 23-19, 20-22, 25-17, 21-21, 17-25, 25-17, 17-25, 14-27-1, 16-26
AFC South: 24-18, 18-24, 14-28, 18-24, 13-29, 14-28, 15-27, 19-23, 15-27
AFC West: 16-26, 17-25, 20-22, 13-29, 23-19, 21-21, 20-22, 26-16, 19-23
NFC East: 21-21, 20-22, 18-24, 20-22, 16-26, 18-24, 15-27, 23-18-1, 18-24
NFC North: 19-23, 21-21, 21-21, 23-19, 17-25, 22-20, 22-20, 19-23, 20-22
NFC South: 18-24, 22-20, 19-23, 18-24, 18-24, 13-29, 20-22, 21-21, 24-18
NFC West: 12-30, 16-26, 16-26, 21-21, 27-15, 24-18, 20-22, 12-30, 21-21

While comparing this, of course, there has also been a recent argument that the NFC has been tougher than the AFC. Here are the combined adjusted records for the AFC and NFC (remember, this is the combined record of the division non-winners).

AFC: 534-642 (.454)
NFC: 537-639 (457)

This is not a small sample size. This is nearly 1,200 games over the course of nine years. It is a more than adequate sample size. The NFC has won five of the last nine Super Bowls, the AFC has won four.

The Patriots amassed a .778 winning percentage in their division from 2009-2017. Against other conference opponents, they have a .815 mark over that span. Against the NFC? It’s .722. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to admit the Patriots have just been better than everybody else. It’s OK to admit it. Deep down you’ve always known it.

The fact that the Patriots have been able to stave off disasters, slumps, off years, etc., isn’t a blemish as some would like to make it out to be. Has the divisional competition been fierce? Hardly. Are the Patriots more often done with their quest to lock up a playoff spot early? Of course. But when looking at the relative parity throughout the league over an extended period of time, doesn’t that make what the Patriots have done even more impressive, not less so?

Ten straight titles and 16 in the last 18 years.

It’s more than an accomplishment. It’s a masterpiece. It’s time to appreciate it as such.

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