Patriots

How the Patriots offense can attack the Dolphins with (or without) Antonio Brown

How the Patriots offense can attack the Dolphins with (or without) Antonio Brown

FOXBORO — It's not yet 100 percent clear whether or not the Patriots will have Antonio Brown as part of their offensive attack Sunday. 

At this point, there's nothing preventing Brown from playing. But Bill Belichick wouldn't commit to having his new receiver on the field this weekend. Maybe that's because Brown could end up on the commissioner's exempt list. Maybe it's because the Patriots could choose to hold out Brown based on the fact that he'll have, at most, three practices with the team.

Until a decision is made one way or the other on his availability, we're in wait-and-see mode. But let's try to look ahead and envision how the Patriots might attack the Dolphins with Brown and without him. 

BROWN'S BEST ROUTES

Let's first take a look at what Brown might be asked to do for the Patriots regardless of opponent. He ran a wide variety of routes from an array of positions on the field while with the Steelers. Deep overs, shallow crossers, slants, corners, posts, vertical routes from the outside and the slot . . . he was a threat to run them all. 

Have a look at the routes on which he was targeted during Weeks 15 and 16 last year. 

Given that 2018 was his sixth consecutive 1,000-yard season it might come as no surprise that he was generally efficient across the board regardless of how he was used in Pittsburgh. 

Brown ran 139 of his 670 routes (21 percent) last year from out of the slot and saw 44 targets (31.7 percent) so he has plenty of experience inside if the Patriots want to use him there. He finished 2018 with 33 catches for 315 yards, five scores and a whopping 2.27 yards per route run from the slot, according to Pro Football Focus. That YPRR mark was better than some of the game's best slot receivers, including teammate JuJu Smith-Schuster, Keenan Allen, Tyler Lockett, Adam Thielen, Adam Humphries, Emmanuel Sanders, Jarvis Landry and Julian Edelman. The only players with as many slot targets as Brown who were more efficient on a YPRR basis were Tyreek Hill and Michael Thomas. 

Whether aligned outside or inside, Brown was a factor however he attacked defenders. Per Football Outsiders, though, there were a few different types of routes that stood out for Brown as extremely productive. He racked up 199 yards receiving on slants (9.1 yards per target), 119 yards on scramble-drill plays (17.0 yards per target), and 216 yards on go routes (14.4 yards per target).

With the Patriots, he may have fewer scramble-drill opportunities than he had with Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, but those are situations that the Patriots practice often for when Brady is able to extend plays inside the pocket or out. 

Slants would certainly figure to be part of the plan, as they have been for Josh Gordon from the moment he joined the team in 2018. And go routes, where Brown would almost certainly draw a safety over the top, could make a big impact for the Patriots even if Brady doesn't throw him the football. With extra defensive attention devoted to preventing Brown from getting open deep, the middle of the field should be opened up for Edelman or James White. And depending on the look, the Patriots could line up Brown and Gordon on the same side of the field and force the defense to pick their poison when it comes to safety help.

The Patriots generally love the screen game and back-shoulder fades with certain targets. But given the numbers for Brown on those routes, they may try to steer clear of their newest receiver on those types of throws. Brown was targeted on 25 screens with the Steelers last year and gained only 97 yards (3.88 yards per target). On fades, he was targeted eight times and only caught one, according to Football Outsiders. 

DOLPHINS MATCHUP WITH BROWN

How the Patriots choose to go about their offensive plan with Brown in the mix could go one of a few ways in Miami. 

They could simply continue to run more three-receiver sets, which they turned to frequently against the Steelers in Week 1. Between their 11-personnel grouping and their 20-personnel grouping, 62 percent of their plays came with three wideouts on the field. That meant a lot of time for Edelman (67 snaps), Gordon (55) and Phillip Dorsett (53). With Brown in, though it's impossible to know how much he'd be used after only a handful of practices, it would come as little surprise if Dorsett saw his reps diminished. 

The Patriots had plenty of success with three wideouts in Week 1, and it'd make sense to continue to hammer those sets as the Dolphins struggled against those looks in Week 1 against the Ravens. 

Yes, the Dolphins were bowled over by Baltimore by multiple different sets, but against 11 personnel they allowed 10 of 11 passes to be completed for 9.3 yards per attempt and two touchdowns, according to Sharp Football Stats. They did not face the 20 personnel packages that the Patriots ran frequently in Week 1, but those could also be effective against what was a generous Dolphins secondary last week. 

The Patriots might also opt to run out their 10-personnel grouping more often this week, taking advantage of their talent at receiver and getting Edelman, Gordon, Brown and Dorsett all onto the field simultaneously. Josh McDaniels called for that four-receiver grouping only three times last week, and it likely would never be a dominant personnel package for the Patriots. Even so, it could make a game-changing impact. 

Against the Ravens in Week 1, the Dolphins saw one four-receiver set (01 personnel) from the Ravens and allowed a 33-yard touchdown to Willie Snead when they went man-to-man across the board with their deep safety spying Lamar Jackson. That might look like more traditional Cover 1 if the Patriots ran four wideouts onto the field at Hard Rock Stadium this weekend. But even so, if there's only one free safety on the field against a four-wideout look, then the Patriots could attack with multiple vertical routes from Brown, Gordon and Dorsett and come away with a viable big-play option. 

DOLPHINS MATCHUP WITHOUT BROWN

If, for whatever reason, Brown isn't available on Sunday then it'd come as no surprise to see more of the same from the Patriots following their win last week. 

More four-receiver sets probably wouldn't be on the table as they would be with Brown, but whether the Patriots wanted to run three-receiver groupings or two-back, two-receiver sets (which they did on 33 percent of their snaps against the Steelers), they should find success.

Out of three-receiver sets in Week 1, the Patriots went 16-for-24 through the air for 228 yards and three touchdowns. Their 11-personnel grouping (9-for-9, 165 yards, three touchdowns) was much more successful than their 20-personnel group (7-for-15, 63 yards). We documented above just how much trouble the Dolphins had with three-receiver looks last week, meaning we could very well see the Patriots test them with something similar Sunday.

With their 21-personnel group, the Patriots passed very efficiently against the Steelers by going 7-for-10 and picking up over 11 yards per attempt. The Dolphins only saw one pass out of a two-back set last week and defended it well (three-yard reception), but they allowed 9.4 yards per carry on seven rushing attempts out of "21." Might make sense for the Patriots to attack on the ground with those packages and force Miami to prove it can stop them. 

THE BOTTOM LINE

If Brown plays Sunday, even as someone who's run a diverse route tree over the course of his career, it'd be too much to expect him to have the finer points of the Patriots offense down pat. But given the success he's had on slants and go routes, those could be how he integrates himself into the plan in the early going. Screens and back-shoulder fades, meanwhile, might be worth pocketing for the time being based on Brown's numbers from 2018.

Against the Dolphins, rolling with Brown in 11-personnel looks — based on how well the Patriots ran theirs last week and how poorly the Dolphins defended Baltimore's — would make sense. Trying out more four-receiver sets a little more often would be logical as well. 

If Brown can't go, that shouldn't derail the Patriots plans at all. They could go with 11-personnel looks with Dorsett instead of Brown and be just fine. Running out of two-back sets should lead to success for the Patriots as well. 

Brown is an intriguing fit for the Patriots over the long haul, but whether or not he's on the field in Miami for Week 2 shouldn't be the determining factor in a game between two teams on very different planes at the moment. 

Pats-Dolphins spread among biggest this decade>>>>>

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Will Tom Brady become an afterthought in this Patriots team's success? In his dreams, perhaps

Will Tom Brady become an afterthought in this Patriots team's success? In his dreams, perhaps

In Tom Brady’s fever dream, he walks down a long, antiseptic hallway filled with artificial light. This week. This week. This week we get it right. A mantra on repeat in Brady’s mind.

Smooth, soothing elevator music plays. Is it N’Sync?

A door is at the end of the hall. He pushes it open. It’s like a high school chem lab. Every seat at every table is full. Everyone is in full uniform. Brady recognizes none of them from the back of the room. They are all hunched forward, writing, their backs turned to him.

Bill Belichick stands at the front of the class. He’s dressed differently. A hooded cloak. A long white beard. A scythe leans against the wall behind him.

“So, like I said, we’re gonna play to our strengths …” Belichick is saying. He spots Brady. Belichick’s voice tapers. His face spreads into a grin. But it doesn’t stop. It keeps stretching wider. 

“I’m late?” Brady says, his voice a mixture of anger and disbelief. “Why am I late? What time is it?!”

“No, Tom, just finishing up here, not late. Right on time. I was just saying we’re looking to get the ball to Jake Bailey this week. Get it to Jake and let him do his thing…”

Bailey is at a lab table to Belichick’s right.

“Hi Tom!” he says, waving like a lunatic. “I’m here to help!”

In his left hand, he holds an hourglass. He flicks at it absently with his right index finger. Flick. Flick. Flick. Sand falls down.

Panic rises in Brady’s throat. How could he have gotten the time wrong? Is everything already done, really?

“We’re looking to get it to the punter? That’s the plan? What can I do, though? I can do things.” Brady asks, eyes darting around the room. He can remember ever feeling so exposed.

“You know what, I think we’re all set for now, Tom,” Belichick replies, his grin somehow broadening so that his eyes begin to bulge slightly.

One player sits up straight, pivots rigidly and looks at Brady with dead eyes. It’s Ryan Izzo.

“All set for now, Tom,” he says.

Every other player sits bolt upright. They slowly turn in unison to face Brady. They are all Ryan Izzo.

“All set for now, Tom,” they say robotically. Then they smile and all the Ryan Izzos give a big thumbs-up.

“This shit ain’t real,” Brady mutters. Turning for the door he spins into a body that’s blocking it.

“This is serious as a HEART ATTACK!!!!” Marshall Newhouse says and throws his head back. All the Ryan Izzos laugh.

Pushing past Newhouse with surprising ease, Brady is now in a different hall. There’s a door with a small picture taped to it. He looks at the picture. A goat. With a cane. And a top hat. His cane points at a door. Squinting, Brady sees that, on the door in the picture, there is also a picture. Of a goat. With a cane. And a top hat. That is pointing at a door.

The door opens on its own. Slowly. It’s Brady’s locker room. Same as it’s been since 2002. But at his locker, there’s a scrum of people. They are holding cameras and tape recorders. They are interviewing someone at HIS locker. The MOTHERSCRATCHER!

“Hey!!!” yells Brady. No one turns.

Brady rushes over and grabs a shoulder. Rohan Davey turns to face Brady. Then Matt Guttierez. And Matt Cassel. And Kevin O’Connell. Ryan Mallett. Jimmy. Jacoby. Jarrett. Damon Huard. Michael Bishop. John Friesz. Drew Bledsoe. They all look at Brady with detachment then turn back to the figure at Brady’s locker.

Wedging himself through Brady sees someone in a full-body cast. Only the head is visible. The face looks familiar. Brady can’t place it.

“Hi Tom!” the head suddenly cries. “I’m Tua!!!! We’re gonna work together!”

The music. Brady hears it again. It’s louder now. Deafening. “Bye, bye, bye!” It is N’Sync.

**********

Tom Brady’s purgatory season of 2019 activates the imagination so if you’re still with me, I appreciate you.

Facts are facts, Tom Brady is New England’s Achilles and his NFL Odyssey has never failed to fascinate. 

Now – in season 20 – quarterbacking a team that stylistically resembles the 2001 team that won the first of six Super Bowls, it’s hard to overlook the ironic symbolism.

The joy that coursed through that season radiated from Brady. He was the sun around which the team revolved. This season, he’s a dark star of despondency, morose about the direction of the offense and his inability to do anything but stay out of the way. 

On too many Sundays, it feels like the thrill is gone for the greatest quarterback of all-time.

His team keeps stacking wins and is 9-1 and atop the AFC. But his job right now is to not eff anything up. In less than two years he’s gone from being revving the engine of a Formula One car to pushing a bike with training wheels around a parking lot.

He’s Jimmy Page playing with a garage band, Picasso with crayons, Steve Jobs with an abacus.

Brady’s on record saying he’ll keep playing until he sucks. Maybe sucking won’t be an inability to throw hard, far and accurately and avoid a pass rush.

Maybe sucking will be being unable to play like he’s capable because of circumstances beyond his control. Maybe sucking will be an inability to suck it up and deal with what’s around him because, he figures, should he really have to at this point?

And that’s where the real conflict exists.

The most selfless and accomplished professional athlete of his generation, the guy who’s probably taken about $50 million less than he could have in salary over the course of his career, the quarterback who’s buttoned his lip and succeeded with a succession of merely OK players around him, the player who dealt with Bill Belichick’s verbal slings and arrows and attempts to replace him so that he could try and win the all-important “next one”?

Are some going to see him bummed out after a win on the road that moved his team to 9-1 and say he’s being a bad teammate? Are some going to accuse the player that authored perhaps the most memorable comeback in team sports history of running up the white flag?

Some could. Some will. Some are.

Are others going to see the whole picture in full relief and realize Despondent Tom has been marinating for a while. Through attempts to replace him. Through lowball contract offers that took advantage of his aversion to conflict. Through the lopping off of talented offensive pieces and the half-assed or lamebrained efforts to replace them.

Others could. Others will. Others are.

The Eeyore act isn’t a hit in Foxboro.

It’s understood that he’s used to a certain level of performance. And nobody believes this offense is about to transform into a unit that will approach Brady’s accustomed level. But the moping creates a firestorm and – even if Brady was publicly sounding the alarm about the offense as far back as training camp – now is not the time for “I told you so …” Even if he did tell us so.

The Patriots offense will improve over the final six games. Isaiah Wynn will help. N’Keal Harry and Mohamed Sanu are still new additions. Tight end Matt Lacosse is working his way in. It’s not going to get “good” relative to what we’re used to but it will be better.

Brady’s got valid reasons to be pissed off about how his contracts have been handled, how the offense has been constructed, the team’s reluctance to believe he’s got enough in the tank to play until 45. Things pile up over two decades. It might seem like he’s mad after Jakobi Meyers runs a bad route but that anger may really have its root in a mistake he saw Chad Jackson, Aaron Dobson or Brian Tyms make 13, seven or four years ago.

After all he’s done, if Brady wants to continue kicking rocks in press conferences about what the Patriots can’t do, that’s his prerogative. For me, it won’t undo a millisecond of the Tom Brady Experience or change my belief he’s been the ultimate teammate and still is.

But do you know what it sounds like the longer it goes? A death rattle.

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Tom Brady addresses frustration with struggling Patriots offense

Tom Brady addresses frustration with struggling Patriots offense

The New England Patriots were victorious on Sunday vs. the Philadelphia Eagles, but something still clearly didn't sit well with Tom Brady.

The Patriots quarterback was visibly frustrated in his postgame press conference, and it's easy to understand why. Brady completed only 26 of 47 passes and he failed to find the end zone in what was another lackluster performance from the New England offense as a whole.

In his Monday appearance on Westwood One with Jim Gray, Brady discussed his frustration with the offense's ongoing struggles.

"It's just part of how our season's gone," Brady told Gray. "I think there's a lot of things we talk about internally. Things that we see that we need to do to continue to try to improve ... we're going to have to just execute better than we did and better than we have.

"We're 9-1, our defense is playing great, our special teams unit is playing great and they're keeping us in every game. Offensively, I've said we've got to take advantage when we have opportunities in [a] short field and we had a few of those yesterday. Those are the ones that probably frustrate me the most."

Gray asked Brady whether this team -- with an offense that can't seem to find its rhythm -- has what it takes to make it through the playoffs and win Super Bowl title No. 7.

"That's the question that probably everyone wants to know and tries to predict, but nobody knows at this point," Brady answered. "There's only one team that's going to be able to reach the ultimate goal. Out team's in a decent position, so we're not going to know until we're in that position.

"Like I said, we're 9-1. We've got to play great complementary football. There's certainly things that we need to do better offensively. Again, it's not what I think, or what I predict, or what somebody on TV can predict or what they think, or what their parents say, or what their kids say. It's really about the mental toughness of our team to show up and try to improve."

While Brady's play hasn't exactly been spectacular as of late, the 42-year-old QB hasn't gotten a ton of help around him. The offensive line has seen its fair share of struggles through the first 10 games and there's been plenty of turnover at the wide receiver position.

The way Brady sees it, his offense simply has yet to show its full potential.

"Look, everyone thinks, you know, they analyze every game and they know everything that's going on. We talk about ignoring the noise," Brady said. "There's a lot of noise and when you play great, you're the best team in the world. When you play bad, you're the worst team in the world, you can't beat anyone. And that's just riding the rollercoaster of emotions.

"We have a lot of good players on our team and we're trying to excel, we're trying to play at a very high level. I don't think we've reached our potential yet and I'll be excited when we do."

There's no doubting the struggling Patriots offense is a concern heading into Week 12, but Brady makes it a point to look at the positive side of things with his team boasting a 9-1 record on the year.

"I don't think any team's really a finished product. As critical as we can be of our team at times, we're still in a good position," he said. "We're 9-1 and that's a good place to be this time of year. It's not perfect ... but we've got an opportunity that we're going to try and take advantage of.

"I'm going to try and play the best I possibly can. I'm going to try to motivate my teammates as best as I possibly can, and we're going to try to go out there and put our best performance on the field Sunday against Dallas."

Brady and the Pats offense will look to get on the right track when they host the Cowboys on Sunday at 4:25 p.m. ET.

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