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.

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Perry's Mailbag: If not Foxboro, where's Brady going?

Perry's Mailbag: If not Foxboro, where's Brady going?

In this week's Patriots mailbag, Phil Perry revisits some of the 2019 draft, talks potential Brady locations for 2020 (including Foxboro), previews what to expect from old nemesis Steve Spagnuolo, and gives insight to why it's been such a down year for kickers.

Perry: Cherubin getting down to business. I like it. 1) It's been answered for you. Ready for another go-round with appendix-less Nick Folk? 2) I would've drafted Dawson Knox instead of Damien Harris. I like Damien Harris as a player. But the Patriots are deep at running back, and that's a position where the individuals who are game-changers on their own are few and far between. The bigger need? A tight end who can block -- Knox is the fifth-ranked blocking tight end in football this year, per Pro Football Focus -- and catch (25 grabs), who checked every box athletically, who walked onto an SEC power after playing quarterback in high school. Knox would've made a lot of sense here, and now the tight end unit in New England is still trying to figure things out. 3) The best fit, in my opinion, is Miami. He knows the coaching staff there and his offensive system would be in place. The market is ideal for someone in the fitness industry looking to grow a business. The team isn't very good . . . but that could change quickly. The Dolphins have $100 million in cap space. They could totally revamp the offensive line. They could add a veteran receiver (or two . . . both AJ Green and Emmanuel Sanders will be available) to rising talent Devante Parker. Suddenly, they'd be in the mix. They'll also have three first-rounders -- including their own, which could be in the top-five -- to spend however they see fit. Did we mention the owner there is a Michigan man?

CURRAN: Are we watching Tom Brady's final days with the Patriots?

Perry: You make fair points about Jared Cook and the draft. They wanted Cook. Indications at the time were that Cook didn't want them because Rob Gronkowski was still in the picture. And, yes, Isaiah Wynn, Sony Michel and N'Keal Harry were high-end offensive investments. But you could also say that maybe they should've been in on Adam Humphries earlier. Or that they should've tried a different route to replacing Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola following 2017. The summer of 2018 was when they tried to pair Kenny Britt, Eric Decker, Jordan Matthews, Cordarrelle Patterson and a banged-up Malcolm Mitchell with Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett. Out of desperation they signed Josh Gordon and then, a year later, Antonio Brown. Outside of Ryan Izzo (2018), AJ Derby (2015) and Lee Smith (2011), they haven't drafted a tight end since Aaron Hernandez. They've invested offensively. Two of the patchwork moves made this year (Brown, Mohamed Sanu) required significant financial commitment and draft capital, respectively. But I think it's also fair to take a long hard look at how aggressive they were to fill certain spots at critical times.

Perry: Good question, Karen. Steve Spagnuolo is the new defensive coordinator for the Chiefs, and he likes to play pattern-matching zone coverages. This is a style of zone defense, but it often ends up looking like man-to-man because it requires defenders to identify routes and route combinations, and then stick closely to the route that ends up in their zone. Some zone defenses like to "spot-drop," back-pedaling into a zone and reading the quarterback's eyes to make a play on the ball in a given area. That's not Kansas City. The Patriots are encouraging defenses to play more man because they have a hard time beating man right now when Julian Edelman is doubled and James White is checked by a defensive back. So Spagnuolo might say let's just forget the pattern-matching stuff and play man across the board so that no assignments are confused. But either way I'd expect coverage to be tight. This secondary is better than it was last year. The Chiefs run defense, though, is a mess. The Patriots should be able to run the ball against the league's 30th-ranked run-stopping unit. They've been more effective running the football over the last two weeks with Isaiah Wynn back.

Is Belichick sending a message to refs with his comment about RPOs?

Perry: Never say never, Gigi, but I doubt it. Not only is Stephon Gilmore's job important enough that the Patriots would in all likelihood like him to focus there. But Bill Belichick has said before that -- as talented as many defenders are -- there's a reason defensive players play defense. From 2016: “I mean look, a lot of defensive players get moved [from] offense because they’re not good enough on offense, right? High school coaches, college coaches, if they have somebody better and you have another good player at that position, instead of stacking them up, you just move them somewhere where he can get on the field quicker. If you’re a high school or college coach you’re not going to take your best running back and put him at – I mean it’d be rare to put him somewhere else. You’re going to give him the ball and let him be a productive scorer for you . . . That’s a general statement. It’s not meant towards any specific player. Although I think most of the defensive players need to understand that the reason they don’t play offense is because they’re not good enough to play offense." We've seen defensive players for the Patriots play offense before: Elandon Roberts is a recent example; Mike Vrabel. But we haven't seen a corner get receiver reps that I can remember. The Patriots, for instance, could've used a receiver in 2006 but Ellis Hobbs and Asante Samuel never got that chance.

Perry: I wouldn't trade up a significant amount in the first round to get him, Zack. If he falls, and if there is optimism about his physical condition, then I might pounce. It's not very often this team has the opportunity to draft a widely-regarded top player at that position. I'm still not sure the Patriots would draft him, though, if he slides to the end of the first round. He's not their "prototype," which we study every year ahead of the draft. His size and arm strength could be issues for a team that likes players who have the ability to drive the football through the elements. When your most important games are played outdoors in the Northeast in December and January, those things matter.

CURRAN & PERRY: If the Pats just did THIS, offense would improve

Perry: I think some of it, Tom, comes down to missed opportunities to invest in veteran talent at the position. They've gotten by with veteran additions for a long time -- Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Donte' Stallworth, Brandon LaFell, Danny Amendola, Brandin Cooks -- and they've had plenty of success. The problem is that the pool of potential "fits" who have NFL experience and are available is small. The draft unloads fresh receivers on the league year after year, and plenty become good players. Would they in New England? I'm not so sure. Depending on the player, I think the system can be a barrier. Is it too complex if you need to rely on hitting on trades or in free agency instead of the draft? . . . I still don't think so. The offensive system is part of why the Patriots are who they are, why they've had the success they've had. They might've had more rookie receiver standouts if the system was simpler. Sure. But the flip side of that is players like Julian Edelman or Wes Welker or even Rob Gronkowski might not have had the careers they had without it. Each was athletically gifted and could've succeeded at a range of places, but they all benefitted from being in a system that requires a high football IQ. They all did. They thrived. Hard to eschew a malleable, though intricate, system just to get the young guys involved. The question gets more complicated when the young guys *have* to be involved because there were veteran misses along the way. At that point, you do need to adjust some things to make life a little easier. And I think they have. We haven't seen the results yet, but looking at how they've used N'Keal Harry these last few games, I think it's safe to say they've tried to simplify things for him. I'll actually have a story out tomorrow looking at Harry's usage that will hopefully shed a little more light on what's going on with the Patriots passing game at the moment.

Perry: Thanks as always for checking in, Rich. It's not too complex for all young receivers, right? Malcolm Mitchell, I know, is an outlier of sorts. But it wasn't too complex for him. I think it's just complex, period. Phillip Dorsett had issues the other night and he's been around for multiple years now. I'd also just say that they have spent a fair amount for veteran help lately. Paying Antonio Brown what they did was a huge investment. Paying a second-rounder for Mohamed Sanu was a huge investment. Paying a second-rounder for Wes Welker back in the day was a huge investment. They try to be smart with their spending. Always have been. It's part of the reason they've sustained success as long as they have. They could've used a Brandon LaFell circa 2014 or a Chris Hogan circa 2016 signing this offseason and didn't end up landing anyone of consequence. Again, the pool of available players who have enough experience to grasp the Patriots system and the ability to execute is small.

Perry: Wouldn't shock me, Dave. It's December. The Patriots running game is trending in the right direction with Isaiah Wynn back in the mix. I don't think they'll be the team we saw at the end of the last year. But they're a team who'll want to have the option to get physical when it's warranted. (This weekend, against a bad Kansas City run defense, perhaps?) Roberts could help give them that backfield look that they liked so much with James Develin -- just not as often as Develin gave it to them when healthy. He might not be thrilled to be doing the job, but Roberts could end up having a real role in key spots for the offense.

Perry: Love this idea, Jim. It's one of the things he did really well at Arizona State. The Patriots threw him a bubble screen that might've gone for more than it did (four yards) had it not been for a missed Marshall Newhouse block on the outside. It wouldn't shock me if we saw something like that drawn up for him soon.

Perry: Mentioned above here, Dave, I think Miami makes a lot of sense. The Chargers do too, but Willie McGinest said this week that not everyone in the Brady household would necessarily be thrilled going to the West Coast. Your second question raises a fair question. They're right in the middle of the pack in terms of cap space available. Giving a significant percentage of that over to Brady -- if he were to stay -- would make it hard to add a high-priced receiver, in my opinion. To your last question, I think in a perfect world they'd like to give Stidham a little more time to see how he develops. That might mean a bridge quarterback is a possibility. Marcus Mariota, maybe? I know. I know. Not ideal. But he wouldn't be breaking the bank, and he might be able to manage the game for a very good Patriots defense. He was 13th in quarterback rating in 2018, ninth in PFF's accuracy percentage, and third in accuracy percentage when under pressure. If he's dealing with chronic injuries that inhibit his ability to throw the football, that's one thing. But as far as bargain-basement one-year plans go -- someone to take the reins until the Next Guy is ready, whether that's Stidham or someone else -- they could do worse.

 

 

Perry: Impossible to say, Jolyon. I've been a fan of Stidham's since before the draft. I think he has a lot of potential. I know the Patriots felt the same way. (Remember, he was considered a potential first-rounder after the 2017 college football season, then had a weird year in a wonky Auburn offense in 2018.) Here's what Belichick told us about Stidham earlier this season, when I asked for a quick assessment of how the rookie's first year had gone behind the scenes. "Yeah, good. Jarrett is a smart kid. He picks things up very quickly. He has a good grasp of the offense given where he is in his career. He’s handled everything we’ve thrown at him. In practice, he does a good job. He gets a lot of passes on our defense and when he has the opportunity to get the offensive snaps, he’s prepared and does a good job of those. But you know, it’s always different in the game. I think he’s doing all he can do."

 

 

Perry: You do remember correctly. I'd say Jonathan Jones with safety help, likely Devin McCourty, would make the most sense for Tyreek Hill. I'm not sure Hill is fully healthy based on how he looked against Oakland, but the Patriots won't want to bank on the fact that he isn't. For Kelce, I'd use Stephon Gilmore. Using Gilmore on Sammy Watkins would be a waster of resources, in my opinion. Watkins has had a down year, including two catches in his last two games (against below average pass defenses from the Chargers and Raiders) despite playing 95 snaps. 

Perry: Definitely. It's how they got Stephen Gostkowski. Greg Bedard of the Boston Sports Journal and the Las Vegas Review-Journal had an interesting look this week at why kickers are having a down year, and why it's tough to find capable players at that position these days.

Perry: Offensively? Run the football. Use play-action. Defensively? Double Hill. Don't blitz, even though you love to. Run games with your linemen and linebackers to confuse the offensive line protecting Patrick Mahomes. Confusing Mahomes himself will be much more difficult.

Perry: There's a lot of Joe Judge's plate as the receivers coach and special teams coach. But he has help at both spots with Troy Brown and Cam Achord, respectively.

Perry: I think so. He was a critical piece to the running game. The running game has struggled. The trickle-down effect for the rest of the offense has been real. I know my former co-host Rob Ninkovich thinks the Develin loss was even bigger than Rob Gronkowski's. I wouldn't go that far, but it was big. I'll never forget what Bill Belichick told Develin on the field after last year's Super Bowl that he was the one who gave them the toughness they needed to be the offense they were. 

Perry: He'd likely end up bringing back a third-round draft pick, RC. But the pick wouldn't be for the 2020 draft. It'd be for 2021. That's how the comp-pick formula works. It takes into account how (and how much) a player played for his new team as well as the deal he earned from his new team. The comp picks the Patriots get in the spring of 2020 will be related to their losing guys like Trey Flowers and Trent Brown. 

Perry: Sanu was still dealing with a balky ankle in Houston, Chris. Actually played fewer snaps than Harry did. If and when he gets healthy, he'll make a big difference. Brady likes him. Not in danger of being berated by Brady on the sideline anytime soon. I don't think. 

Perry: If your professor will accept a 2,500-word mailbag as your final exam, I've got you covered. Thanks to everyone who chipped in this week. Great questions as always. Enjoy the game.

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Tom Brady, Chase Winovich don Ohio State gear after Michigan loss

Tom Brady, Chase Winovich don Ohio State gear after Michigan loss

With the University of Michigan's latest loss to archrival Ohio State, proud alums and Patriots stars Tom Brady and Chase Winovich lost a bet with Buckeye teammates Nate Ebner and John Simon. The four were seen in the locker room all wearing OSU's familial Scarlet and Gray for a photo op that's quickly gone viral.

Ebner and Simon were more than happy to indulge in the spoils:

It's not the first time Brady has done something like this during his time in New England. Most famously, No. 12 practiced in Mike Vrabel's OSU jersey after a Michigan loss to the Buckeyes several years ago.

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