Every moron knows a potent running game will almost always have a positive impact on a team’s passing game.
And with the Patriots’ increased dedication to running the ball in 2018 (they are fourth in the league with 175 attempts after finishing 11th in attempts last year) and the dividends on the ground they are realizing (4.45 yards per rush over their past four games), their play-action passing game is going to become even more potent.
Tom Brady, as you have noticed, is really effective regardless of whether or not he’s got a bell-cow back lined up behind him (or next to him).
According to the analytics website Pro Football Focus, Brady had a best-in-the-league passer rating of 112.8 on 1,178 attempts without play action over the past three season.
When they did run play-action and Brady faked to Dion Lewis or LeGarrette Blount or Stephen Jackson or Joey Iosefa, Brady was even better on those 334 attempts, putting up a passer rating of 116.1
PFF’s Scott Barrett wrote about the potency of play-action and had the requisite charts, graphs and slide rules accompanying to prove his point that, even if your running game sucks, for God’s sake, just fake a handoff.
What’s interesting is that the Patriots’ play-action usage rose significantly last season.
Wrote Barrett: “In 2016, New England led the league in play-action passer rating (131.6) on 207 play-action passes. In 2017, Bill Belichick responded by having Tom Brady attempt 151 play-action passes, the most by any quarterback over the past three seasons.”
And that was without the same kind of run dedication they are showing this season.
Now, with Sony Michel looking like a bell-cow running behind fullback James Develin and a resurging offensive line, you can expect even more play-action.
Our guy Phil Perry asked Bill Belichick about it on Tuesday’s conference call.
“When the running game is effective, that helps the play-action passes a lot so probably nothing has helped our passing game more than the running game and vice versa,” Belichick said. “I'd say that’s really a big key for us. Throwing the ball to some different players or certainly making the plays look the same is tougher on the defense. If you're running the ball effectively that brings a lot more people to that run action than if you're not running it effectively.”
The Patriots were inept running the ball in some key situations against both the Jaguars and Lions. Since, they’ve improved drastically.
Part of that can be traced to the return of Julian Edelman and the addition of Josh Gordon. Teams have to take them more seriously than the players who were in those spots in the first four weeks.
With Rob Gronkowski and Edelman both on the field for the first time since midway through the 2016 season, the emergence of Gordon as the outside threat/field stretcher that Brandin Cooks was and Brady’s ability to diagnose, the Patriots are fully loaded in the passing game at this point.
The breakaway threat Michel poses and the work of the offensive line means defenses are spread thin.
Being able to add play-action and freeze linebackers for just a split-second is going to open up the area between the second and third levels even more meaning additional open space for Brady’s targets to work.
Brady still hasn’t had a game where he’s fully dialed in. He’s mentioned plays being left on the field. The same goes for Michel, who – despite his production – said after Sunday’s game there are more yards to be made with the holes he’s been given.
The Patriots have scored 38, 38 and 43 in their past three games. And they haven’t even clicked.
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