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Charting the Patriots' passing attack: a look at Tom Brady and his receivers

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Critics of the New England Patriots' passing game and quarterback Tom Brady frequently suggest that the Patriots deploy a system that favors short passes and easy completions. Is it true?

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The 2014 New England Patriots have done a fantastic job of creating a passing offense that can attack all areas of the field. They have an excellent underneath slot weapon in Julian Edelman, a monster in Gronk who can attack the seams, and an strong all-around receiver in Brandon LaFell who can threaten outside the numbers. At least, that’s what the eye test would tell you.

Taking a quick look at the total percentage of targets, we will see whether or not the numbers back that up. How do the Patriots distribute their passes?

This chart shows the Patriots’ five most frequently targeted receivers and tight ends and at what level of the field they are targeted. We have also included the depth-of-pass distribution for Tom Brady for reference.

receivers breakdown

I did not include Brian Tyms or Shane Vereen. Tyms has only six targets on the year, and five of them have come 20+ yards down the field. For Vereen, he is coming out of the back field. Only six of his targets have come further than nine yards down the field.

The basic trends here are what you would expect. Julian Edelman has the highest proportion of his passes come in the 0-9 yard range. Often lining up in the slot, Edelman will often run quick slants, drags, hooks, etc. that will be within the numbers and closer to the line of scrimmage. Interestingly, while the majority of Edelman’s 0-9 yard targets are towards the middle or left (83.6%), 42.4% of his targets 10+ yards down the field are to the right. That is a sign of a versatility and a complex route tree.

Brandon LaFell is the Patriots most-frequented downfield threat. He’s second to Rob Gronkowski in the 10-19 range (32.1% to 34.7%), but leads the five charted players with a 14.7% target rate on throws 20+ yards down the field. Interestingly, LaFell is nearly identically targeted on screens to Julian Edelman. The one key difference between the two: nearly all of Edelman’s screens come between the numbers from the slot, while LaFell’s are traditional outside WR screens.

Although their sample sizes are small, Danny Amendola and Tim Wright have relatively target percentages to Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski, respectively.

How about directional passing? The following passing chart shows the distribution percentage of Brady’s thrown broken down by left (outside the numbers), middle, and right (outside the numbers).

brady passing chart

Patriots QB Tom Brady's passing frequency by depth and direction

In total, Brady has thrown 26.9% of his throws to the left, 57.2% to the middle, and only 8.3% to the right. So if you were wondering, yes, Tom Brady strongly prefers the middle and left side of the field. More on that in a bit.

Going back to the depth of his throws, 65.9% of Brady’s throws are from behind the line of scrimmage up to nine yards down the field. Many of Brady’s detractors have said that Brady does not make the same difficult throws as many of the league’s other top quarterbacks, and that he prefers the short passing game and the easier throws that are available as a result of the system.

While Brady is undoubtedly talented in this area of the game, he throws it with a similar frequency to the league average. According to this 2013 study by Grantland, NFL quarterbacks threw the ball less than ten yards down the field 69% of the time. Brady checks in at 65.7% in 2014. While we do not have the cumulative stats for this season yet, we can infer that Brady throws around an average, or perhaps slightly less than average, amount of short passes.

Where Brady does frequent more often than the average NFL quarterback is the middle of the field. You might think this lends some credence to the “Brady only makes the easy throws” argument. But it does not. Brady throws the ball between the numbers 57.2% of the time. That’s about 6% higher than the 2012 league average. Brady simply has weapons that operate better in the middle of field. Rob Gronkowski’s ability to function as both an elite pass catcher and blocker mean that he is more often between the hash marks than outside of it. Many of those throws are still contested. When watching a Brady-led Patriots offense, how often do you say to yourself “how in the world did Brady fit that pass in there?”

This would seemingly be the place where I provide you advanced analytics on the rate of contested catches on Brady’s middle-of-the-field throws, but that information simply does not exist yet. The NBA and STATS have collaborated to provide “SportVU” analytics in every NBA stadium. SportVU is an advanced analytics system that uses webcams (and missile tracking technology) to provide real-time statistics on the location of every player and the ball on the court in three dimensions. It has the ability to generate stats such as “contested rebound percentage” or “wide open shot percentages.” No such analytics system exists in the NFL as of today, but eventually, such a system could provide more clarity to the difficulty of Brady’s throws.

Here’s the best we can do for now: Yes, 57.2% of Brady’s throws are in the middle of the field. 29.4% of his between-the-numbers throws are in the 0-9 yard range and 9.1% are behind the line of scrimmage. The rest of the NFL’s passers from Grantland’s 2013 study? 28.2% in the 0-9 yard range and 9.6% behind the line of scrimmage. Yet again, Brady is right around the league’s average. The biggest discrepancy: throws between the numbers 10-19 yards down the field. In 2012, NFL quarterbacks targeted this area of the field 10.7% of the time. Brady is nearly five percent higher in 2014. It’s Brady’s third highest targeted area and an area that other NFL passes generally stay away from. Simply put, when you see Brady connect with Gronkowski on a high velocity, tightly contested 3rd and 15 pass down the middle of the field, it is not a throw many other quarterbacks are willing to or able to make.

Grantland pass atlas

Grantland's "pass atlas" based on data from the 2012 NFL season

Admittedly, I went off on a tangent here. The bottom line: Brady prefers throws towards the middle and the left side of the field, but does not target the short area of the field more than most NFL passers. That Brady does not look to the right when most NFL passers prefer the right is worth mentioning, but his frequency to target the middle of the field should not be held against him.