The New England Patriots have a versatile group of receivers that allow head coach Bill Belichick, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, and quarterback Tom Brady to stress opposing defenses at every level of the field. Not only are the wide receivers dangerous down the field, the running backs and tight ends are also active and it makes it difficult for for other teams to cover all the targets.
Belichick has assembled an array of players that are elite at various levels of the field for this specific reason.
“Most teams in the league [...] attack the defense at all three levels,” Belichick said on Monday morning. “I don’t think you want to just throw all bombs. I don’t think you want to throw all your passes behind the line of scrimmage or within a couple yards of the line of scrimmage and I don’t think you want to throw all your passes at, call it, 12 to 15 yards. So, there's a place in the passing game for plays I think at all three of those levels.”
There are distinct roles for each player at each level of the field. While every player is involved shorter than 10 yards down the field, the running backs are clearly a huge component of the short game, with James White, Rex Burkhead, and Dion Lewis seeing over 90% of their targets inside the 10-yard line.
Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola, and Chris Hogan have been the short-to-intermediate receivers, seeing roughly 65% of their targets inside the 10 and 30% of their targets in the 11-20 yard range.
Brandin Cooks and Phillip Dorsett are the deep targets with nearly 30% of their targets 20+ yards down the field, 20% in the 11-20 range, and just 50% of their targets inside the 10.
The Patriots like to have players involved at all three levels because each represents a strategic counter to what the opposing defense might be trying to accomplish.
“There are ways to attack the defense throwing the ball at all three levels,” Belichick continued. “That changes the timing of the passing game. It changes the timing of the pass rush. It changes the way that the defense can try to stop that part of the passing game because they have to defend all three levels, not just one or two. If they can eliminate one or two, then that makes it easier for the defense, whether they’re playing man, or zone or some combination. It doesn’t really matter. If you can change the levels of your passing game and the timing of your passing game, then that can be beneficial to everybody.
“Some of those plays are reflective of what the defense is doing. Obviously, if the defense is taking away or doing a good job of taking away passes close to the line of scrimmage and are going to challenge every throw and make it hard to complete a three-yard pass, then it's probably a good opportunity to try and throw the ball behind them in the deeper areas of the field and vice versa.”
New England involves the short game if they want to take the edge off the opposing pass rushers or if the defensive backs are playing far off the receivers; they use the deep ball if the secondary is playing tight press coverage; they use the intermediate depth if they’re facing zone or defenders.
Belichick credits McDaniels and Brady for drawing up and calling the necessary plays to respond to what the other teams is playing on defense.
“Again, I think the quarterbacks job and Josh [McDaniels]' job is to try and create plays that give us options,” Belichick added. “Depending on what coverage they give you or if they pressure, where the quarterback should go with the ball [is] based on what the defense does. Tom [Brady] does a great job of that and Josh and the offensive staff do a great job of designing plays to facilitate that, so that's really what happens.
The Patriots have one of the most explosive offenses in the entire league and they have players capable of dominating defenses at every level. When Hogan returns and as Martellus Bennett and Dwayne Allen continue to integrate into the offense, look for the New England offense to continue to put incredible stress on defenses at every level of the field.