FOXBOROUGH — the Patriots have one last tune-up game before the postseason as they welcome the last-place Miami Dolphins to Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
New England’s offense had one of its best games of the season against one of the league’s best defense a week ago, averaging 6.1 yards per play in the win over Buffalo, their most since Week 1.
As the calendar turns to January, the question is, how did the Patriots wake up their offense, and can they build on the things they did well against Buffalo moving forward, starting with Miami.
Now in his eighth season since returning to New England, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’s greatest strength as a schemer is running complementary plays out of the same formations.
The Pats OC will set things up for the offense by building plays off of New England’s base concepts.
“You try to complement things you do off of other things that you want to do, and hopefully the defense has to play a lot of the looks that you’re giving them and there’s multiple things you can do out of them,” McDaniels told CLNS Media on his weekly conference call.
“The more we can do that and complement the things we’ve done the most, the better off we can be going forward.”
Last week, McDaniels got the Bills defense out of position with a series of different play calls out of one particular formation and threw in some window dressing to add another layer.
Early in the first quarter, McDaniels began to lay the groundwork with linebacker and fullback Elandon Roberts in the backfield.
Pro Bowl fullback James Develin played the second-most snaps at the position a year ago, with New England turning to its 21-personnel grouping as their base en route to a Super Bowl.
Develin landed on injured reserve only two weeks into the regular season, then his replacement, rookie Jakob Johnson, was lost of the season a few weeks later.
The Patriots tried some offensive linemen and tight ends as lead blockers, but the nothing stuck, virtually eliminating the fullback element of their offense for some time.
Finally, things seem to be working with Roberts, along with a healthier version of the offensive line, the Pats successfully ran the football over the last two games.
On Roberts’s 17 snaps as a run blocker, the Patriots produced a positive EPA play on 58.8 percent of their carries. Without Roberts, their EPA-plus rate dropped to 35.7 (EPA – Expected Points Added).
Roberts was also on the field for four passing plays, and Tom Brady averaged 14 yards per pass attempt off of play-action passes and threw a touchdown with Roberts on the field.
The Pats captain is playing out of position. His effort and sacrifice are tremendous, and as you’d expect, he’s still getting the hang of things. Roberts is excellent a throwing his weight around, but the next step for him will be improving his technique to sustain blocks.
Regardless of his effectiveness as a lead blocker, the Patriots offense is better when Roberts is on the field due to the schematic advantages of a fullback.
#Patriots OL coach Dante Scarnecchia said the Pats like to have a fullback in the running game. Had him explain why. Lots to do with being able to double team on the line of scrimmage with the fullback taking the unblocked defender, usually a linebacker. pic.twitter.com/69NpiDhWKF
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) December 27, 2019
Lots of smart offensive minds in the league utilize a fullback, such as Belichick and McDaniels or Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco. All three coaches explained two fundamental advantages to having the fullback in the backfield:
- Unlike from on the line of scrimmage, a fullback is a threat to go in either direction. The offense can get a similar advantage by pulling an offensive linemen or bringing the tight end across, but it gives you different options and can sometimes happen faster.
- Throwing, especially off of play-action, from a run formation with a fullback is very efficient. The defense will react to the formation, often thinking run, and sometimes they’ll putting heavier personnel on the field. More linebackers and defensive linemen is better for the offense in the passing game than defensive backs.
Based on something the coaching staff saw about the Bills defense, they thought heavy pre-snap motion would present benefits to them on Saturday.
Patriots tight end Matt LaCosse starts things off by motioning across to change the strength of the formation, and the Buffalo linebackers slide over. Then, the Pats bring Edelman across in the opposite direction, causing some more shuffling, presenting a “nub” formation to the defense (nub – tight end furthest player out to one side). After all the motions, Brady turns around and hands the ball off to Sony Michel for a six-yard gain.
Michel, too, is more productive with a fullback. The 2018 first-round pick was four times more efficient based on EPA per attempt with Roberts on the field.
After showing the personnel and motions earlier on a handoff, the Patriots go back to the same look on the following series. Roberts in the backfield, LaCosse motions, Edelman motions back, suggesting it’s another run. However, this time, it’s play-action, and the Patriots mimic the same rushing scheme, but Brady keeps the ball. LaCosse sells the run fake by engaging in a block on a delayed-release, eventually catching the ball over Lorenzo Alexander on the high-point fade.
In the second half, McDaniels goes to the well again on consecutive snaps with Roberts in the backfield.
First, it’s the same window dressing with the LaCosse and now Meyers motioning before the snap. Then, it’s a run by Michel for a short gain on first down. On the very next play, McDaniels comes out in the same formation with the same motion. As Meyers motions into the slot, the Patriots snap the ball and run play-action. The two Buffalo linebackers jump into their gaps to defend the run, they just saw a run out of this formation, and Brady hits Meyers on an over route for a first down.
The chess game that McDaniels played with the Buffalo defense didn’t stop there, though, as they also leaned on a series of plays off of their jet motion action.
Over the last two weeks, the Patriots’ usage of jet motion or “ghost” motion as the fakes are called has nearly tripled compared to the first 13 games of the season.
Against the Bengals and Bills, the Patriots used jet or fake jet motion on 16 percent of plays. In the first 13 games, they only used the speed sweep 6.4 percent of the time.
“Defending those plays are a challenge because they happen quickly. You don’t really have time to make much of an adjustment to it – you have to recognize it and react to it,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said.
Belichick continued, “teams run a lot of complementary plays that start off as that, but then it ends up being something else, or some type of misdirection, or a play-action play off of it, or a running play that causes you to adjust to the motion – but it’s not the speed-sweep, it’s something else – and then you can be a little out of position for the complementary play.”
In Cincinnati, the Patriots began to use rookie N’Keal Harry on fly sweeps and reverses to give a different look to the defense.
Harry has four carries in the last two weeks, while all Patriots wideouts had a combined 14 carries up until that point.
The Patriots will then fake the jet and either toss or hand the ball to the running back in the backfield off that action, creating misdirection and confusion in the defense.
They’ll also work backward, starting the game on Saturday with a healthy amount of shotgun handoffs with either zone blocking or power plays with a pulling guard.
After the Buffalo defense saw the guard pull action a few times, McDaniels ran a reverse to Harry with Tom Brady of all people as the lead blocker. The action up front looks the same as the play above, but Burkhead flips the ball to Harry for an 18-yard gain.
Now that they’ve established the jet sweep and reverses, the Patriots took it a step further by designing play-action schemes off of the motion to cause chaos for the defense.
Here, Brady fakes the speed sweep to Mohamad Sanu and sells it with a long fake, hiding the ball from the defense. With all eyes on Sanu, Burkhead leaks out in the opposite direction on a wheel route up the right sideline. Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, who is still looking at Sanu, leaves Burkhead wide open, blowing his man coverage assignment.
Burkhead also caught two screen passes for 41 yards, both of which came off of ghost motion to get the defense flowing in the wrong direction.
The level of execution that we saw from the Patriots offense in the win over the Bills was a significant improvement from the post-bye week struggles in the middle part of the schedule.
And with that improved execution, the complementary-style of football is taking hold.
If the Patriots can continue to execute the core principles of their offense successfully, the complementary plays will also be effective.
NOTES ON THE MIAMI DOLPHINS
Although Sunday’s contest is mostly about the Patriots and securing a first-round bye, the Dolphins are a pesky 4-4 in their last eight games, averaging 25.3 points on offense.
Here are a few notes on what’s going well for Brian Flores and the Dolphins to prepare yourself for the regular-season finale:
1. Dolphins’ Trickery and Effort Level Are There Despite Record
The Dolphins are talent-depleted all over their roster, but they’re competing for Flores and don’t look like a team that’s rolling over. Along with their compete level, the Miami coaching staff is pulling out every trick play and oddity in the book to score points. Last week, Ryan Fitzpatrick threw a touchdown pass to first-round defensive tackle Christian Wilkins and Miami also got big play on a flea-flicker to Davante Parker.
In an upset win over the Eagles, the Dolphins ran one of the wackiest trick plays you’ll ever see, with the punter throwing a touchdown pass to the kicker instead of settling for a field goal.
It’s Week 17, so maybe the Dolphins are ready for the offseason, but they’ve played hard in recent weeks, and the Patriots have to be prepared for some weirdness.
2. Flores, Dolphins Defense Will Play Aggressive Man Coverage
The Dolphins will serve as a practice run for the likely strategy that the Patriots’ divisional-round opponent will implement defensively, which might be the most crucial takeaway from Sunday’s contest. Taking after his mentor, Flores plays his fair share of bump-and-run man coverage despite their limitations in the secondary, and the Dolphins will also double the opponents’ top wideouts and implement other game-plan wrinkles.
Last week against the Bengals, the Dolphins bracketed Tyler Boyd, who is in the left slot above, on a handful of third-down passing plays, which is something we’ve seen teams routinely do against Julian Edelman.
Can the Patriots receivers put drives together and separate against tight man coverage? We’ll get to see them try against a non-playoff team on Sunday.
3. Aggressive Ryan Fitzpatrick Isn’t Afraid to Sling It
Based on data collected by Next Gen Stats, Fitzpatrick ranks fourth in percentage of throws into tight windows this season. Some of that is due to a lack of separation by the Dolphins receivers, but it also shows that Fitzpatrick, who is also seventh in intended air yards per attempt, isn’t afraid to push the ball down the field and test the coverage. As a result, Fitzpatrick also has 13 interceptions in 12 starts.
4. Fitzpatrick’s Weapons: Personnel Groupings, DeVante Parker and Albert Wilson
Similarly to the Patriots, former Pats receivers coach Chad O’Shea cycles through a variety of different personnel groupings, only playing out of their base 11-personnel on roughly 60 percent of snaps. Furthermore, the Miami offense has the sixth-most drop-backs this season with two tight ends on the field, so they can get into 12-personnel, which has given the Pats defense some problems.
As far as the skill players themselves go, there are two names you should know: wide receivers DeVante Parker and Albert Wilson. Parker, a former first-round pick, is coming into his own under O’Shea, refining his releases at the line to pair with his boxout abilities and downfield jump-ball skills. He’s a big target that Stephon Gilmore has owned in the past, but is making improvements to his game. Wilson is a dangerous player in space that the Dolphins will use in a variety of ways. He’s explosive and elusive as a ball carrier.
5. Dolphins Offensive Line is the Worst in Football
Lastly, the Miami offensive line is as advertised since the beginning of the year, meaning they’re are dreadful. The Dolphins currently rank dead-last in Pro Football Focus’s pass-blocking efficiency metric, pass-blocking grade, and run-blocking grade; they’re the worst in all three categories. The Patriots defense should tee-off on Fitzpatrick.