The team that won three titles with a defense-first approach supplemented by a stellar offense has now evolved into one whose defense hopes to make enough red zone stops to ride their high-powered offense to wins. Given that current state, it may seem odd to criticize (especially with the offense averaging over 32 points per game), but there is still room for growth in two key areas.
Weakness #1: Deep and Intermediate Passing Game
For years the holy grail of NFL passing statistics was Dan Marino’s single season record of 5,084 passing yards. In recent seasons, quarterbacks such as Drew Brees and Phillip Rivers appeared on pace to break it, only to fall short by the end of the year. In 2011, Brees finally did break the record and Patriots QB Tom Brady topped the mark as well. Though Brady had one of the best seasons in recent memory, the Patriot passing game was lacking at the deep and intermediate levels. Here’s why:
Despite Brady’s MVP status in 2010, some here at PFF were not totally sold, namely Khaled Elsayed. Khaled had him rated as the 33rd-best player in the league based primarily on his reliance on shorter throws where receivers were doing much of the work after the catch. Though the passes themselves were not “difficult,” Brady may have had his best season with regards to reading coverage and finding the open man. He also had a record-breaking season protecting the football by throwing only four interceptions, though he was the beneficiary of a few drops by defenders (as most quarterbacks are).
The beginning of the 2011 season appeared to be different as Brady came out firing in Week 1 by setting a new high mark for PFF single game quarterback grades (+12.7), which prompted me to send a “Brady is mad at you” email Khaled’s way. Perhaps Brady and his supermodel wife had been reading PFF in the offseason and he was determined to prove that he could throw the ball down the field as well as anyone. Whether extra motivated or not, Brady’s first game saw him complete 3-of-7 passes beyond 20 yards, with two of the incompletions being picture-perfect throws that were dropped. He was outstanding in the intermediate (10-20 yard) range as well, completing 8-of-11 for 214 yards, including a 99-yarder to WR Wes Welker. It was a clinic in quarterback play by the reigning MVP.
The following week was more of the same against the Chargers. Brady completed both of his deep pass attempts and once again was 8-for-11 at the intermediate level for 154 yards. Though it was not a record-setting performance, he posted a very strong +5.0 grade passing the ball and followed it up the next week with a +6.4. Through five weeks, Brady had amassed a cumulative +30.4 grade and was playing better than any quarterback in the league.
After their Week 5 victory against the division rival New York Jets, Brady’s season started a slow decline. That’s not to say he began playing like a rookie, but he was unable to maintain his record-setting pace. Over the next 14 games, including the playoffs, Brady graded at “only” +11.5.
The main culprit in Brady’s drop-off was the deep and intermediate passing game, particularly outside the numbers. Let’s take a look:
|Intermediate and Deep Passing||Comp||Att||Comp %||Yds/Att||Yds|
|First 5 Games||44||79||55.7%||13.1||1035|
|Next 14 Games||77||152||50.7%||11.4||1730|
|Intermediate, Outside Numbers||Comp||Att||Comp %||Yds/Att||Yds|
|First 5 Games||17||26||65.4%||12.2||317|
|Next 14 Games||21||47||44.7%||7.6||358|
It’s no secret that Brady would prefer to attack the middle of the field, so the first five games may have been an anomaly. As he began to see a drop-off in effectiveness, he appeared to resort back to his more comfortable short passing game. Opposing teams quickly adjusted and did a very good job of crowding the middle of the field, forcing the outside throws. Perhaps I owe Khaled an apology email after Brady came back down to Earth.
Wide Receivers and Scheme
It’s pretty clear that Brady’s strength is in the short passing game, and departed offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien built the offense around players’ ability to get yards after the catch. Among non-running backs, they featured three of the top seven in YAC in Welker (first), Tight end Rob Gronkowski (second), and TE Aaron Hernandez (seventh). The other wide receiver, Deion Branch, is built from a similar mold as Welker, though he is near the end of his career. With the short middle of the field covered, New England signed Chad Ochocinco with hopes he could attack the intermediate level of the defense, but he struggled to pick up the offense and rarely saw the field enough to make an impact.
How did the Patriots compensate for the lack of an outside receiving threat? They relied on the 3-step passing game and where the majority of quarterback reads were “short to long” rather than “long to short.” When Brady is in the shotgun, he is generally looking to get the ball out of his hands quickly, often between the numbers. The Patriots do take their shots down the field, but it is generally off play action with Brady under center. Some teams were able to adjust and take away Brady’s favorite options:
This play is a good example of Brady’s first read being the quick pass. Both tight ends, Gronkowski and Hernandez, line up in the slot and run quick hitches. Generally called “stick” routes, they have the option of reading the defense and finding the best way to get open. On this play, the Giants double team both Gronkowski and Hernandez. Brady pumps as he realizes Hernandez is well covered, but he is actually able to reload and complete the pass to Branch on the outside on an 8-yard hitch route.
Again, where many pass plays start with an option down the field before working to the underneath stuff, this is an example of the Patriots playing to their strengths and trying to hit the short pass first. It’s not a play that is exclusive to the Patriots as most teams have some variation of the “stick” route, but these quick passes have become a New England staple.
Another way defenses slowed the Patriots’ passing attack was by playing press coverage and crowding the middle of the field. The Pittsburgh Steelers did a good job in Week 8, as did the New York Giants in their first matchup in Week 9.
The Steelers show no respect for the Patriots deep or outside passing game on this 3rd-and-3 play. Linebacker Larry Foote and safety Troy Polamalu start the play in the short middle of the field and remain there after the snap. Brady has no room to throw his slant route to Branch and the pass is tipped for an incompletion.
Will an outside receiver take defenders out of the middle of the field? It definitely can’t hurt. One of the Patriots’ favorite plays off the play action is the post-dig combo–one receiver runs a deep post, while coming from across the field, another runs the dig (in) route. In recent years, there have only been a handful of completions on the post route with receivers such as Ochocinco, Brandon Tate, Taylor Price, and Matt Slater as targets. None of these receivers separated as a viable deep threat. The following play is a good example of the Giants playing the dig route by crowding the middle.
After a Brady play-action fake, the Giants’ linebackers and safeties clutter the middle of the field and make it difficult to complete the staple dig route to Branch over the middle. The pass is tipped and intercepted. The outside receiver on the bottom has a lot of room to run either a deep out or comeback route as he has one-on-one coverage. But Brady wants to throw the ball over the middle and the Giants know this.
Do the Patriots Need an Outside Receiver?
For the Patriots to take the next step, they need someone to take pressure off Welker and the tight ends. Many in New England have been crying out for a Randy Moss-like presence, but that type of talent is special and rare. The Patriots don’t necessarily need a receiver who can run deep every down, but one who can run the intermediate routes and consistently beat man coverage.
There are a number of big name receivers on the free agent market this year, and one name that has come up often with New England is Brandon Lloyd. Lloyd’s career took off while playing for former Broncos Head Coach Josh McDaniels whose presence as incumbent offensive coordinator for the Patriots makes it a logical fit. Beyond their relationship, Lloyd’s ability to work the deep and intermediate parts of the field seem ideal for the Patriots’ offense.
Amazingly, Brady had nine games where he did not complete a deep pass outside the numbers. Though Lloyd saw some regression in 2011, he has a lot of experience running the deep outs and comebacks that are missing in the Patriots’ offense.
Intermediate (10-20 Yds)
|Patriots 2011 WRs||45||74||60.8%||924||12.5|
Deep (20+ Yds)
|Patriots 2011 WRs||9||29||31.0%||348||12|
Intermediate Outside Numbers
|Patriots 2011 WRs||22||42||52.4%||414||9.9|
Deep Outside Numbers
|Patriots 2011 WRs||5||15||33.3%||180||12|
Weakness #2: Inability to Run vs. Lighter Fronts
You know the starting lineup they show at the beginning of every game? You rarely see those same defensive players against the Patriots. Of course the networks run through the “base” defense, but most teams choose to replace one of their defensive linemen or linebackers with an extra defensive back. The “x” factor is Hernandez. Though listed as a tight end, he exhibits the skillset of a wide receiver and defenses treat him as such. His ability to line up all over the field allowsNew Englandto dictate favorable matchups. The Patriots base offense consists of 1 RB, 2 WR, and 2 TE which usually keeps the defense in their base, but with Hernandez being viewed as a WR, the Patriots see primarily nickel and dime defenses.
Patriots Offensive Personnel
2 TE = 62.7%
3 TE = 8.4%
3 WR = 29.1%
4 WR = 1.1%
Opposing Defenses vs. Patriots
Base = 17.4%
Nickel = 54.1%
Dime = 22.6%
Quarter = 3.5%
Goal Line = 2.1%
Most teams play their base defense at least 50% of the time, so the Patriots seeing it only 17.4% is extremely rare. Going up against a defense that was clearly trying to stop the pass should have made it easier for the Patriots to run the ball, but that wasn’t the case. The offensive line actually graded out much worse in run blocking than it had in previous years (cumulative run blocking grade of +43.7 in 2011, +76.5 in 2010, +81.5 in 2009).
In the regular season game against the Giants, the Patriots lined up with six offensive linemen 23 times as offensive tackle Nate Solder played tight end. The Giants stayed with their nickel package and New England was unable to take advantage in the running game. I still believe Head Coach Bill Belichick is trying to build a better running game after drafting two offensive linemen and two running backs in the 2011 draft, but this past season was backward step in that process.
Despite Brady’s near-record-breaking season, there is still room to grow for the Patriots offense. Their unique personnel allows for improvement in passing deep outside the numbers and running the ball more efficiently. As teams game plan to stop the short passing game, Brady will have opportunities to make more plays down the field, especially if they can find a WR that can beat man coverage. With Hernandez dictating defensive personnel, the Patriots offensive line must take advantage and block better to turn the running game back into a strength. If the offense improves in these two areas, they may be unstoppable in 2012.
Follow Steve on Twitter: @PFF_Steve