How the Patriots Offense is Going to Challenge the Giants Defense

Giants defensive coordinator James Bettcher is going to have his hands full when the Giants face Tom Brady and the Patriots offense Thursday night.Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Chris Pflum

When the New York Giants take the field against the New England Patriots, they will be matching wits against some of the best coaches in the NFL and playing against (arguably) the best team in the NFL. 

But what makes the Patriots so impressive is that they are not running the offense they intended when building their team.

New England responded to the retirement of Rob Gronkowski not by trying to find a replacement – as many teams would when losing a key cog – but rather by changing offensive philosophies. 

Since 2010, the Patriots have run their offense through the tight end position with Gronkowski on the roster. Using the tight end position as an offensive weapon and throwing out of a 12-personnel base package was a novel attack and took the NFL by storm.

But rather than try to replace a Hall of Fame-caliber player just to maintain an offensive philosophy, the Patriots decided to find the best players they could and build around them. For 2019, that meant rebuilding their offense around the wide receiver position.

They started by re-signing receiver Philip Dorsett, then proceeded to sign Demaryius Thomas, selecting N'Keal Harry in the first round of the 2019 NFL draft, and signing Antonio Brown. 

In one off-season the Patriots transformed what had been a mediocre but serviceable receiving corps into (potentially) the most dangerous in the NFL. 

But then it evaporated just as quickly. Harry was lost for the season to injury and the Antonio Brown experiment blew up in the Patriots' faces.

Once again, Bill Belichick did what separates him from other coaches in the NFL. Rather than trying to kludge together personnel that no longer fit the scheme, he looked to the players on hand and asked “What can you do?”.

The Patriots altered their plans mid-season from a receiver-based offense to a running back based offense. 

If we set Week 2 aside – the one game played with the since released Brown – the Patriots have run a very running back-heavy offense. 

They use the 11-personnel package the fourth-least in the NFL, but run the 21 and 20 personnel packages the second-most and most often in the NFL, respectively.

Traditionally, a change like that would mean that the Patriots intend to be a running team. But while their initial team concept seems to have taken a cue from the Los Angeles Rams to use wide receivers to force a defense into smaller sub-packages, their re-worked offense takes its cue from the San Francisco 49ers, who run the most 21 (two back, 1 tight end) packages in the NFL and who use them to force defenses into heavy, dense formations.

For the Patriots, 21-personnel and 20-personnel packages are throwing formations. Rather than trying to stretch the defense out, these formations tend to force defenses to play in base defenses with more linebackers on the field and concentrate defenders in the tackle box with an eye toward defending the run. 

That opens up opportunities for the offense in the passing game by creating match-ups between linebackers and running backs in the passing game – a proposition that should worry any Giants fan.

Heavy personnel and formations have the benefit of making play-action even more effective, and it's a strategy the Patriots are not afraid to exploit for safe and easy yardage.

For instance, lets look at this play from their week 5 game against the Washington Redskins. This is early in the game, with roughly five minutes remaining in the first quarter and New England trailing Washington 7-6.

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Diagram by Chris Pflum; screenshot via NFL Game Pass

Ordinarily, this would look like an offense getting ready to run the ball on first down. The Patriots line up with the tight end attached to the offensive line, the quarterback under center, and two backs in the backfield.

The defense responds predictably, with eight defenders close to the line of scrimmage and a safety walking up to the second level.

However, rather than hand off, quarterback Tom Brady executes the play-fake, keeps the ball, and finds receiver Julian Edelman slipping in behind the safety who bit on the play-action. 

It wasn't a huge gain by any means--only 12 yards--but it was a quick, easy, and safe gain that the defense had no hope of stopping.

It also allowed the Patriots to compensate for an injured offensive line by keeping both running backs and their tight end in to block. 

So while Washington had six defenders heading downhill, New England had eight blockers to deal with them.

Later in the game, just before the end of the first half, we see the Patriots break out their 20-personnel package – again to pass.

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Diagram by Chris Pflum; screenshot via NFL Game Pass

At the beginning of the pre-snap phase, Brady motions Brandon Bolden from a wide receiver position at the top of the screen into the backfield along with James White, who is lined up to Brady's right. 

The reaction motion exposes Washington's man coverage scheme, giving Brady a clue what to expect.

Rather than keeping both running backs as blockers, they are released into curl routes just beyond the line of scrimmage. Their routes pull the linebackers down and help create one-on-one opportunities and open space in the endzone. 

The Patriots aren't able to capitalize and Brady is forced to throw the ball away, but the play does show how the Patriots are using traditional running formations to stress defenses, creating match-ups with linebackers and stress in the secondary.

The re-worked Patriots offense creates a similar conundrum for the Giants as they faced against the Minnesota Vikings last week. They want to be able to lean on their secondary for greater speed, but personnel could force them into base packages. 

But where the Vikings want to run the ball out of two-back sets, the Patriots want to pass. That will put pressure on the Giants' linebackers and safeties to not only quickly and correctly diagnose the play, but to hold up in coverage as well.

The good news is that the Giants will be getting starting linebackers Alec Ogletree and Tae Davis back from injury for Thursday's game. 

However, the Giants will still be in a difficult place, considering they are facing similar problems as they struggled to contain last week but trading Kirk Cousins for Tom Brady. 

This set can be very difficult to defend, and the Giants will have to resist the temptation to use a base defense and instead treat two-back sets as a passing formation, but it can be done.

That doesn't mean it will be easy, after all, if it didn't attack the weakness of most NFL defenses, the Patriots wouldn't be using it, and they wouldn't have one of the most efficient offensive machines in the NFL.

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