FOXBORO -- When Julian Edelman got back to work after serving his four-game suspension, the assumption was that the Patriots offense would change. How quickly and drastically those changes would arrive was up for debate.
Now after two games with Edelman in the fold -- games in which the Patriots have scored 38 and 43 points, respectively -- we have a better sense for the types of packages the Patriots have turned to more frequently and which groupings they've scaled back. We have a better idea of what the Patriots offense might look like moving forward for the 2018 season.
With help from data compiled by Warren Sharp of SharpFootballStats.com, we're opened a window into the offensive changes made by the Patriots over the course of the last two weeks, and a light is shined on just how creative the Patriots had to get with their offensive personnel groupings while Edelman was out.
For the season, through six weeks, the Patriots are like most teams across the NFL: They use their 11-personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers) grouping more than any other, 49 percent of the time. That's the way of the world in the modern NFL. But unlike most teams, they've used 11-personnel on fewer than 50 percent of their snaps. Only the Niners (40 percent) can say the same.
The reason that number is where it is? Because through the first four weeks of the season, before Edelman's return, the Patriots were closer to San Francisco in their dependency on three-receiver sets. They turned to 11-personnel on 43 percent of their plays and were reliant upon 21-personnel (31 percent of plays), 12-personnel (12 percent) and 22 personnel (11 percent).
Light on receivers through September, the Patriots leaned on their backs and tight ends as much as possible. The result? An average of 23.75 points per game and a middle-of-the-pack passing game. Tom Brady's quarterback rating was 16th in football (94.0), and his yards per attempt figure was 26th (6.8), tied with Jets rookie Sam Darnold.
Since Edelman's arrival? Things have changed. Radically.
Over the last two weeks, Brady's landed in the top-10 in both rating (105.5) and yards per attempt (8.6), and the Patriots averaged 40.5 points in their wins over Indy and Kansas City.
Part of that success has to be due in part to the fact that the Patriots played banged-up defenses in Weeks 5 and 6. But a percentage can be attributed to Edelman's return, which has allowed the Patriots to maximize their efficiency in the league's most prominently-used personnel grouping.
In the last two weeks, the Patriots have used 11-personnel on 61 percent of their plays -- a drastic increase from the first month of the season during Edelman's suspension. Their usage of 21-personnel has dropped to 23 percent, and their reliance upon 12-personnel (four percent) and 22-personnel (six percent) has nose-dived.
What's interesting about the shift in personnel deployment isn't necessarily that the Patriots have gone more receiver-heavy with Edelman back (and with Josh Gordon becoming a more significant piece in the offense). That would be the reasonable expectation: More receivers, more three-receiver sets.
What's interesting is that the Patriots have become more predictable over the course of the last two weeks and still have found greater success because of the quality of the players added to their arsenal.
For instance, the Patriots are using 11-personnel more and they're throwing out of 11-personnel more often in the last two weeks (68 percent pass out of "11" in the first four weeks; 76 percent pass in the last two weeks). Being more predictable isn't typically what offenses are looking for, yet throwing more often with more receivers on the field is the definition of predictable.
Still, it hasn't hurt the Patriots. They averaged 6.7 yards per attempt out of 11 personnel in September. The last two weeks? That figure is up almost two full yards (8.5).
And even though the Patriots are running less out of "11" than they were through four weeks, they're having greater success carrying the football out of those packages (4.5 yards per carry in September versus 6.1 yards per carry in Weeks 5 and 6).
The Patriots have become more predictable in terms of when they'll keep it on the ground, too. Through four weeks, they ran 55 percent of the time out of "21," their favorite "heavy" grouping. They averaged 4.2 yards per carry. Not bad. The last two weeks? They've run a whopping 75 percent of the time out of "21" and averaged 4.5 yards per carry.
With Edelman in the mix, it's become easier to guess what the Patriots will do based on the personnel on the field, but it's become harder to stop them from doing what they want.
McDaniels said on a conference call this week that the team tries to self-scout its own tendencies. It tries to mix things up to keep opponents off-balance, but there's a fine line there.
The goal is to score points, and if something's working . . . well then why get away from it, even if the opponent can see it coming?
"Yeah, you have to keep track of what you’ve shown," he explained. "If you’ve demonstrated a strong tendency in any area, any one area – either run, pass or formationally or with motions or some area of the field – you’re doing something a little bit more than something else. You just want to be conscious of that and if that’s . . . what have we done from a grouping with more receivers on the field, what have we done with a grouping with less receivers on the field -- you want to try to maintain balance.
"And at the same time, you want to try to do something that gets a positive result, as well. I think there’s kind of a fine line between just being balanced just to be balanced and then doing something based on the defense that you’re playing each week that gives you the best chance to be successful. You certainly want to try to keep an eye on both, and always the goal is to go out there and try to give our players an opportunity to be successful on each play. We try to do it as best we can and certainly try to self-scout ourselves and make sure we’re not becoming predictable and that our tendencies are a little balanced. But, every once in a while, that might sway in one direction or another for one reason or another as you go throughout the season."
Have Patriots tendencies swayed to the point that they feel the need for a correction this weekend against the Bears?
If ever there were a team against which to mix things up, Chicago might be it. No team in football, according to Sharp, has seen more 11-personnel this season than the Bears (81 percent of their defensive snaps) -- and they've been successful when teams predictably pass out of that look.
Of the "11" snaps the Bears defense has seen, 70 percent have been passes. They've allowed a quarterback rating of 78.0 on those plays and an 11-to-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Chicago's pass defense against heavier formations, meanwhile, is not as potent. Against "12," their rating-allowed number bumps up to 85.9. Against "21," New England's second-favorite package, the Bears allow a quarterback rating of 95.8.
If the Patriots wanted to stir things up even further and run out of "11" against the Bears, they could do that as well. Chicago is allowing 4.3 yards per carry when offenses trot out three receivers, one back, and run the football. In a loss to the Dolphins last weekend, some of the biggest runs allowed by the Bears -- highlighted here by NFL Media's Brian Baldinger -- came out of Miami's 11-personnel grouping.
If the last two weeks are any indication, the Patriots are able to execute less-predictable calls when they want to.
They can run out of "11." (As we pointed out above, the Patriots have averaged 6.1 yards per carry out of "11" the last two weeks.) And they can throw out of "21." Boy, can they throw out of "21."
While the Patriots are throwing less often out of heavier packages lately, they're having more success throwing out of those packages now than they did with Edelman out.
Through September, Brady had a measly rating of 57.0 and averaged just 5.3 yards per attempt when throwing out of "21." Now? His rating has skyrocketed with those groupings to 116.7. His yards per attempt out of that grouping have more than doubled to 13.1.
"We try," McDaniels said, "to make sure that we’re always doing something our players feel good about and know how to do and execute because there’s nothing more important than our ability to know what we’re doing and then do it at a high level fundamentally with our techniques. We try to do that.
"At the same time, you don’t want to become predictable and give the defense an advantage based on the personnel grouping you’re in, the formation you line up in. So, you want to try to keep that moving as much as you can so that you don’t put your players at a disadvantage because the defense knows what’s coming."
The Patriots have done what they've wanted offensively since Edelman's return. They've thrown out of three-receiver sets. They've run out of two-back sets. They imposed their will on the Colts and Chiefs.
But against a Bears defense that ranks fourth in points allowed per game and 10th in yards allowed per game, a defense that has fared well when it knows what's coming, striking that balance that McDaniels described will be critical.
Will they throw more out of heavy packages? Run more out of light packages? The numbers show that may be the best way to attack Chicago. And the numbers show the Patriots can do those things as their offense as evolved over the last two weeks.