- A little less firepower on offense and a questionable pass rush, but as long as Tom Brady is still playing at Tom Brady level—and Bill Belichick is coaching—the Patriots will remain Super Bowl contenders
With the NFL season just around the corner, Andy Benoit is previewing every NFL team, in reverse order of last season’s finish. Up today: the New England Patriots, who finished 13–3 in 2017, won their ninth straight division title, and lost to the Eagles in the Super Bowl.
1. For years Tom Brady dissected defenses with pre-snap reads and quick throws. He led a proficient dink-and-dunk offense that still amassed chunk gains through run-after-catch yards and the occasional Rob Gronkowski catch down the seams. Last season, however, top underneath receiver Julian Edelman went down early with an ACL tear and ex-Saint Brandin Cooks proved to be exactly what the Patriots thought when they dealt a first-round pick to get him: the franchise’s best downfield burner since Randy Moss. So, Brady, at 40, became a deep-dropback, late-in-the-down pocket passer, making it the most physically demanding season of his career.
The results were extraordinary—Brady’s film was even better than his MVP stats suggest—but it’s hard to imagine the 41-year-old again surviving the pounding that comes with this style of play. So, with Edelman healthy (though serving a four-game PED suspension), the Pats shipped the imminently expensive Cooks to the Rams for the 23rd overall pick, which they used on Georgia lineman Isaiah Wynn. Wynn, who is out for 2018 with a torn Achilles, will eventually fill departed left tackle Nate Solder’s spot. In the interim, it will be ex-Niner Trent Brown. With Brady’s safety in mind, there’s now an updated O-line and, presumably, a return to the quick-strike horizontal passing game that has defined this aerial attack for much of the 2010s.
2. Many of New England’s quick strikes come from empty formations. While many offenses only go empty out of three-receiver sets, the Patriots will do it with two tight ends or, more notably, in base packages that include fullback James Develin. In these empty sets they almost always split their weakest receiver out wide and work their best weapons inside.
3. Defenses have little room for schematic adjustments when the Patriots line up in running personnel and flex into a passing formation. They must honor that New England’s ground game features a bounty of smashmouth runs. Those smashmouth runs, which include “power” and “counter” (think pull-blockers) and “wham” (think Gronkowski obliterating an unsuspecting defensive tackle from the side), set up New England’s interior play-action game, which is one of the best in football.
4. An underrated aspect of this offense is its backfield screen game. Coordinator Josh McDaniels dips into it every week. Brady’s patience really boosts these slow-developing plays. Running backs James White and Rex Burkhead, who can catch balls from anywhere in the formation, are very proficient here.
5. Right guards and right tackles are rarely noted for their athleticism, but athleticism is what first comes to mind when thinking about Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon. Both have light, dexterous feet —if they can pair those with more consistent mechanics, especially in pass protection, they can be a preeminent duo.
6. Even though Bill Belichick employs a litany of defensive fronts, personnel packages and nuanced coverage wrinkles, his Patriots are still a consummate bend-but-don’t-break defense. That’s why they ranked 29th in yards allowed last year but fifth in points. (Favorable field position afforded by New England’s offense and special teams also helped.) Don’t expect anything to change. With no proven edge rushers (especially if second-year men Deatrich Wise and Derek Rivers don’t emerge), this four-man rush is one Trey Flowers injury away from feebleness. Perhaps in response to the pass rush’s limitations, New England last year, according to Football Outsiders, dropped at least eight men in coverage an NFL-high 23.7 percent of the time.
7. The Patriots last year blitzed 21.2 percent of the time, a notch below the NFL average. Many of those pressure designs were safe. Rather than gamble on reaching the quarterback, Belichick will aim to disrupt a passing game’s timing and structure, through man coverage and jamming receivers underneath. He keeps two safeties unattached, either back deep or with one robbing over the middle. And he’s very deliberate in how he applies double-teams. This conservative, coverage-based approach wouldn’t work for most teams, especially those with a good-but-not-great veteran cornerback duo like Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe. (How quickly can second-round rookie Duke Dawson win the slot job?) But the Patriots thrive on fundamentals. They don’t miss tackles, they rarely blow assignments, and their collective sense for spacing is highly refined.
8. The Patriots play seven defensive backs more often than any other team; in some games it’s their staple third-down approach. Their depth and versatility at safety is invaluable. Starters Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung can both match up to backs and tight ends. Duron Harmon almost always locks down centerfield. And with Jordan Richards now a Falcon, the Patriots will try longtime cornerback Jason McCourty at safety spot number four.
9. The most unfathomable stat from 2017 is New England allowing 4.7 yards per carry, worse than every defense except the Chargers. While not great, this looks nothing like a bottom-feeder run D. It’s big up front and variegated with its looks and gap assignments. Having Dont’a Hightower back healthy will fix a lot, especially out of Belichick’s beloved 5-1 nickel fronts. The arrival of underappreciated ex-Browns plugger Danny Shelton also helps.
10. For the hopelessly nerdy X’s and O’s fans, one of the most interesting things the Patriots do against outside zone running teams is have a stack linebacker blitz the front side A-gap. That forces a runner to cut to the back side early, which the rest of the D anticipates and gobbles up.
BOTTOM LINE: There might be a little less firepower here than last year, but until Brady shows any actual signs of decline, we’ll keep admiring this team.
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