FOXBORO — The players, the players, the players. Bill Belichick is the best coach of this generation and probably all the other ones too. Regardless of sport. But when it comes to doling out credit, he starts with the Jimmys and Joes before he gets to the Xs and Os.
And he should.
But the game plan thrown at the Pittsburgh Steelers last night by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was so varied, so perfectly designed that all the Jimmys and Joes had to do was show up in the spots they were supposed to and do their jobs. Which they did.
The result? A 33-3 rout of the Steelers.
The defense was brilliant. As expected. But the fact the Patriots just kept scoring — four times in five possessions in the first half after their first drive ended with a punt — meant the Steelers had to bail on their offensive game plan. That’s the complementary football Belichick’s always talking about. But it was jump-started by the offense.
“Josh always does a great job of utilizing the players that are available, putting them in great positions and attacking the defense,” Belichick said. “Every week is a little bit of a different challenge based on the scheme and the players that we're up against, but Josh does a great job of organizing the game plan, play-calling, making adjustments in the game. I thought he did a great job tonight. The players did a great job executing. We took care of the ball. We had a lot of positive plays. It was a good outing.”
Before the first quarter was out, the Patriots had hit Pittsburgh with almost every personnel grouping imaginable, starting first with heavy personnel and a ground attack before switching to an up-tempo, empty attack.
The Patriots will morph this season from being tight-end reliant to finding other ways to stress defenses. Sunday night, they were in 20 personnel (two backs, no tight ends, three wide receivers) 19 times through three quarters. They used that personnel just eight times in 2018.
They mixed running back combos — Rex Burkhead and James White; James Develin and Burkhead; Develin and Sony Michel. They ran a pony formation with two backs split next to Tom Brady. They ran a variation of the pony with two backs to the same side of Brady in the shotgun. They went five-wide with the fullback Develin split out to the sideline.
They ran out of 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end, two WRs) 17 times.
They had 11 personnel on 16 plays. They had 10 personnel once and that resulted in a dart to Jakobi Myers for his first NFL catch.
All those groupings and all those formations stress a defense to get lined up and matched up. It also allows Brady, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of what’s going to happen post-snap, to get it to the most favorable matchup whether that’s Julian Edelman, Josh Gordon, Phillip Dorsett, Meyers, James White, Burkhead … you get the idea.
It doesn’t necessarily make it “easy” for Brady because there’s still the execution end of things in the face of a defense trying to respond. But it makes it so that the offense is able to dictate when it’s all clicking.
“We’ve had a great relationship for a long time,” Brady said of his longtime OC. “I have so much trust in him and what he puts together every week. He works extremely hard, he’s diligent. He puts a lot of pressure on the defense, and that’s what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to keep forcing different things.
“I think over the course of the season, you’ve got to figure out a lot of different ways,” Brady added. “I think this team gets used to that. It’s not you’re going to win like this every single week. Some days it’s going to be more to the back, some days it’s going to be more to the receiver, some days it’s more tight ends, more it’s the run game — that’s the ebb and flow of the season.”
As it relates to Antonio Brown, it will be fascinating on two levels. One, how the Patriots deploy him and how often they go to a player that’s never been targeted fewer than 10 times a game since 2011. Two, how Brown responds when he begins to taste the reality of being a cog in the machine rather than the engine.
The skillsets of some key players on the Patriots offense are not off the charts. But the versatility they have and their ability to understand the concepts and subjugate themselves to McDaniels’ plan is what makes the offense potent. They see the bigger picture.
How willing Brown is to try and do the same might be the difference between this offense being really hard to defend — as it is without him — and impossible to defend as it could be if he buys in for the long haul, not just for a few weeks.
The Patriots don’t need Antonio Brown to be the answer to their problems. They’ve proven themselves to be damn good at solving those without him for going on two decades. All he has to do is show up in the spots he’s supposed to and do the job McDaniels lays out for him.
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