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. 

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Next Pats Podcast: Matthew Slater reflects on social unrest within U.S. and NFL

Next Pats Podcast: Matthew Slater reflects on social unrest within U.S. and NFL

As much as we'd love to talk football, it has taken a back seat to the conversations that need to be had about George Floyd's murder and the racial injustices that remain prevalent in the United States.

The "Black Lives Matter" movement has spread across the country with protests advocating for justice and racial equality. It has impacted the world of sports, with countless athletes using their platforms to let their voices be heard. NFL players even sent a strong message to the league with a video stating what they wanted to hear it say regarding the oppression of African Americans.

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On a brand new episode of the Next Pats Podcast, New England Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater joined Phil Perry to discuss the state of the nation.

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Slater covered a variety of important topics in the episode. But one that particularly stood out was his explanation of how if the country operated like an NFL locker room, it would be a more inclusive place.

"It is a very unique place. A locker room setting -- you know, if our country operated and moved like a locker room, man it would be a beautiful thing," Slater said. "I'm not saying it's perfect, I'm not saying we've got it all figured out, but what a unique space where people from all different walks of life, different belief systems and things of that nature to work toward a common goal.

"And there's automatic respect that comes with the fact that you have a jersey and a helmet, and you're one of us. So I'm appreciative of that and I think now is a time for us to maybe forge those bonds even deeper. Guys that maybe hear personal stories and maybe experience this from their teammates have a different appreciation for why that guy is the way he is, why he does the things that he does. And I think ultimately that's going to lead to deeper and more fruitful relationships."

If anyone knows what a healthy, inclusive locker room environment looks like, it's Slater. The 34-year-old has been a captain for the Patriots for nearly a decade and has been an admirable leader throughout his stellar NFL career.

Slater also discussed how head coach Bill Belichick has been involved in the team's discussions about recent events, his experiences living as a black man in America, and much more.

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Patriots Roster Reset: Rookie tight ends offer optimism after 2019 drought

Patriots Roster Reset: Rookie tight ends offer optimism after 2019 drought

What if? What if Rob Gronkowski had announced his retirement just a few days sooner, allowing the Patriots to make a legitimate play for free agent Jared Cook? 

By the time the man who is arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history decided to hang 'em up (briefly), Cook was already making plans to join the Saints. He ended up eighth among tight ends with 705 receiving yards and second with nine touchdowns.

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Meanwhile the Patriots were left to piece together that spot with the likes of Matt LaCosse, Ben Watson and Ryan Izzo.

Reluctant to invest in young players at the position since taking Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in 2010 — since then they'd only drafted Izzo (2018, seventh round), Lee Smith (2011, fifth round) and A.J. Derby (2015, sixth round) — the Patriots had arguably the least-productive tight end group in the NFL last season: 37 catches for 419 yards and two touchdowns.

They've attempted to remedy that situation. In this year's draft, they traded up to land two intriguing talents in the third round.

UCLA's Devin Asiasi is a do-it-all player with the size to move people on the line of scrimmage and the body control to draw comparisons to some of the game's elites at that position. Dalton Keene is an athletic option with experience playing out of the backfield at Virginia Tech who could be the key to unlocking snap-to-snap unpredictability for Josh McDaniels' personnel packages.

Do they enter the equation as the immediate No. 1 and 2 options there? Let's reset the depth chart.

LOCK ‘EM IN

Asiasi. Keene. That's it. Those are the locks. Given the output, it should come as no surprise that there's not a player from last year's roster who comes into this season guaranteed to have a regular-season role. 

ON THE BUBBLE

LaCosse makes sense here. He could potentially end up on the roster as a 2020 version of Alge Crumpler — a veteran who can help guide two promising rookies — because his experience level dwarfs that of others on the depth chart.

However, his experience level isn't exactly overwhelming (33 career games). If he can't stay healthy, as was the case last season, or can't win a job, he'd save the Patriots $1.3 million on the salary cap if released in camp.

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LONG SHOTS

Izzo will have to open eyes in camp or become a special teams staple in order to have a chance to make an impact. Though he showed flashes of being a capable receiver last season, that part of his game was lacking consistency. As a blocker? It was there that he was thought to be a potential contributor when drafted out of Florida State two years ago. But according to Pro Football Focus, his 44.9 run-blocking grade was second-lowest among all players at the position in 2019.

Undrafted rookies Jake Burt from Boston College and Rashod Berry from Ohio State also have to be considered in this category. Burt looks like an in-line option at 6-foot-3, 260 pounds. Berry actually played both on the defensive line and at tight end as a senior. He finished his career with 17 receptions. 

NEWCOMER TO WATCH

In what was considered a tight end class short on game-changing talent, Asiasi might've been the most gifted. Notre Dame's Cole Kmet was the first tight end taken in the draft, going off the board in the second round as the "safest" of this year's tight end crop, according to several evaluators. But when it comes to physical ability? Asiasi can "do it all," one tight ends coach told me.

Some questions about Asiasi's makeup lingered into draft weekend, helping him stay undrafted through almost three full rounds, but the Patriots may have found themselves a steal if Asiasi can make good on his on-the-field promise. Asiasi's trainer Dave Spitz, who has also worked with Browns tight end Austin Hooper and Eagles tight end Zach Ertz, spoke to NBC Sports Boston earlier this offseason.

"He has the catch radius of Austin," Spitz said. "He has the body control and awareness of Zach. And he, I think, has more bend, more wiggle, than both of them. He's a beautiful combination."

X-FACTOR

Asiasi might be the most talented addition the Patriots have made at this position in years, but Keene's versatility makes him an interesting queen-on-the-chess-board piece for Bill Belichick and McDaniels. He has enough size (6-foot-4, 253 pounds) to play in-line as a "Y" tight end. He has the movement skills to serve as more of an "F" option. He's played in the backfield before. He's served as a lead-blocker like a fullback. There are a variety of ways in which he can be deployed.

Why does that matter? Perhaps the Patriots want to use their 12-personnel package with one back and two tight ends. Perhaps, because tight ends are oftentimes glorified receivers these days, a defense will respond to that two-tight end set by matching it with an extra safety instead of a linebacker. If that's the case, Keene could flex in as a fullback and the Patriots could run a 21-personnel look at a lighter defense for an advantage. If the defense keeps linebackers on the field to check Asiasi and/or Keene, the Patriots could use them in the passing game where their athleticism should give them an advantage over a traditional second-level defender. Options.

That's what Keene provides, making him an X-factor in the truest sense if he can handle a wide range of alignments and responsibilities early in his career.