FOXBORO — Before the Patriots made their way to Washington last weekend, it was clear that they were set on figuring out what they did well offensively. Of equal importance was figuring out what they did poorly. That way they could "throw out" the bad, as Tom Brady put it, and focus on the good as they left the first quarter of their season in the rearview.
Brady and Bill Belichick weren't about to reveal exactly what they had planned moving forward, but we took a stab at what we thought the Patriots did and didn't do well in September by diving into the numbers. What we found was fascinating.
What the Patriots had shown Weeks 1-4 was that they were vastly superior throwing on first down. The same went for how they passed, not ran, out of heavier personnel packages. The Patriots were also better with smaller running backs taking handoffs out of spread formations when they were looking for production on the ground.
That side of the ball had also put enough on tape — and in official box scores — to let the offensive staff know they might want to "throw out" their 20-personnel packages (two backs, zero tight ends). Outside zone runs had been a debacle and could be scrapped as well.
Patriots 21-personnel packages fell somewhere in the middle. They had suffered over the course over the first four weeks when looking at the overall rushing numbers from those formations. But they'd shown some progress running with "21" in Weeks 3 and 4 so, we noted, perhaps they should stick with it. Meanwhile, they'd been solid passing the football out of "21" throughout the early portion of the season so it made sense to continue to roll with it at least as a passing formation.
Then came Week 5, and there were noticeable adjustments from the start.
The Patriots appeared to acknowledge in the first half in Washington that they were simply more efficient as a spread-it-out passing offense.
Even with their receiving group banged-up, they dropped back to pass 37 times in the first 30 minutes, more than they'd ever done in a half with Brady behind center. On 18 first-down snaps, they dropped back to pass 14 times, which was a drastic change from what they'd done through September; 55 percent of their first-down plays were runs in the season's first month.
The Patriots also upped their usage of three-receiver 11-personnel groupings in the first and second quarters, deploying that set on 50 percent of their first-half plays (22) after using it on 45 percent of plays during Weeks 1-4. Even when the Patriots used "21" — which they did 13 times in the first half against the Redskins — many of those came with Brady in the shotgun and fullback Jakob Johnson aligned wide.
Spreading things out, throwing the football, going hurry-up . . . They looked more like a college offense at times than the one that won Super Bowl LIII. But based on what had been productive (and what hadn't) through the first four weeks of the regular season, that approach by Josh McDaniels made sense.
There was only one problem: The Patriots offense was stuck in neutral with that plan.
Brady averaged just 6.6 yards per pass attempt in the first half. He'd been sacked three times and intercepted once. The Patriots were two-for-nine on third down. The few times they ran the ball, they found little success, picking up just 19 yards on seven carries (2.7 yards per attempt). They held onto a meager 12-7 lead at the half.
BULLY MODE ENGAGED
What the Patriots did at halftime against the Redskins has been well-established. They turned to their running game, even when the numbers from September told them that they were a better passing team. Chucking the football all over the lot wasn't working so they shifted gears again — as they had coming into the game.
The Patriots ran on five of their first six plays coming out of the locker room, and six of their first seven plays came out of heavier two-back or two-tight end packages. They marched down the field and punctuated their first drive of the second half with a 29-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Bolden out of their one-back, two-tight end 12-personnel package.
"There's not really a whole lot of magic to what happens," Marshall Newhouse said of his team's second-half success. "We make adjustments as good as anyone in the league, but to a man you still have to do your job. You're not leaving guys running in the hole. You're finishing blocks. Pass and run. It looks like, 'Oh they figured something out!' But we're just doing what we're supposed to do better and at a higher level."
By the time the game was over, the Patriots had scored 33 unanswered points, 21 in the second half, and their heavier packages had proven to be their most productive. In the third and fourth quarters they ran 24 plays of either "21" (17 snaps) or "12" (seven snaps) compared to just seven snaps of their lighter "11" package.
When they utilized "21" at FedEx Field, the Patriots had a healthy 57 percent success rate. (Success is defined by picking up 40 percent of the yardage needed for a first down on first down, 50 percent of the yardage needed for a first down on second down, and 100 percent of the yardage needed for a first down on third or fourth down.) They completed 12 of 18 pass attempts for 153 yards (8.5 yards per attempt) out of "21," and they ran nine times for 49 yards (5.4 yards per carry).
They lined up with heavy personnel again and again, and the Redskins couldn't stop them. Run or pass.
"Doing anything with a high level of execution makes the other thing easier," Newhouse said. "You keep teams off-balance, you leave them kind of scrambling. When we're staying ahead of the chains, that opens up the playbook for Josh to make calls, it opens things up for Tom to make throws. When we do what we're supposed to do, regardless of if it's a run or a pass, when we're on schedule it makes everything else easier."
A "12" REVIVAL
According to Sharp Football Stats, the Patriots ran their "12" personnel package on just two percent of their snaps through the first month of the season — six plays total. They more than doubled that number in Washington (13 snaps) and might deploy it even more often in the future.
Why? Even if the tight end spot for the Patriots is arguably their weakest skill position on the roster, "12" was their most efficient personnel package last weekend.
Before the game was out of hand and the Patriots were simply trying to kill off the clock, they were successful on a whopping 73 percent of their "12" snaps, completing all five passes they attempted for 101 yards (20.2 yards per attempt) and two touchdowns with both Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo on the field. They also ran it well with "12," picking up 47 yards on eight carries (5.9 yards per carry).
"We knew we wanted to get the running game going," Shaq Mason said after the game. "It was definitely nice to see it manifest itself like that, but there's still tons of room for improvement if we want to get to where we want to be. We gotta keep chipping away at the block."
Seeing the Patriots up their number of "12" snaps should come as little surprise since LaCosse — who dealt with an ankle injury for most of training camp and into the early part of the regular season — was finally available to play a full workload (72 of 77 snaps). But to see that group be as productive as it was might only lead to more work for both LaCosse and Izzo down the line.
WHAT GOT TOSSED
The Patriots, as we suspected, all but abandoned their 20-personnel groupings, using it just twice in Washington, both times unsuccessfully. They may go back to those when Rex Burkhead, one of their top pass-catching backs, returns to action after missing Week 5 with a foot injury. But based on how it looked for the first month of the year, it could be gone for good.
The Patriots, as we suspected, all but abandoned their outside zone running plays as well. They hammered the 'Skins with inside zone runs, "wham" plays that put their tight ends in advantageous blocking positions, and power runs behind their fullback and pulling guards.
And for one half, they threw out their early-down running game, which had been undeniably inefficient for four weeks. But only for one half.
As they're wont to do, the Patriots adjusted on the fly, went against what the numbers told them through September and tested their we're-going-to-run-it-even-when-you-know-we're-going-to-run-it-and-we-don't-care approach with great results.
They threw on just four of their 15 first-down snaps in the third and fourth quarters, and they ran 20 times on 33 snaps for 111 yards (5.5 yards per carry). All but five of their second-half runs came out of heavy "12" or "21" packages.
By the end of the game, it was their pass-happy 11-personnel groupings that were cut down noticeably. The Patriots reduced their "11" plays by more than two-thirds in the second half and finished with just a 43 percent success rate out of that grouping.
QUESTION OF SUSTAINABILITY
So what do the Patriots do now?
They have four weeks of information that suggests they're a better spread-it-out-and-throw team. They have four weeks of information that suggests if they want to use heavier packages like "21" that they're better off throwing from those, not running.
Now they have one week — one half, really — of production running it down another team's proverbial throat with bigger personnel groupings. The Patriots are still 17th in the NFL in rushing efficiency through five weeks, according to Football Outsiders, and they're 28th in the league in yards per carry (3.5).
Are they a spread team? Or are they something closer to the team we saw at the end of 2018 that bulldozed its way to the Super Bowl?
Thursday night should be a good test to see just how far they've come as a grind-it-out offense. The weather conditions — with 20-mph winds expected at Gillette Stadium — are looking like they're set up to encourage more handoffs than throws. And the Giants have actually been pretty effective at slowing down opposing run games. They allow 4.4 yards per carry, which is 15th in the league and just a tick worse than the vaunted Patriots defense (4.3 yards per carry allowed).
The Patriots found something Sunday with their "21" and "12" groupings. While it was encouraging for them to produce as they did with bigger personnel, they'll have to show they can consistently churn out yardage and points as a physical offense before it becomes their chosen identity.
"You want to impose your will," Mason said. "Once you get it going, it's a great feeling. But we still have way, way more room for improvement . . .
"As far as this being a turning point? We gotta see next week. We gotta see if we can run the ball next week and just take it from there."
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