Patriots Game Plan: Examining the On-Field Impact of the Antonio Brown Signing

Here's why the Patriots will have defensive coordinators up at night with Antonio Brown in the mix, at least for the time being.


FOXBORO — the charges levied against Patriots wide receiver Antonio Brown in a civil lawsuit filed by his former trainer, Britney Taylor, are bigger than any sport.

Any form of sexual assault or rape is something that I take extremely seriously, and there’s no place for it in our society.

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If the allegations are accurate, Brown should not be on any NFL team. Period.

Most of you read my work for information on football and the New England Patriots.

With zero intentions to minimize the allegations against Brown, we are going to discuss his on-field impact.

For opposing defensive coordinators, the Patriots offense just became the worst nightmare in the NFL.

Brown gives them arguably the best three-receiver package in the league with the seven-time Pro Bowler, reigning Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon.

Plus, first-round pick N’Keal Harry is eligible to return in Week 9, and Phillip Dorsett looked pretty darn good against the Steelers.

In Week 1, the Patriots continued a trend that carried over from last season: the more wide receivers on the field the better for New England.

The Patriots averaged over a yard and a half more per play with three or more wide receivers on the field and saw a dramatic increase in expected points added.

Believe it or not, that was also the case in 2018, where the production differential was similar.

Now, the low yardage output in heavy personnel is partially due to using those groupings in short-yardage situations, like goal line, but stats like expected points added account for down and distance.

The addition of Brown, along with their current tight end situation, means that we can expect to see wide receiver heavy personnel from the Patriots.

New England already ran 61 percent of their plays with three or more wide receivers on the field before they acquired Brown in the season opener.

Back to opposing defensive coordinators, now they have to defend a trio of Brown, Edelman, Gordon, and friends and a rushing attack that the Patriots road to a sixth Lombardi Trophy.

For the defense, it presents the following conundrum: fill every gap in the running game or commit extra resources to pass coverage.

(via Blitzology)

Here are the standard run fits for a 4-2-5 nickel package in a single-high defense against a two-back package, sub out one of the backs or the tight end for our purposes.

The defense can fill every gap and has two force players to contain runs to the perimeter.

But then the defense only has one safety deep in this scenario, leaving their corners on the outside one-on-one with the Pats receivers.

For example, that would leave the defense vulnerable in the passing game to all patterns on the boundary and crossing patterns or corner routes from the slot.

With no safety help, the Patriots would torch defenses for big plays on throws outside the numbers.

The addition of Brown and wide-receiver heavy approach, in general, will also do wonders for the running game and Sony Michel.

My biggest complaint about Michel’s usage to date isn’t that he only has 11 career targets; Michel doesn’t have to be a pass-catching threat to make him a more efficient runner.

The issue with Michel’s usage is the frequency in which they run the ball with him on the field and the lack of diversity in personnel groupings.

Dating back to last season, the Patriots run the ball 76 percent of the time with Michel on the field. And on 59 percent of Michel’s attempts, the Pats had two or fewer wideouts on the field.

Again, you don’t need to throw the ball directly to Michel to pass with him on the field or spread out the defense in lighter personnel.

Here’s a taste of what Pittsburgh did to hold Michel to 14 rushing yards on 15 carries last week. The Patriots are in 21-personnel with fullback James Develin and tight end Ryan Izzo. The Steelers already have seven in the box, and when the safety sees Michel and the run formation, he rotates down to become an eighth run defender. Essentially, the Patriots are asking Michel to run into a brick wall.

When Michel faced five or six defenders in the box, he averaged 2.2 yards per rush last week. Still not great, but much better than his 0.1 average with seven or more defenders in the box.

In theory, what would make Michel more efficient is if the Patriots let him run the football out of traditional passing formations, like 11 personnel (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB).

Michel only ran the ball three times out of 11-personnel against Pittsburgh, accounting for ten of his 14 rushing yards, with the majority of his attempts coming out of 21-personnel (nine).

If the Patriots spread defenses out with Michel in the backfield, there’s a good chance that they’ll play a two-deep coverage. From there, defenses can play either quarters (cover-4) or cover-2, supporting the corners and protecting against big passing plays.

The tradeoff with two-deep coverages is that there’s one less player in the box, meaning there’s an open gap or edge for the offense to attack. Belichick would call this a light box.

Lastly, if the Patriots continue another trend, they’ll probably play three wide receivers and two backs on a healthy amount of plays.

The Patriots played 21 total snaps or 31 percent of their plays out of 20-personnel last week with a 43 percent success rate on those plays (3 WR, 2 RB, 0 TE).

Although the results were poor, New England only used that personnel grouping eight times all of last season, so it’ll take time to get it humming.

In many ways, the 20-personnel package can morph itself into something that resembles 11-personnel thanks to the versatility of fullback James Develin and the wide receivers.

Develin played six snaps on the line of scrimmage as an in-line tight end against the Steelers, and the Patriots also aligned Josh Gordon and Julian Edelman in tight end splits.

On Gordon’s first-quarter touchdown, the Patriots are in 11-personnel with James White flexed out wide at the top of the screen. As you can see, Gordon, not tight end Ryan Izzo, is the one closest to the formation in a traditional tight end split.

Admittedly, this was a very long way of saying that the Patriots offense with Antonio Brown will be present no-win scenarios all over the field for opposing defenses.

But now you hopefully understand the strategic advantages he gives Josh McDaniels that are beyond his immense individual talent.

Notes on the Dolphins

The Miami Dolphins aren’t a good football team and are intentionally trying to lose games to land a top pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.

With that said, it’s hard to imagine that they’ll play worse than they did against Baltimore.

The Dolphins couldn’t block on offense, they couldn’t cover or tackle on defense and muffed a punt and allowed a 60-yard run on a fake punt by the Ravens — a true doomsday scenario.

Here’s a scouting report on Brian Flores and the Dolphins as the Patriots travel to Miami where they’ve lost five out of the last six contests:

– Staring the mirror: head coach Brian Flores and offensive coordinator Chad O’Shea’s systems, as you’d expect, heavily resemble their former employer. Flores’s base defensive fronts, either a 3-4 bear front or 4-3 under, are the same as Bill Belichick’s in New England. Flores also featured some zero coverages with no deep safeties against Baltimore, something he instituted last year as the de-facto DC of the Pats. As for O’Shea, his staple concepts are similar to Josh McDaniel’s favorite plays. There was a lot of HOSS and one-back power called in Miami’s opener.

(Miami running HOSS: hitches outside, seams in the slot, option route from inside slot)

– Dolphins starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick wasn’t good against the Ravens, but he wasn’t the problem either. He played fine. He’s a good deep-ball thrower, especially outside the numbers, and can be a magician in the pocket. Fitzpatrick kept several plays alive with his pocket movement and mobility, which can lead to big plays downfield against man coverage. He’s capable of having a big game.

– The Dolphins have some good skill players on offense. Rookie wideout Preston Williams (6-5), former first-round pick DeVante Parker (6-3) and tight end Mike Gesicki (6-6) can box out and win jump balls down the field. If he plays, slot receiver Albert Wilson averaged a league-best 12.9 yards after the catch per reception a year ago. Gadget player Jakeem Grant brings a speed element, and we all know about Kenyan Drake. It won’t be enough, but they don’t lack weapons.

– The Miami offensive line is one of the worst units in football. Even before trading starting left tackle Laremy Tunsil, the talent-level wasn’t there for the Dolphins, and now it’s even worse without Tunsil. They blew blocks, they missed assignments and Ryan Fitzpatrick was under pressure on 15 of his 33 drop-backs against the Ravens.

The Baltimore defense confused the heck out of Miami’s offensive line with their pressure packages running line stunts and bringing pass rushers from the second level. Expect the Patriots do the same in passing situations.

– On the Miami defense, about half of their regulars played fine games against Baltimore. Not elite efforts, but like Fitzpatrick, they weren’t the problem. The issue for the Dolphins was that a handful of starters played terribly, led by defensive backs Minkah Fitzpatrick (27.3 PFF game grade) and Eric Rowe (29.8 PFF game grade). The play of those guys sunk them, and quickly.

– As an entire unit, the Dolphins defense needs to tackle better to have any chance of keeping it close on Sunday. Flores’s group missed a combined 11 tackles and allowed 161 yards after the catch. Both effort and technique were issues, and if that’s the case again, it’ll be another blowout.