Patriots Offense: Revisited

Following up on observations posted in the offseason, PFF's Steve Palazzolo checks in on the changes made in New England's offense.

| 4 years ago
patriotsoffense-FEATURE

Patriots Offense: Revisited


Last March I discussed the New England Patriots’ offense and their ability to improve a few key areas despite already ranking as one of the top units in the league. With their bye week coming dead smack in the middle of the season, I figured it’s a perfect time to evaluate their progress.

New England’s offseason moves seemed to coincide with some of my suggestions from the March article. In one of the more expected free agent signings, wide receiver Brandon Lloyd was brought in to provide a deep and intermediate threat on the outside. Running back Benjarvus Green-Ellis was allowed to leave as second-year RB Stevan Ridley was viewed as a more explosive option. And the Patriots also brought back offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, and he’s implemented a few minor changes to the scheme.

Let’s take a look at my thoughts back in March and how they’re playing out so far this season.

2011 Weakness No. 1: Deep and Intermediate Passing Game

Tom Brady

What we said in March:

“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.”

What has happened in 2012:

It’s very difficult to duplicate the torrid pace that Brady set in the deep and intermediate passing game at the start of 2011, and this season’s numbers have been in line with his final 14 games last season. While his numbers on throws to the intermediate/outside range are actually worse, he’s also fallen victim to three drops in that area (as opposed to five in all of 2011) and certain scheme changes have affected wide receivers’ ability to pick up yards after the catch in that area of the field.

We’ve never touted Brady as an elite deep thrower, and these numbers back up that claim.

Deep/Intermediate PassingCompAttComp %Yds/AttYds
2011 First 5 Games447955.70%13.11035
2011 Next 14 Games7715250.70%11.41730
2012478853.40%11.2987

Intermediate, Outside NumbersCompAttComp %Yds/AttYds
2011 First 5 Games172665.40%12.2317
2011 Next 14 Games214744.70%7.6358
201292240.90%5.8127

Verdict: Push

To steal a phrase from Bill Belichick, Brady is who he is, and perhaps we’ll never see the deep ball as a prominent part of the Patriots’ offense as we did in 2007 when Randy Moss was in the mix.

 

Wide Receivers and Scheme

What we said in March:

“How did the Patriots compensate for the lack of an outside receiving threat? They relied on the three-step passing game where the majority of quarterback reads were ‘short to long’ rather than ‘long to short.”

What has happened in 2012:

As mentioned, McDaniels has brought changes to the offense. Some of these numbers may be skewed a bit by tight end Aaron Hernandez’ being injured for much of the season, but there has definitely been an emphasis on throwing the ball down the field more often. The Patriots haven’t completely abandoned the short passing game, it will always be their staple, but we’ve seen a lot more attempts from Brady at the 20+ yard range and there have been fewer passes thrown to the intermediate part of the field.

Let’s take a look:

YearDeepIntermediateShort
200911.5%19.6%68.9%
20109.1%19.9%71.0%
20119.8%22.4%67.8%
201213.8%16.9%69.3%

Brady’s average depth of target is much higher than past years:

YearaDOTaDOT Lg Rk
20098.228th
20108.128th
20118.622nd
20129.011th

The deeper passing game has resulted in a lot more yards in the air and less reliance on yards after the catch, but again losing Hernandez certainly hurts this area of the passing game:

YearYdsYIAYIA%YACYAC%
20094552225949.6%229350.4%
20104199215951.4%204048.6%
20116113320252.4%291147.6%
20122408135456.2%105443.8%

 

What else did we say in March?

“Another way defenses slowed the Patriots’ passing attack was by playing press coverage and crowding the middle of the field.”

What has happened in 2012?

To counter the press coverage, the Patriots have gone to the back-shoulder fade. They signed Lloyd in the offseason and he’s the type of receiver that makes this play work.

Cornerbacks have to respect Lloyd’s ability to get deep, but he also has the body control to make the back shoulder fade a new staple in the New England offense. Even with Lloyd’s ability to run the route effectively, the play is a little bit against the Patriots’ offensive nature. They usually like to use route combinations to create an open man, rather than relying on one isolated route. It takes perfect timing and execution, in addition to needing the receiver to win his one-on-one matchup.

Back Shoulder FadesNumberGamesPer GameCompAttYdsYds/AttDrops
2011 Patriots7180.417213.02
2012 Patriots1081.349758.30
2012 Brandon Lloyd780.937588.30

The addition of Lloyd brings us to our next question…

 

Do the Patriots Need an Outside Receiver?

What we said in March:

“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.”

What has happened in 2012:

It’s been a bit of a mixed bag with the addition of Lloyd as it certainly has expanded the Patriots’ offense, though he’s had a few key drops throughout the season. He’s been targeted 32 times at the deep and intermediate range while all other Patriots’ receivers have been targeted only 29 times on such throws, so Lloyd’s niche has been well-defined.

Even with his drops, Lloyd has already caught as many passes at the deep/outside range as every Patriots receiver in 2011 combined. Obviously catching the ball is a key component, but Lloyd has shown to be the most effective receiver on the Patriots’ roster at getting open at the deep and intermediate range, and he’ll continue to be a key part of their passing offense.

 

2011 Weakness No. 2: Inability to Run vs. Lighter Fronts

What we said in March:

“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).”

What has happened in 2012: 

The Patriots’ running game has been among the best in the league this year after they upgraded the running back position and shuffled the offensive line. Again, the loss of Hernandez has changed New England’s personnel packages, and since they’ve been forced to play with a lot more 3-WR sets, they’re playing against nickel defenses even more than last year:

Patriots Offensive Personnel:

 2 TE3 TE3 WR4 WR
201162.7%8.4%29.1%1.1%
201230.2%7.6%54.6%0.2%

Opposing Defenses vs. Patriots:

 BaseNickelDimeQuarterGoal Line
201117.4%54.1%22.6%3.5%2.1%
201214.3%78.2%4.8%0.2%2.5%

The Patriots neglected to re-sign Green-Ellis who, despite great ball security, was unable to pick up yards beyond the holes given to him by the offensive line. Last year he averaged only 3.7 yards/carry with an Elusive Rating of 22.7 and a long run of only 18 yards. Enter Ridley, who has seen the majority of the action picking up 718 yards on 150 carries (4.8 yards/carry), and undrafted free agent Brandon Bolden who has averaged 5.4 yards on his 43 carries. Ridley’s ability to explosively hit the hole has made a huge difference in the Patriots’ running game.

YearAttYdsAvgAtt/Game
2011 Patriots43817594.027.4
2012 Patriots27611994.334.5

Up front, despite a lot of moving pieces, the Patriots’ run blocking has been on par with last season’s, and that’s still a tick down from where they were in 2009 and 2010.

YearRun Block Grade
200981.5
201076.5
201143.7
201222.7

 

Conclusion: Achieving Balance

When Belichick speaks of offensive balance, he does not speak of simply rushing and passing as do most analysts. He speaks of being able to run the ball both inside and outside the tackles, in jumbo packages or from spread looks. Balance in the passing game consists of throws to the short, middle, and deep parts of the field, doing so both inside and outside the numbers, and making such throws on both play action and spread concepts. That is the type of balance that was sought this offseason and the pieces appear to be in place to boast the most balanced offense in the league.

This season we’ve already seen 100+ yard receiving games from Lloyd, Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski, and a healthy Hernandez is always a threat to reach that mark. In the running game, Ridley and Bolden have both had 100+ yards games, while Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead have each been factors at various points.

That’s the type of balance and versatility that drives fantasy football owners crazy, but it’s also the way to answer any defensive gameplan that’s thrown the offense’s way on any given week.

 

Follow Steve on Twitter: @PFF_Steve

| Senior Analyst

Steve is a senior analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has been featured on ESPN Insider, NBC Sports, and 120 Sports.

  • TD

    I’m sure they are already planning on how to react to what defenses are doing in 2012 and what kind of player(s) they will need. If nothing else, Belichick’s career is marked with changing with the times unlike other head coaches.

  • DeepThreat

    The rushing chart is incorrect.

    • IntermediateThreat

      So that’s it? Well super. Too big? Too small? What was the point of posting that?