The Patriots offense ran the football more than it had in nearly a decade last season.
“We are what’s called a ‘regular’ team: fullback, halfback, two wide receivers and then we morph into other things from there. It truly is our base,” offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia told me during Super Bowl week.
An offense led by the greatest quarterback of all-time shifted towards what the New England coaching staff refers to as a “regular” team, and the result was a sixth Lombardi Trophy.
Before we get into the results, let’s discuss how and why the Patriots decided to have Tom Brady hand the ball off on nearly 45 percent of their offensive plays (8th-most in NFL).
Two popular tropes might explain why the Patriots went in this direction:
1. Adapting to personnel: both Scarnnecia and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels hinted at this one during Super Bowl week. With a diminished Rob Gronkowski, a banged up Tom Brady and a weak receiving core behind Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman the Patriots turned to areas of strength in their offensive line and running backs. The team drafted Sony Michel in the first round to pair with James White and Rex Burkhead, and although Gronk wasn’t the same in the passing game, he was still a great blocker as was fellow tight end Dwayne Allen and fullback James Develin. Plus, Scarnnecia directed one of the best run blocking offensive lines in all of football.
2. Adapting to defenses: as defenses get smaller and faster to combat the high-power passing attacks, the Patriots zigged while everyone zagged to a power unit that can run over their opponents. For example, the starters on the Rams defense led by a 280-pound defensive tackle that the Patriots faced in Super Bowl LIII had an average weight of only 242 pounds.
With those trends in mind, New England turned to what we’ll refer to as “heavy” personnel groupings which are packages with two or fewer wide receivers on the field.
For the most part, the Pats turned to 21-personnel: two wide receivers, one running back, one tight end and fullback James Develin.
The Patriots ran 480 plays out of “heavy” personnel in the regular season and another 122 in the postseason; their 480 regular-season plays were the third-most in the NFL.
Between the regular season and playoffs, the 602 plays out of “heavy” personnel accounted for nearly half of the Patriots’ offense snaps (45 percent).
Now that we know the how and why, here’s the but: the Patriots offense was less efficient last season out of their “heavy” personnel groupings than their other packages.
To fully understand the issues with this approach, we have to discuss one central theme to many of the analytical studies conducted on the current state of offensive football in the NFL.
According to a study done by Chase Stuart of Football Perspective using the expected points added model, a teams passing offense is roughly three times as important as their rushing offense.
Teams, on average, added 0.11 more points per drop back versus a rush. This difference is very similar to what we've seen over the last decade. And offensive coordinators want to be run-heavy. It's mind-blowing.
— JJ Zachariason (@LateRoundQB) May 28, 2019
Furthermore, we also know that, on average, teams added 0.11 more points per drop back versus a rush.
Back to the heavy personnel discussion, out of the 602 plays, the Patriots only threw the ball 34.8 percent of the time, and Tom Brady’s numbers plummeted.
Brady’s yards per attempt increased by over a yard and his passer rating rose by nearly 20 when the Patriots had three or more wide receivers on the field.
Overall, the Patriots averaged 6.8 yards per play in their lighter groupings and only 5.1 yards per play out of their heavy packages.
Situational football, such as putting heavy personnel on the field for a short yardage run, explains some of that, but Tom Brady’s average depth of target on those 226 attempts was 8.3 yards (season average: 8.6).
Brady wasn’t throwing short passes on third and three to move the chains; he was throwing the ball down the field, and the results were subpar.
THE ONE SILVER LINING
The Patriots’ offense was less efficient when they put their heavy personnel packages on the field, but there is one potential advantage to this approach.
As you’d expect, to match New England’s size and physicality, some teams will put their base defense on the field. That might be the move that Josh McDaniels wants defenses to make so that Brady can hunt matchups against linebackers.
Brady’s numbers against base defenses, either a traditional 3-4 or 4-3 front, aren’t as good as his non-heavy numbers but they’re significantly better than his “heavy” stats.
McDaniels won the Super Bowl chess match with Wade Phillips when got the Rams’ base defense on the field against 22-personnel (1 WR, 2 RB, 2 TE) and threw out of an empty set.
Although that’s an excellent idea and the results were good, teams are reluctant to play a traditional base defense, which explains why only 21 percent of Brady’s throws last season fit in that category.
The Patriots might’ve doubled-down on this shift in philosophy when they selected running back Damien Harris in the third round of April’s draft.
However, becoming more reliant on heavy personnel and a run-first approach is risky considering the effect it has on their passing attack.
Yes, they won the Super Bowl, which is all that really matters.
But the Patriots will only go as far as Tom Brady and the passing attack takes them.