This year, Josh Carney and I will break down the opposing team’s defense 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.
Today, the New England Patriots’ offense.
Alex’s Scheme Report
Patriots’ Rushing Offense
Statistically, their run game hasn’t been great but we’ve seen it get hot at times. LeGarrette Blount has games of 123, 105, 127, and 124 yards this year while finding the end zone in five of the last six games. Dion Lewis has seen an increased role while James White the clear third down back.
On the regular season, the Patriots have 43 runs of 10+ yards. That’s 18th in the NFL. They finish in a similar spot, tied for 17th, in 20+ runs of which they have eight. Their overall yards per carry is just 3.9, 24th in the NFL, but from watching them, I don’t see it as a totally accurate representation of their run game. It’s better than the numbers suggest.
They have a pretty bonafide fullback, their own Roosevelt Nix. For them, it’s James Develin, #46, who logs a lot of time. More than most at the position and even more than Nix. They can run their zone schemes out of a one and two back set along with some traditional Lead Strong designs. Here’s an example of the former.
I didn’t see any in the games I watched but the Patriots have a strong reputation for being the team who most frequently runs a wham blocking scheme where the fullback or tight end nails an interior linemen from an angle, a way to keep them on their toes and get them thinking/worried, slowing them down. So watch out.
Their run scheme brings a little bit of everything. Gap schemes out of the gun with the backside guard pulling…
Or the frontside tackle pulling…
They also have their zone game and standard man blocking runs, too.
The projected Patriots’ offensive line
LT – Nate Solder
LG – Joe Thuney
C – David Andwers
RG – Shaq Mason
RT – Marcus Cannon
Cameron Fleming has checked in as a 6th OL before.
Patriots’ Passing Game
Tom Brady is Tom Brady. What a year he’s having, even at age 39. 28 touchdowns, only 2 interceptions (in the regular season), completing over 67% of his passes all while averaging a very healthy 8.2 YPA. It’s about as impressive a group of numbers as you can see.
Julian Edelman is the favorite target, catching 98 passes this year. The next closest Patriots is James White’s 60. Martellus Bennett has an impressive 75% catch rate and has seven touchdowns on only 55 receptions.
Chris Hogan wound up leading the entire NFL in yards per catch, averaging 17.9 yards a grab.
The backs are as heavily involved in their passing game as anyone, with running backs/fullbacks snagging a total of 90 passes in the regular season.
On third down, Edelman was unsurprisingly king. He had 28 catches there, tied for second in the entire NFL and far and away the Patriots’ lead. In second place was White with 18.
Statistically, they have completed 56 passes of 20+ yards in the regular season. That ranked 8th in the league. Only had nine of 40+, tied for 14th, and losing Rob Gronkowski obviously hurts in that mission. The seam threat who would give the Steelers headaches. And certainly did.
But they still will challenge you down the seams and that, in a broad sense, might be the area the Steelers struggle the most defending because they like to spot drop more than pattern match. Post/wheel is a common concept because of how proficient their backs are out of the backfield.
Or they can do it with the receiver and tight end. Same idea. Different look.
Lot of playaction from this attack. Will add in the guard pulling or the center turning around and blocking the EMOL to sucker in the front seven and open up the intermediate area for a guy like Bennett.
Lot of Dragon (slant/flat) combos too. One to keep an eye on. Last week, on the goal line, they start out in an empty set before motioning Lewis to the backfield and then send him into the flats, then have Hogan, to the bottom, run a slant into the teeth of the defense to try and get the back free. Didn’t work but I could definitely see them going bak to this well this weekend given the Steelers’ issues here.
Patriots’ Special Teams
New England uses a lot of starters on special teams. They’ve had more kick returners this year than “Fire Haley” comments after a Steelers’ loss. Eight guys have at least two returns this season. Last week, and probably for this week, was Dion Lewis, who took a 98 yard kick to the house a week ago. Ditto with punt returners with Edelman and Danny Amendola seeing a lot of time. Edelman was the guy last week.
There kick return unit is a 6-2-2-1 one look.
I saw starting DBs Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty as jammers to one side of the punt return unit and Jonathan Jones to the other side.
Tight end Matt Lengel and Fleming are the wings on the field goal unit. Punter/holder Ryan Allen hasn’t attempted a fake in his career.
Josh’s Individual Report
For the sixth time in six seasons, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots will play in the AFC Championship game. That’s simply remarkable in the free agency era.
Only the John Madden/Ken Stabler Oakland Raiders in the 1970s accomplished the same feat, so it’s rarefied air for Bill Belichick and his Patriots squad.
As you have already read above, Alex did a great job of breaking down the schematics of New England’s attack, whereas I will look more at the individual play for this Sunday’s AFC Championship Game.
First and foremost, we have to start with arguably the greatest quarterback of all-time in Brady. The man simply doesn’t age and continues to play at the highest of levels in the league at 39 years old.
This season alone, after missing four games due to suspension for a phony Deflategate saga, Brady went on to set an NFL record for the best TD/INT ratio in league history, throwing 28 touchdowns to just two interceptions on the season. All of that came with Rob Gronkowski missing half the season due to injury.
Brady did all of that throwing to the likes of Chris Hogan, Julian Edelman, Malcolm Mitchell and Martellus Bennett for much of the year.
While he doesn’t throw the deep ball near as well as he used to in his younger years, Brady can still carve up defenses across the middle with crossing routes and still throws a terrific ball to the boundary with plenty of zip and accuracy. Usually that’s the first area to go for an aging quarterback, but Brady has proven down the stretch of his career that he’s not ordinary.
Brady’s weapons are nothing to scoff at despite not being the biggest of names. Bennett has thrived in New England this season after coming over from Chicago for a mid-round pick in the off-season. With no Gronkowski, Bennett has turned into the go-to weapon in the red zone for Brady and New England, using his size, great footwork and impressive speed for his height to take advantage of mismatches against safeties and linebackers.
Much like Gronkowski, Bennett moves all over the offense for New England, getting him into favorable positions like the one here before the snap.
Lined up in the slot, Bennett has second-year safety Rontez Miles covering him. With great footwork near the goal line, Bennett is able to get a clean release into the middle of the field for the easy touchdown.
The following week against Miami, Bennett scored on a similar play.
Lined up before the snap as an in-line tight end, Bennett is able to fake the run block in an obvious running area for the Patriots with LeGarrette Blount, but off of the play-action fake, Bennett is able to easily slip in behind the Miami defense for the touchdown.
Outside of Blount on the ground, Bennett has become the weapon of choice for Brady in the red zone.
Edelman does most of his damage over the middle of the field where he’s fearless and really exploits matchups against linebackers and slower safeties, but he’s also become the preferred deep threat for Brady over Hogan down the stretch.
In each of the last three games New England has played, Edelman has hauled in at least one 40-yard catch, including a highlight-reel 76-yard catch and run against the Dolphins in the final week of the season.
Along with Edelman being a multi-talented receiver, Hogan is vastly underrated for this New England attack. Not only can he get deep in a hurry, but he’s turned into a trusted possession receiver for the Patriots, specializing in boundary catches where he’s able to move the chains.
Mitchell, a second-year receiver out of Georgia whom I was very high on in the 2015 draft class, has also emerged as a steady presence for Brady. While he’ll see the occasional deep target, Mitchell has become the guy that works the middle of the field and really seems to space everything out for the rest of New England’s weapons.
Those weapons include a three-headed monster at running back, led by Blount and the dynamic Dion Lewis.
In 15 games with New England, the Patriots haven’t lost a game with the former Pitt Panther on the field. He brings a shifty element to the New England offense that they haven’t had since Kevin Faulk back in the mid-2000s.
He can be a power back at times, but he’s an elusive game-breaker that can move all over the offense and cause confusion. Plus, he brings an explosive element to the return game for the Patriots.
More on that later.
With Blount, he was a workhorse for much of the season and rushed for 127 yards and two touchdowns in the Week 7 matchup on the road in Pittsburgh.
He’s a big, bruising back that can wear you down over the course of a game and really take over in the fourth quarter, where he usually rips off his biggest runs.
In 2016, Blount set the single-season touchdown rushing record for the Patriots with 18 and scored the most rushing touchdowns in a season from a running back in the NFL dating back to 2009 when Adrian Peterson did it for the Minnesota Vikings.
While Blount provides the thunder for the Patriots and Lewis provides the lightening, James White provides the wind (stay with me here people) for New England. When he’s in the game, it’s almost always going to be some sort of passing down at this point in the season.
White is arguably their best pass-catching threat out of the backfield considering how great he is as a route runner.
This route right here by White seems to be his go-to route for New England. Back in Week 16 White scored a touchdown on a similar route against the New York Jets, and last year in the AFC Championship Game against the Denver Broncos, New England called a similar route for White quite a few times.
If the speedy running back comes down with one of them in the end zone last year, the Patriots would have gone to the Super Bowl. That’s how critical he is to this attack.
When matched up on a linebacker, like he usually is, Brady will look to White to take advantage. It’s all about White coming through for the Pats.
Up front, New England has steadily improved this season under Dante Scarnecchia, arguably the best offensive line coach in football, and maybe one of the top 3-5 guys to do it.
Here’s how they’ll line up left to right this week:
LT — Nate Solder
LG — Joe Thuney (Rookie)
C — David Andrews
RG — Shaq Mason
RT — Marcus Cannon
Thuney, Andrews and Mason struggled last week against the Houston Texans in the Division Round as the Texans brought tons of speed and pressure up the middle to get Brady off of his spot, so that could be something the Steelers look to do this week.
But overall, it’s a solid line that has gotten a good push in the running game while also protecting Brady well for the most part throughout the season. That being said, he was battered and bruised last week by Houston, and now the NFL’s top team in sacks down the stretch rolls into Foxborough.
On special teams, New England is mostly solid in the kicking game as Stephen Gostkowski and Ryan Allen both have big legs, but Gostkowski is known to miss some big kicks in the playoffs. That could be worth keeping an eye on.
The kick coverage teams are mostly solid, led by arguably the best special teams role player I’ve ever seen in Matthew Slater, the son of Hall of Famer Jackie Slater.
Slater is routinely around the football on kicks and punts and is as consistent as they come in that role.
In the return game, Lewis has gotten a majority of the work returning kicks since returning from a torn ACL in early November. When he touches the ball he’s a threat for a house call. Ask Houston.
Lewis’s 98-yard kickoff return for a score was the first one for a touchdown in franchise history, and it played a key part in the Patriots advancing to a sixth straight AFC title game. However, Lewis later put the ball on the ground on a kickoff return, finishing with two fumbles in the game. That ball is prone to come out.
On punt returns, Edelman gets the lion’s share of the work. While he’s taken back a few punts for scores throughout his career, the veteran receiver is back there more for his steady hands than anything as New England had issues earlier in the season with muffed punts and indecisiveness on when to handle punts and when to let them hit the ground.
Overall, New England is as flawless as they come when it deals with execution in all phases of the game. They’ll rarely beat themselves, so it’s important to get as much pressure on Brady as possible, make him uncomfortable and tackle the ball well each and every play.