This year, Josh Carney and I will break down the opposing team’s offense in our weekly scouting report. Like last year, I will be looking at the opposing team in a more broad, scheme-approach. Josh will have a closer eye on the individual players.
Your New England Patriots’ offense.
Alex’s Scheme Report
Patriots’ Run Game
The Patriots’ run game has had decent, but not great, success this season. LeGarrette Blount, you remember him, has found the end zone six times this season though his per carry average is just 3.7. He is running away with the team lead with 119 attempts. The next closest is James White’s 24.
Their overall YPC is 3.8, 21st in the league. They are tied 6th with 20 runs of 10+ yards though they haven’t had much success busting off huge runs. Only three of 20+, squarely in the middle league wide.
Blount is their workhose. White is the third down back while rookie scatback D.J. Foster has gotten the occasional carry. Julian Edelman also has eight rushes this season though just one since Tom Brady returned.
Only two offensive linemen have played over 80% of the seasonal snaps but they’ve been healthier the last two weeks. The line has been the same the last two with the exception of right tackle. The projected starting five:
LT: Nate Solder
LG: Joe Thuney
C: David Andrews
RG: Shaq Mason
RT: Marcus Cannon
It’s a generally undersized, quicker line. Much different than what the Steelers have seen the past few weeks. But it’s a competent group. One thing I did notice was Andrews’ snaps were inconsistent and tended to sail. Not over Brady’s head but he had to adjust to them several times. So hope one of those gets away from him Sunday.
They have to have one of the most varied run schemes in the NFL. Maybe they and the Tennessee Titans are the most creative. You get everything from them. Inside zone, outside zone, gap runs, man runs, unbalanced lines and wham blocks.
I think we’ve covered a lot of the zone, gap, and man concepts before. But the last two are relatively new topics we don’t discuss. Unbalanced lines is shifting a tackle to the other side and not replacing him. Check it out here. Left guard Thuney moves next to the right tackle with no one replacing him to his left guard spot.
And they run more wham blocks than anyone else (San Francisco did too with John Harbaugh). That’s blocking an interior linemen, one or three tech, with a TE or fullback on an angle. Best against aggressive, one-gapping teams, a blindside block to slow them down. Hit that with them once and that linemen is worrying about it the rest of the game, slowing him down.
Watch #46 here.
See it on 1st and 2nd and 10 with them.
They do use a true fullback, #46 James Develin. He’s playing 24% of the time this year. Blount is leading in carries but still playing just 54% of the snaps. Like in Pittsburgh, not a guy who is a great blocker or going to catch a lot of passes. It seems like he’s slimmed down a bit and is back to his shifty ability. A version of Jerome Bettis, to be honest.
White is playing over 40% of the time.
Patriots’ Pass Game
Naturally, it all starts with Brady who is simply on fire this year. Through two starts, he’s completing 76% of his passes, thrown six touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Even looking them as a team, which includes Jacoby Brissett, their 8.8 YPA is second in the NFL, their 70% completion rate is tops, and they’re one of two teams who has yet to throw an interception. Not a good recipe against a Steelers’ defense struggling to create turnovers.
As a team, they have 23 receptions of 20+ yards, tied 4th in the league, but only three completions of 40+ yards. That’s tied for 12th with a ton of other teams.
Julian Edelman leads the Patriots with 28 receptions but there are several in that range. Martellus Bennett has 26 and James White 25.
Edelman and Danny Amendola are their man targets on third down but again, the Patriots do a nice job of spreading the wealth. Those two have seven receptions, White has six, Rob Gronkowski with five, and Bennett/Malcolm Mitchell with four.
There’s no question they have the best one-two combo of tight ends in the league with Gronkowski and Bennett. Last week, Gronk played about 89% of the time with Bennett picking up 56% of the snaps. So a lot of 12 personnel, as you’d expect.
Also as you’d expect, it now gives them total confidence and flexibility to go 12, keep defenses in their base defense, and then spread the field out either in empty or a one back set.
That stresses linebackers who now may have to walk out and cover them one-on-one and it lightens the box for the run game to thrive. Lose-lose.
That’s why I expect the Steelers to predominantly be in their dime defense this game, using a heavy dose of Justin Gilbert to try and combat someone like Gronkowski and maybe Artie Burns on Bennett. I don’t think you’ll see much of their base defense. Five snaps, maybe, total.
There’s plenty of window dressing in this offense, too. In games against the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals, they use a fake to set up a running back screen the opposite way. One was a fake end around, another a fake bubble screen. Very similar to things the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs have done to them. Pittsburgh was able to adjust and shut things down against KC.
For what it’s worth, both of these came on the Patriots’ first drive in the game.
Another thing they’ve done relatively early on is playaction with a false key. Pull one of the guards, they’ve done it with both, playaction, and hit the tight end down the seam.
Each of these came in the first quarter, on first and ten, between their own 30 and 43. Something to keep in mind.
Lots of spacing concepts, often mirrored, like their Harry concept (curl/flat) shown below.
Patriots’ Special Teams
Cyrus Jones has been their primary return guy but it’s been divided up. Jones is averaging just 20 yards per kick and 8.3 per punt. Amendola has eight returns but four fair catches.
Develin and Bennett are the wings on field goals. Punter Ryan Allen is the holder and hasn’t attempted a fake.
Josh’s Individual Report
Arguably the biggest regular season test for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2016, the New England Patriots make the trip over to Pittsburgh for Sunday afternoon’s showdown with a depleted Steelers team at Heinz Field.
As one team continues to battle injuries, the other continues to have the good fortunes roll for them, as this will be the third week of the 2016 season that arguably the greatest quarterback in league history will be under center for the Patriots.
After serving a ridiculous four-game suspension for Deflategate, Tom Brady has returned with a vengeance for the Patriots, who have easily gone 2-0 since his return to sit atop the AFC through six weeks.
Now, Brady will get a chance to pick apart a secondary full of moving parts and a few rookies/first-year starters. Fun.
Since his return, Brady has thrown for 782 yards (391.0 yards per game), six touchdowns, zero interceptions and a quarterback rating of 135.5 to go along with a 76 percent completion percentage.
With his return, the Pats have been able to deploy the two tight end scheme with a healthy Rob Gronkowski (13 receptions, 282 yards and one touchdown) and a focused Martellus Bennett (26 receptions, 362 yards and four touchdowns), reminding a lot of people of the 2010-12 New England Patriots, whom were largely unstoppable deploying Gronk and Aaron Hernandez together creating a significant matchup nightmare for every defense they face.
Brady looks every bit as good as he did in his younger days as the 39-year-old signal caller has really added a major element to this offense that was missing in the first four weeks of the season: explosion.
Since Brady has returned, the Pats have had 12 20+ yard plays and two 40+ yard plays on just 75 attempts in two games. Before Brady came back the Patriots were rolling on the ground with LeGarrette Blount (439 yards and six touchdowns).
Now, with Brady in the fold this offense came seemingly do whatever it wants on the field, as evidenced by the last two weeks against the Browns and Bengals (a combined 938 yards and 68 points).
There’s really nothing different from year’s past with this offense, other than the addition of Bennett and Chris Hogan.
The Patriots run the same route concepts; employ the same rushing attack — albeit with a better coached line thanks to the return of veteran OL coach Dante Scarnecchia, and have the obvious return of Brady from suspension.
That being said though, the additions of Bennett and Hogan have helped open things up across the board for New England.
If you remember how scary the Patriots offense was for those three years with Gronk and Hernandez at tight end, this duo of Gronk and Bennett and the addition of Hogan appears better.
As you can see in the GIF above, Gronk and Bennett line up right next to each other as blocking tight ends in what initially appears to be a zone stretch play designed to get Blount off tackle.
By having a very good rushing attack with Blount, the Pats are able to rely on play action a lot with their new weapons in Bennett and Hogan. Here, it’s Bennett who’s the recipient of some wide-open space as he’s able to slip off the block attempt and get behind a fooled Cleveland defense for the score.
A similar thing happens here with Hogan due to the play-action to Blount.
At the snap, Brady fakes the handoff to Blount on a zone stretch to the left, shifting all of the attention towards the left sideline to try and shut down a big run by New England. However, Brady is able to keep the ball and set up shop for a deep throw down the left sideline to Hogan, who’s able to run past the Cleveland secondary for a diving catch.
With the addition of Bennett and Hogan into the fold, the Patriots are able to push the ball down the field more, not only off of play-action fakes, but also off of basic five-step drops due to the abilities of both guys to create ample separation for Brady to throw to.
By having these two into the fold, this takes a ton of pressure off of Gronk, who will now mostly face single coverage as defenses make the mistake of trying to plug all the holes at once instead of focusing on a few. Along with Gronk, it opens space for veteran Julian Edelman (who’s had a slow start to the year), Danny Amendola and highly regarded rookie Malcolm Mitchell.
New England’s offense has more weapons at Brady’s disposal than the record-breaking 2007 offense (scary thought), and they’ll get the return of another major weapon in Dion Lewis soon as well.
That takes us to running back where Blount has been a battering ram all season and has really given the Patriots a component of their offense they’ve been missing over the last two years due to poor line play: a consistent running game.
Along with Blount, James White has really emerged as a pass-catching weapon for Brady out of the backfield, a la Kevin Faulk. Last week against the Bengals While simply went off, hauling in eight passes for 47 yards and two scores.
Up front, New England has seen a reemergence under Scarnecchia, who came out of retirement to fix a dreadful Patriots offensive line.
Left to right, the Pats will line up like this (I think; who really knows with Belichick):
LT — Nate Solder
LG — Joe Thuney (R)
C — David Andrews
RG — Shaq Mason
RT — Marcus Cannon
While Solder is the steady one of the bunch, the play of Thuney, Andrews and Mason on the interior has been the biggest key to New England’s success on the ground so far this season.
The trio is powerful and really moves bodies while having some serious athleticism for big guys.
There’s simply so much this offense can do on any one given drive, so it’s hard to see how anyone is really going to stop them this season — Seattle and Denver included.
On special teams, kicker Stephen Gostkowski is as steady as they come (outside of that big missed XP in the AFC Championship Game last season; OOPS).
On the year though, Gostkowski is just 9-for-12 on field goals and is 16-for-17 on extra points. He does have a long of 53 yards on the season though, and the Patriots seem comfortable going to him in any situation needing a field goal.
On kick returns there’s not much to worry about with the Patriots. The longest return of the season for New England is a 30-yarder by rookie DJ Foster, while fellow rookie — and second round draft pick — Cyrus Jones handles a majority of the work, returning for kicks for an average of 26 yards per return through six weeks.
He does have a history of game-changing plays in college at Alabama though, so he could bust one loose at any moment.
On punt returns, Edelman and Amendola mostly split return duties near midfield, while Jones handles the deep punts where he’s more of game breaker.
The trio has returned a combined 17 punts on the year for an average of 8.8 per return with a long of 23 yards by Edelman.