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.
Starting to take a closer look at how the Patriots might use Antonio Brown. Here’s a look at his routes when targeted during his final two games of 2018, courtesy of @NextGenStats.— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) September 12, 2019
Deep overs, verticals from the slot, shallow crosses, outs, posts, corners... Lots there. pic.twitter.com/itOxnthLq5
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.
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