Rethinking the Patriots offense- is Bill Belichick tipping his hand?
As the Patriots dynasty continues to move forward, we’ve seen the offense go through varying stages. Between the minds of Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels, they’ve always figured out how to score enough points to win regardless of who’s on the field. But this year, they could be headed to the stone age after dabbling with it in the playoffs last year.
• First of all, it’s no secret that Tom Brady’s downfield efficiency has dropped as he’s entered his 40s, and the coaching staff has been carefully choosing their spots when having him throw downfield. And certainly many of us are aware that Brady’s per game fantasy numbers dip when Rob Gronkowski isn’t on the field, but the one thing that the coaching staff must account for, now that Gronk is retired, is that they lose possibly the best blocking TE in the league. And even though Gronk’s offensive ability was in decline, the fact that defenses had to respect him always added difficulty to the job of defensive coordinators.
So, what will the Patriots do to keep their offense functioning at a high level?
• The ‘heavys’: With seven TEs currently on the roster (of course that number will be trimmed down to start the season) and James Develin at fullback, the roster looks ready to deploy a bunch of heavy personnel sets. When they go to two or three TEs, and also sets with a fullback, they will force defenses to use their base personnel. Throwing to TEs out of heavy sets is a very consistent way to throw easy completions to move the chains.
• The running backs: There will almost certainly be four RBs, and possibly five on the roster if Branden Bolden and Rex Burkhead make the squad. This is a crew that can beat opposing defenses by either running or catching the football, and analytics have shown that throwing to RBs on early downs makes for some of the most efficient football possible.
• The receivers: Yes, there are a lot of potential players here, but if the Pats use mostly heavy personnel sets, only one or two WRs will be on the field. In these cases, it’ll be very difficult for teams to double-team these WRs. It’s very difficult for defenses to deal with Josh Gordon and Julian Edelman with nickel and dime defenses, so imagine the nightmares it’ll cause defensive coordinators to deal with them in their base defense. Also, when both WRs are aligned on the same side of the field, Edelman can still man the slot. In addition, the opposite side of the field will be opened up for backside throws and counter run plays.
• The QB: Yes, the maestro, Tom Brady, will be able to read what most defenses are doing pre-snap and put those defenders at an even greater disadvantage. Sure, Brady doesn’t throw a great deep ball consistently anymore, but if Gordon’s in single coverage, it doesn’t take a bazooka to get the ball in position for him to win.
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How does this all shake out?
• Most offenses today want to have explosive plays, and don’t run offenses in such a way that 12-play drives will happen with any frequency. But leave it to Bill Belichick- I believe he will go against the grain. In a passing league, he will consistently show those run looks to force the defense’s hand and then torture them with what they are unable to stop. They may not be the offense that used to score 30 points per game, but not only should they score plenty, but they’ll probably slow down the clock in the process and force opposing offenses to be nearly perfect to beat them.
• This contradicts my July entry about the Patriots, largely because Gordon completely changes the face of the offense in terms of what the Pats will likely do. I think Gordon and Edelman see a very-high target share and both end the year in the top-24 WRs. However, I think there’ll be a rotation of TEs and the ball will be spread out among them, so I don’t foresee any of them as being fantasy starters. Moving to Brady, he’ll be a great NFL QB this year, but the running backs will likely score a lot of short TDs- I previously had Brady as QB20, but I now see him moving toward the QB13-15 range. And in terms of the RBs, this is going to be tough to predict on a weekly basis, making it a potential nightmare when setting weekly lineups. James White and Sony Michel should be volatile RB2s with Rex Burkhead and Damien Harris likely needing injuries to be weekly starters.