FOXBORO -- N'Keal Harry didn't get on the field much last week. He played two snaps, to be exact. But on one of them, he flashed the skill set that made him a first-round pick in the spring.
Bouncing off three potential tacklers, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound wideout kept his balance, stopped himself from going out of bounds and laid out to break the plane of the goal line with the football. Of course, he was ruled out of bounds. But he wasn't. And what he did after catching Tom Brady's shallow flip caught offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' eye.
"Certainly, he made a great individual effort," McDaniels said this week. "Broke a tackle and then had good balance there to finish the play and give us an opportunity to score. He’s a big guy. He’s not easy to get to the ground. Certainly, when you have players like that, it comes back to how can you get him the football in those situations, understanding that there’s a level of diminishing returns if you try to keep doing the same things over and over again?
"Meaning there’s only so many times you can hand a player that’s not a running back the ball. There’s only so many times you can throw the ball behind the line of scrimmage. Whatever those are – slants, unders, etc. – those plays are all productive plays when you have a guy that can do something with it.
"We know [Harry's] big and not easy to tackle, and like I said, I need to do a better job of finding ways to get him in space, get him the ball and letting him have an opportunity to do those things."
We highlighted earlier this week how the Patriots have struggled in the red zone this season, but their passing game has been bogged down for weeks -- regardless of where they are on the field. Brady has cracked 300 yards passing just once since Week 6. His yards per attempt number hasn't cracked 7.0 (his career average is 7.5) since Week 8.
Perhaps trying to get Harry more involved could provide the team a boost. He's looked unsure of his assignment at times when breaking the huddle this season -- he hesitated before going into motion on his would-be touchdown catch-and-run play -- but his physical skill set is hard to ignore for an offense experiencing the difficulties this one is.
Here are a few ways Harry might be able to help if he sees more than a couple of snaps this coming weekend against the Bengals...
GET HIM IN SPACE
McDaniels understands as well as anyone that one of Harry's strengths coming out of college was what he was able to do in the short passing game. Arizona State would throw him screens or quick hitches against off coverage, he'd turn, break a tackle, reverse field and turn it into an explosive gain. Happened multiple times.
In the NFL, press coverage is more prevalent. And broken tackles are harder to come by than they were in the Pac 12. But Harry still has above-average size and upper-body strength (he was in the 99th percentile among combine receivers in the bench press), and clearly has the ability to shake off tackles from smaller defensive backs.
The Patriots have tried to use Harry in space at times this season, but not often. He'd run what looked like six under routes prior to his catch against the Chiefs. He hadn't been used in motion until that play. And he has only been used out of one bunch formation.
They tried to get him in space on a high-low crosser over the middle where a pick from tight end Matt LaCosse gave Harry a bit of an opening. The target sent the rookie's way went incomplete. They've run him on four corner routes from stack alignments -- with another receiver almost directly behind him off the line -- designed to create traffic and manufacture separation.
They've only run Harry on one screen to this point, and it came in his first game.
More receiver screens like this one could be beneficial since it's a high-percentage attempt that allows Harry's physicality to take over as soon as he has the ball in his hands. This play might've gone for more with Isaiah Wynn at left tackle.
Even jet sweeps -- or missile-motion plays, as they're sometimes referred to in New England -- might make sense to get the ball in Harry's hands. As McDaniels said, there's only so many times you can do that, but Harry hasn't done it yet. There's timing that needs to be right on those types of snaps, but earlier this week, when asked about the preciseness of the timing on a play like that one, Bill Belichick made it sound like it didn't require an advanced degree in the Erhardt-Perkins system to be able to execute those.
"There’s an element of timing," Belichick said, "just like there is on mostly every other play. So, you work on it. Try to have the timing right for that play and that’s an important part of it, but again, I think most every team in the league runs that play, or some version of it. So, it’s certainly doable."
HIT 'EM WHERE THEY AIN'T
The Patriots have for years been fond of saying that offensively they want to force defenses to defend "every blade of grass."
That didn't happen last week in Kansas City. Time and again, the Chiefs were willing to double-team Julian Edelman with their free safety, leaving the middle of the field exposed. Apparently, there was not a player outside of Edelman that the Chiefs feared would beat them long.
If they were, they had a funny way of showing it.
The Patriots hit the Chiefs for a pair of long gains when the Chiefs dropped their safety on Edelman and played one-on-one across the board everywhere else, but both gains were the result of defensive pass interference penalties.
Brady didn't always find the receiver exposing the weak spot in Chiefs coverages when they chose to play without a deep safety. But just as the Chiefs seemed to have no fear in being beaten by Phillip Dorsett, Jakobi Meyers or Mohamed Sanu, Brady seemed to have little interest in trying those players on long attempts outside of the deep shots that resulted in flags.
If the Chiefs plan for the Patriots is one that's adopted by other defenses late in the year, then they can expect opposing coordinators to continue to dare them to win deep by taking away Edelman, going one-on-one across the board otherwise, and pressuring Brady with five.
To hurt that particular scheme, the Patriots need someone who's a threat to win down the middle of the field. Maybe that'll be Sanu, but he's dealing with an ankle injury that appears to be limiting him, and he's not thought of as a down-the-field receiver to begin with.
Harry would make sense as that hit-'em-where-they-ain't option. He's not necessarily a threat to blow by his defender in coverage -- he ran a 4.53-second 40-yard dash at the combine -- but he's still a threat to defeat one-on-one coverage by out-leaping his man for the ball and making contested catches. He was one of the best, if not the best, contested-catch receivers in this year's draft class and Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio touted Harry's ability in that regard soon after he was drafted.
Of the 70 routes Harry has run this year, he's handled what looked like a dozen go routes as well as four posts and a post-corner. All of those are plays that could result in jump-balls for Harry in one-on-one coverage.
They might not be high-percentage shots, but they might be necessary to soften up defenses because the Chiefs showed that they could slow down the Patriots by leaving the deep part of the field under-manned defensively . . . and it's a copycat league. A couple of long completions to Harry could do wonders to open up the rest of the Patriots passing game.
PLAY TO STRENGTHS
Without knowing Patriots play-calls or route adjustments on certain snaps, it's hard to know exactly how many of Harry's routes could've ended up as back-shoulder fade targets. In theory, any vertical route up the sideline -- Harry has aligned outside on 81 percent of his routes this year -- could turn into a back-shoulder throw.
But he has just two back-shoulder targets this season in 70 routes run. Both came against the Cowboys, and one resulted in his first career touchdown. Though he let his only other back-shoulder target slide through his hands in the rain that day, he still seems like a viable target on those types of contested passes the same way Josh Gordon was early on in his Patriots tenure in 2018.
Harry showed time and again impressive body control and athleticism on back-shoulder attempts this summer well before toe-tapping in the end zone for his first score as a pro.
Belichick used to say of retired Patriots center Dan Koppen, "His strength is his strength." The same appears to be true for Harry at the receiver position. Both with the ball in his hands or as a jump-ball specialist, Harry's frame is a weapon.
For an offense that could use all the help it can get with its 27th-ranked red-zone offense, dialing up Harry in that fashion seems logical.
Of course Brady will need time in the pocket in order to find Harry, whether it's on a lob near the goal line or deep down the middle of the field to attack a vacated area -- something the 42-year-old quarterback hasn't been afforded much of lately.
But if the Patriots can protect, and if they feel comfortable trusting Harry to execute his assignments, then there are ways he can help provide a spark. They're at the point now where they need to exhaust all options.
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