Patriots

Why this Eagles package looks built to give Bill Belichick's defense headaches

Why this Eagles package looks built to give Bill Belichick's defense headaches

FOXBORO — Typically the number 12 is one that elicits happy memories for football fans in New England. But those two digits arranged in that order could be what has Patriots supporters scattered throughout region ripping follicles from their skulls this weekend.

As things stand right now, the Patriots defense is looking at its second consecutive game where an opponent's offense has the ability to deploy a particularly annoying personnel package.

Against the Ravens in Week 9, it was a three tight end grouping that made an already-challenging Lamar Jackson-driven run scheme even more so. This week, the Patriots could have their hands full when they see Eagles 12 personnel packages — one back, two tight ends, two receivers — in Philadelphia.

The answer as to why is simple enough: A) No team runs more "12" than the Eagles with their tight end duo of Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert, and B) no team has had more trouble against "12" over the course of the last month than the Patriots.

According to Sharp Football Stats, the Eagles have used two tight ends on 40 percent of their plays this season, significantly more than the next heaviest "12" team (Houston, 33 percent). That number has seen a real uptick over Philly's last two games, wins over the Bills and Eagles, as they've gone with two tight ends on 58 percent of their snaps. 

"I think they play two tight ends more than any other team in the league," Bill Belichick said Wednesday. "Those two guys play a lot. It's usually Ertz in 11 personnel, but not always. Goedert plays in there a decent amount. Obviously they're both on the field when they go to 12.

"I would say they're interchangeable. They move guys around to different spots. I would say [Goedert] plays a little more tight end than Ertz does. But they both play it. They both can extend outside and in the slot. They play off each other ... they're versatile. They're obviously smart. They can do several different things and run the same play from different formations and different looks so it's the same but it doesn't really look the same to the defense."

While the Eagles haven't been tremendously successful with "12" over the last two weeks — they averaged 6.3 yards per pass attempt and 3.4 yards per carry against good defenses from Chicago and Buffalo — overall it's been productive for them. For the season, with "12," they've averaged 7.2 yards per pass attempt and 4.2 yards per carry. Both of those numbers are better than what the Eagles have produced with "11," their other primary package (6.6 yards per attempt, 4.1 yards per carry).

Even with only reasonable success out of their two tight end packages lately, there are a couple of reasons the Eagles would make "12" a staple of their game plan on Sunday. 

First, their receiving group is one of the least productive in football. They recently signed veteran Jordan Matthews off the street to help a group that doesn't have a player in the NFL's top 50 of Pro Football Focus' yards per route run metric. Alshon Jefferey — who's "day-to-day" with an ankle injury, according to coach Doug Pederson — has been their most efficient receiver at No. 56 in the yards per route run category. Nelson Agholor is next at No. 80. Getting an extra tight end on the field to replace a wideout is, with this group of receivers, addition by subtraction. 

Second, the Patriots have had particular difficulty against teams that have used multiple tight ends lately. Going back to a Monday Night Football matchup with the Jets in Week 7, the Patriots have allowed a staggering 86 percent success rate, worst in football, in the 21 plays they've seen 12 personnel. In that time, they're allowing a 142.4 passer rating, 9.2 yards per pass attempt and 6.7 yards per carry against those looks. 

That's a relatively small sample size, but it includes plays like Demetrius Harris' 21-yard touchdown for Cleveland in Week 8, and Nick Boyle's five-yard touchdown in Baltimore in Week 9.

Further complicating the picture for the Patriots is that the Eagles tight end pair of Ertz and Goedert is the best they've faced from a receiving-talent perspective. Ertz has made the Pro Bowl each of the last two seasons and recorded 116 catches in 2018. Goedert was a second-round pick in 2018 out of South Dakota State. His player comparison at the time, as determined by NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein? Ertz.

"He's pretty good," Belichick said of Ertz. "He's really good at everything. In the passing game, man routes he can get open against a variety of defenders. He's a tough guy to match up against. He's got a good feel in zone coverage for spacing, when to do the right thing, when to slow down, when to speed up, when to go behind or in front of, how to adjust his routes and so forth. 

"He's a really good player. They move him around a lot. He's in a lot of different positions. Until they come out of the huddle, it's hard to really know where he's going to be. Sometimes he lines up at the tight end, traditional location, but not a high percentage of the time. He's in different spots. They use a couple different personnel groups so you have to find him within each group. He's a good player."

The Patriots have had to deal with Ertz before. He was targeted nine times in Super Bowl LII, catching seven for 67 yards and a touchdown. Patriots coverage plans were out of sorts that day — they didn't play one of their starting corners, you'll remember — but Devin McCourty saw Ertz quite a bit, holding him to two catches on four targets for 13 yards, with one of those targets resulting in a late-game touchdown.

How will the Patriots go about defending Ertz this time around? If what Matt Patricia and the Lions did in Week 3 is any indication, Ertz will be doubled on third downs and in the red zone, and Belichick will try to force Carson Wentz to go elsewhere with the football in critical situations. Then they'll have to worry about Goedert, who's averaging 10.5 yards per catch this season, and will likely find himself in one-on-one scenarios matched up with safeties or linebackers.

Against the Patriots, avoiding their corners at all costs is typically the way to go. Their secondary has been the best in football at limiting opposing wideouts this season, allowing just 5.1 yards per attempt to that position, per Sharp Football Stats. Success targeting tight ends has been easier to come by, even without Belichick having to prepare for household names at the position through nine games. The Patriots are allowing 7.8 yards per target to tight ends this season, which is 17th in the NFL.

With the Eagles struggling the way they are at the receiver spot, they aren't sacrificing much if they largely excise that position from their Patriots plan and highlight their tight ends instead. Given the frequency with which they've deployed two tight end sets this year, and given the way the Patriots have struggled against those sets lately, expect to see a heavy dose of "12" on Sunday.

LISTEN AND SUBSCRIBE TO TOM E. CURRAN'S PATRIOTS TALK PODCAST:

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.

Tom Brady jokingly challenges Lamar Jackson to a unique race on Twitter

Tom Brady jokingly challenges Lamar Jackson to a unique race on Twitter

During Thursday night's game against the New York Jets, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson made history. He broke Michael Vick's record for the most quarterback rushing yards in a season on an early-game run against the Jets defense.

In the wake of this historic moment, another historically-good quarterback took time to comment on Jackson's speed and running ability. But not in the way that many would think.

That's right, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady challenged Jackson to a race on Twitter.

Okay, so maybe it's not really a race. Or a challenge of any sort. Brady is just making fun of his own lacking speed while praising Jackson for his effort this season.

Still, the image of Jackson trying to race Brady on natural grass while on rollerblades is hilarious. But frankly, it's no guarantee that Brady would win that one given Jackson's unbelievable athletic ability.

That said, Jackson didn't seem to like his chances in the race, as captured postgame by ESPN.

CURRAN: Preventable controversy is the last thing Belichick needed>>>

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.

How N'Keal Harry can help answer what ails the Patriots passing game

How N'Keal Harry can help answer what ails the Patriots passing game

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. 

CURRAN: Preventable controversy is the last thing Belichick needed>>>

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.