Say what you want about the Redskins and the performance of the Patriots offense in the first half; the tinkering by Josh McDaniels on Sunday made me giddy.
On Friday, my weekly game plan centered around some of the tendencies that were forming for the New England offense in the first four games of the season.
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The Patriots needed to run the football to be successful with their current personnel, needed to diversify the offense and needed better production out of the tight end position.
And like any good coaching staff, the Patriots self-scouted and adapted.
Some of the things the Pats offense did were apart of the game plan, and others were adjustments they made at halftime, but they discovered a formula that works in Washington.
There were three main components to the equation: putting two tight ends on the field, throwing with Michel in the game, and waking up a nonexistent rushing attack.
Let’s start with the first two pieces, and then we’ll highlight the running game in the second half.
New England’s plan to start the game was to throw the football, and they did, over and over again. In all, Tom Brady tied a career-high for pass attempts in a half with 31.
Although the results were mixed, the ideas were good. The Patriots broke two tendencies by running five plays (four passes) out of 12-personnel, and they threw the ball 15 times with Michel on the field, even targeting him three times (he had one target in the first four games).
In 12 personnel, the Patriots averaged over 12 yards per play and 20 yards per pass attempt, and Brady completed all four of his first-half pass attempts for 72 yards and a touchdown.
In the first four games of the season, the Patriots were in 12-personnel for only two out of 267 total plays on offense.
With Michel and Brady on the field, the Patriots ran 19 passing plays gaining 8.5 yards per attempt. In all, 58 percent of Michel’s snaps on Sunday were passes compared to 25 percent in his first 20 career games (including playoffs).
Multiple times in the first half, the two strategies collided with the Patriots throwing the football out of 12-personnel with Michel as the running back. This is both a run formation and a run tendency with Michel, so the Redskins match it with their base defense.
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On Ryan Izzo’s 29-yard reception, the Patriots were in a nub formation with two in-line tight ends as the furthest players out to Brady’s right. The Pats ran play-action to Michel against a cover-3 zone by Washington. On the two receiver side, the Pats ran a dagger concept with a seam route by Edelman and a dig by Gordon, which occupies the free safety in the middle of the field. With the safety on the far hash, the Patriots flood the deep third on the right sideline, sending tight end Matt LaCosse up the seam and Izzo on an out-and-up. Redskins corner Josh Norman takes LaCosse, leaving Izzo uncovered for a big gain.
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Two plays later, the Patriots get Washington into their base defense again in 12-personnel. This time, the Pats go empty, giving them favorable matchups with four linebackers on the field. Brady also knows this is zone coverage because the cornerbacks stay on the perimeter against Michel and Izzo rather than following Gordon and Edelman inside. The Pats ran a variation of HOSS Z juke, but instead of juking, Edelman runs a vertical route. On the outside, it’s still HOSS, with Gordon and LaCosse running the seams and hitches on the outside. The Redskins drop into a quarters coverage, and they bracket both Gordon and Edelman. Brady works to his fifth option, Michel, and Sony does an excellent job of working himself open over the middle against the dropping linebacker.
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The Patriots would finish the drive off with a touchdown out of 12-personnel to Julian Edelman.
In the second half, the Patriots turned to the running game, but they still created explosive passing plays out of 12.
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Brandon Bolden’s 29-yard touchdown catch was another 12-personnel special. The Patriots are in the same formation as the Izzo catch, a nub side with two in-line tight ends, and two receivers to Brady’s left. The Pats then ran a very similar play to James White’s long catch a week ago in Buffalo, clearing out for Bolden on a wheel route. The two tight ends run crossing patterns at different depths over the middle while Edelman runs an out, and Gordon runs a fade. Bolden has the entire right side to himself, beats the linebacker, and Brady hits him perfectly in stride for the score.
And as we’ve been building up to, the Patriots ran the ball successfully out of two tight end sets averaging 6.7 yards per rush on seven attempts.
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On their longest run of the day, Michel gained 25 yards on a split-zone concept with Izzo at the center of it all. Izzo motions into the picture late, and the six blockers on the line of scrimmage run inside zone to the right with Izzo executing a “sift” block across the formation to the left. The flow of the offensive line gets the second-level defenders to step right, and the offensive line pins down their blocks in that direction as well. Izzo comes across and kicks out the edge defender while left tackle Marshall Newhouse executes a combination block to climb up to the linebacker. The split-flow makes the fit on the linebacker easier for Newhouse, and the motion across gives Izzo momentum to move his defender out of the gap to spring Michel.
Although 12-personnel was the shiny new toy, the Patriots were also successful out of their favorite 21-personnel, another heavy formation.
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On Michel’s touchdown run, the Patriots ran a counter handoff out of 21-personnel. Left guard Joe Thuney pulls to the tight end side of the formation to kick out the edge defender. They also get an excellent block from LaCosse on the line of scrimmage, and fullback Jakob Johnson blocks two defenders out of the hole to clear a path for Michel. Here’s where Michel’s skill shines as well. He sells the counter action and makes the blocks easier on his teammates by pressing inside before following Johnson and then breaks two tackles en route to the end zone. Michel’s patience and understanding of the blocking scheme were excellent.
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And for good measure, here’s one last passing play with Michel on the field out of 21-personnel. Again, the Redskins are in their base defense, and the Patriots ran a mesh concept with Gordon crossing over the middle with LaCosse. The formation and personnel get Gordon into a foot race with two linebackers, and he wins it easily for a 17-yard gain.
There will be plenty of people out there that harp on the first half and the quality of the opponent rather than focusing on the positives from Sunday’s 33-7 win over the Redskins.
But what we saw from the Patriots offense were positive developments and a coaching staff that corrected its mistakes both entering the game and on the fly at halftime.
Since last season, we’ve been begging the Patriots to throw the football more out of their heavier groupings and with Michel in the backfield. We finally got it on Sunday, and it was productive.
Let’s hope they’ll build on their success and develop new tendencies that are less predictable than the previous ones.