Even when opposing defenses got the Patriots to third down, they still had a hard time stopping Tom Brady. pic.twitter.com/eqeUaTwXdi— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) May 18, 2017
It’s difficult to find ways to describe how Tom Brady has found a way to improve this late into his career, but there is certainly a strategic approach here. While I don’t have access to the same numbers as PFF (they remove spikes and throwaways from the equation), I can use the Pro Football Reference game play database to see how Brady’s yards per attempt (YPA) on third down has changed over the years.
Over the past five years, Brady have improved from 7.3 YPA in 2012 (14th, minimum 50 attempts), to 6.2 YPA (32nd), 7.2 YPA (23rd), 7.5 YPA (13th), and 10.8 YPA in 2016 (1st).
Part of this improvement comes from a development of receivers- 2013 was clearly an anomaly- but Brady had never been a big yardage quarterback on third down. From 2006 to 2015, Brady exceeded 7.5 YPA on third down just once: 2010, when he averaged 8.5 YPA. Brady only averaged 7.5 YPA on third down in 2007.
So to see Brady skyrocket up to 10.8 YPA on third down, and to 11.4 YPA when you remove throwaways, there’s been a clear shift in strategy and it’s not rooted in any one individual player.
WR Julian Edelman averaged 8.01 YPA on third down prior to 2016, before improving that figure to 9.84 YPA in 2016. TE Rob Gronkowski posted a ridiculous 16.50 YPA on third down in 2016, after averaging 8.41 YPA through 2015.
Even RB James White got in on the action, averaging an impressive 7.28 YPA out of the backfield in 2016, when his predecessors Kevin Faulk, Shane Vereen, and Danny Woodhead averaged 5.84 YPA on third down.
Back-up QB Jimmy Garoppolo proved that the change was institutional as he averaged 10.3 YPA on third down on 19 attempts.
What is the cause of this shift in third down approach? It’s possible that teams are so used to the Patriots throwing at the sticks on third down that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels concocted a scheme that would take advantage of overeager defensive backs.
Football Outsiders tracks an interesting stat called “ALEX” (hilariously named after Captain Checkdown and Chiefs QB Alex Smith) that tracks the depth of all third down passes to see if the quarterback is just checking the ball down short of the first down marker.
In 2015, Brady threw the ball an average of 1.2 yards beyond the first down marker, which ranked 20th out of 37 quarterbacks with 50+ third down attempts. For reference, Alex Smith threw the ball an average of 3.4 yards short of the first down marker, the worst in the league.
Averages can be skewed by a few deep passes, so Football Outsiders also tracked what percentage of passes were short of the first down marker. Brady ranked 30th of 37 quarterbacks with 47.2% of his passes short, an indicator that Brady would often check down and that his 1.2 ALEX was skewed by a few deep shots.
In 2016, Brady ranked an impressive 9th in ALEX, averaging 2.1 yards beyond the first down marker, and 7th in percentage of passes short of first down at 33.9%. This means that the Patriots decided that more of their third down passes should go beyond the first down marker, a sign of a more aggressive third down approach.
Will this trend continue in 2017, or will teams realize that Brady isn’t simply checking down on third down and that the deep ball must be covered? Or have the Patriots assembled the perfect offense with a trio of players in Edelman, Gronkowski, and Brandin Cooks that can attack both the short and the deep field, preventing the defense from ever getting comfortable?
Either way, Brady found a way to improve his deep ball in 2016 and it paid off on crucial third downs. It’ll be exciting to see what he’s added to his game for 2017.