It helps to have one of the best quarterbacks of all time running your offense. Tom Brady is so good, he makes any transition in offensive style or personnel turnover as smooth as it can possibly be. But this offense is no longer just about Tom Brady.
This certainly isn’t Brady’s fault. Between the injuries, the rookie wide receivers, and the personnel changes stemming from an eventful offseason, there has been little continuity to the Patriots passing game in 2013. While New England appears to have made significant progress in the last few weeks, there are still many holes in this aerial attack. This has left offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels with the task of needing to be more creative and unconventional than normal.
The Patriots arguably use more personnel groupings, formations and alignments than any team in the NFL. It seems to change on every play too, forcing the defense to be reactive instead of aggressive.
The Panthers had a lot of trouble with New England on Monday night despite the win. The Patriots would come out with “12” personnel (that’s one RB and two TE’s) and run the ball. Then they’d switch to “11” personnel (one RB, one TE), and utilize an empty backfield. The running back would align on the perimeter, helping Brady define the coverage easily based on which defender was aligned over him. Then they’d come back with “12” personnel, aligning two receivers to one side and isolating tight end Rob Gronkowski, a matchup nightmare, to the other. The Patriots used closed formations (No receivers outside the tight end), motion, bunches, stacks, tight receiver splits, positive receivers splits, condensed formations, spread formation, etc…
All of this serves to make the defense uncomfortable, and this is more important than ever for a Patriots offense that suddenly finds itself without as many favorable personnel mismatches at it’s had in the past.
Furthermore, the Patriots have morphed into more of a running offense. They have a versatile rushing attack, utilizing everything from outside zone runs, to leads, to powers, to draws. On Monday night, the Pats mixed it up on the ground until the second half. Then, they switched to power runs almost exclusively and found a lot of success. New England got several great double teams and created consistent push on these plays. Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount combined patience and hard running to help the Patriots offense control the game in the 2nd half.
Running the ball well helped set up play-action and minimized the Panthers’ dangerous pass rush. It also controlled the clock, something that will be vital for the Patriots this week against the Broncos.
The versatility of this offense has led to success over the last few weeks. Yet while the passing game has seemed to improve, the Steelers and Panthers were ideal matchups for New England.
The Steelers are an old and slow defense. Their style of play (zone blitzes with soft coverage and sitting corners playing off the line of scrimmage) plays into the Patriots’ hands. Even when they were a good defense, Brady always had success against Pittsburgh because he gets rid of the ball so quickly, not allowing their intricate blitzes to get to him.
Similarly, Carolina played too much soft coverage against the Patriots on Monday night. They honored Pats receivers like they were speedsters who constantly attack downfield. On several 3rd-and-mediums, they had defenders playing 3-5 yards behind the 1st-down markers. Often times, the deep safety was 25 yards off the ball. This is a passing game that wins with quick and short passes, so this type of defense played right into New England’s hands.
When the Patriots passing game has struggled this season, it’s been against press-man coverage. Press coverage disrupts the timing between Brady and his receivers, giving the pass rush time to get to him. Add in the fact that his young receivers haven’t been able to win quickly off the line, and it’s easy to understand why the Patriots haven’t had much success against this type of coverage. The Broncos do play a lot of press-man, so the matchup this Sunday night will be very interesting. Will New England be able to win consistently through the air, or will they lean on their power running game to keep the Broncos offense off the field? Whichever method Josh McDaniels decides to utilize, expect a versatile attack designed to keep the defense guessing.