FOXBORO — This is how the Patriots can make Tom Brady smile again.
Two swift, foundational fixes for the offense; an attack that’s sunk to average this season and dragged Brady’s post-win grin down with it. Brady hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass in three games this year, a first since 2009, perhaps the most miserable campaign of the Brady-Belichick era. The quarterback needs a pick-me-up.
So here it is: Run more often from light personnel groupings and pass more often from heavier ones.
The Patriots’ most common offensive groupings this season are the two most common across the NFL: 11 personnel (3 wide receivers, 1 running back and 1 tight end) and 21 personnel (2 wide receivers, 2 running backs and 1 tight end). The Pats operate primarily out of 11, from which they throw twice as frequently as they run.
When they pass from 11 personnel, the Patriots rank 12th in the league by Expected Points Added (EPA). Not bad. But not as good as fourth, their ranking from 21 personnel. That’s right — the Pats have fielded a top-5 passing offense when they’ve shelved a receiver in favor of an extra running back or pseudo-fullback.
Passing more effectively from groupings that employ fewer wideouts feels counter-intuitive. But from a defensive standpoint, an additional back or tight end unlocks more possibilities and mean more headaches. Coverage assignments for linebackers and safeties get shuffled when an opposing slot receiver, a starter in today’s NFL, is suddenly missing and not clearly defining his offense’s spacing or intentions.
“Your matchups are always changing (versus 21 personnel). You could be defending a pass-catching running back one play, a fullback, then a tight end on another play. It switches up your mindset,” said Patriots safety Terrence Brooks. “Mindset-wise, scheme-wise, it definitely throws you for a little loop.”
Stepping back, EPA is one of the best advanced metrics available. Essentially, it measures each play by how it affects the total points a team is expected to score.
For example, an offense that gains seven yards on third-and-8 inside its own territory would register a negative EPA value for that play because the offense gave itself a lower probability of scoring later by failing to move the chains. However, the same offense that gains seven yards on third-and-4 inside the red zone would record a positive EPA value for that play, because it increased its odds of scoring and therefore its total expected points.
EPA underscores that not all yards and down-and-distance situations are created equal and accounts for that context in a way that traditional statistics (total yards, points, etc.) do not.
Now, back to football.
The Patriots believe in their 11 personnel groupings, especially lately. Every offensive snap they took at Baltimore was out of 11 personnel, which was also their favorite grouping at Philly. This is the Mohamed Sanu trade at work.
But as we saw, the Pats nonetheless labored to score 20 and 17 points, respectively, in those games. Their struggles can be ascribed to several causes. Let’s start with the run game.
Pick your stat. It’s been dreadful.
Riding with EPA, the Patriots’ rushing attack ranks 27th through Week 11. The return of Isaiah Wynn at left tackle this weekend will help. But regardless of personnel, only two teams in the NFL have been worse at running off the left side than the Pats, according to data compiled by Sports Info. Solutions.
Wynn can’t drag the run game out of the league’s basement by himself, which is where it sinks to when the Patriots hand off out of 21 personnel. Heavier groups have led to heavy losses. The Pats rush offense sits at 30th in the NFL with two running backs and one tight end.
Therefore, they must pivot to more carries from more spread sets, like 11 personnel, from which they’ve been a middle-of-the-pack rushing attack. It’s not a cure-all, but a leap to average would be significant for one of the NFL’s worst running teams. So long as the Pats are on the same page.
“It can create more running room, but also mean more communication, ” said James White of rushing from 11 personnel. “With all the defensive backs the defense usually uses against it, (pre-snap calls) can change and that affects the whole play.”
When the Patriots have executed pre-snap, the post-snap results are usually rosy.
On their lone touchdown drive against the Eagles, a series they used 11 personnel exclusively, the Pats rushed for 6, 7, and 8 yards. In Baltimore, they produced their second-highest yards per carry average of the season at 4.4, all while fielding three wideouts from start to finish.
The up-tempo approach helped in both games, no doubt. But no-huddle drives have sunk the Patriots’ passing EPA on the season, while providing a small bump to their ground game. It all boils down to personnel.
The Patriots offense is no longer a fully functioning game-plan operation. Offseason turnover and injuries at shallow positions — namely fullback and tight end — have stripped them of their ability to morph each week into an opponent’s worst nightmare. That’s fine.
Back in January, the Pats evolved into a power-running offense and rolled back to the Promised Land. At the Super Bowl, the Rams were open about the fact they were more concerned with defending that rushing attack than Tom Brady. The offense no longer flowed through him.
This season, it ought to flow through this idea: Run when you show pass. Pass when you show run.
And soon enough, the Patriots should be smiling all the way back to the Super Bowl.
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