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Patriots rewrote their playbook for the receivers on the roster

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The Patriots are throwing deeper more than ever.

Houston Texans v New England Patriots Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

How do you think someone that follows a different team would describe the New England Patriots offense? Dink and dunk? Death by a thousand paper cuts? Slot receiver central with Wes Welker and Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola?

Well, it’s time to come up with a new way to describe the Patriots offense because those terms haven’t applied to the Patriots since 2013.

With the Patriots increased focus on the deep ball connection between Tom Brady and Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan and Rob Gronkowski, I thought it’d be fun to see how different the offense has operated this season versus years in the past. What I found was super interesting (some data courtesy of Pro Football Focus).

This chart shows how Brady’s reliance on the short pass has slowly declined since its peak in 2010, with a nearly 70% short pass rate during Wes Welker’s tenure. The Patriots reliance on the short ball continued into 2013, the first year with Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman as starters, but the team quickly shifted gears in 2014.

The Patriots added Brandon LaFell 2014 and Brady finally had a reliable outside target, if only for one season. The addition of Chris Hogan in 2016 and Brandin Cooks in 2017 further solidified the Patriots aim of going deeper down the field.

Cooks currently leads the NFL in yards per reception (25.6 YPR) and yards per target (14.2 TPY), while Danny Amendola ranks 14th with 16.4 YPR and fifth with 12.3 YPT. Chris Hogan (15.4 YPR, 9.06 YPT) and Rob Gronkowski (14.9 YPR, 9.5 YPT) both rank in the top 30 of both categories, while James White ranks 29th in the league with 9.00 YPT.

The Patriots boast a ridiculous five players in the top 30 of yards per target (min. 10 targets); the Rams have three, while the Falcons, Vikings, and Saints have two. The Patriots players are certainly making the most of all their opportunities, but the depth of their opportunities are much deeper than they’ve ever been under head coach Bill Belichick.

A whole 20% of Brady’s pass attempts have been for 20+ or more yards down the field, easily the most of his career. His next closest: 2004, surprisingly, when 16% of his passes were deep. That might be due to the presence of Corey Dillon opening up the play action, but it’s notable that only 12% of Brady’s passes were deep in 2007 with Randy Moss and Donte Stallworth.

And while the Patriots loved to throw the ball short to Wes Welker and give him space to generate yards after the catch, the Patriots short passes have decreased by almost 10% from the 2007-13 Patriots to the 2014-present team.

But before this year, most of those shorter passes were simply moved to the intermediate range. The Patriots deep passes generally stayed around 10% of Brady’s passing attempts during both of those time frames- until this year, when he’s doubled his deep attempt rate. So now the Patriots are throwing passes 10+ yards down the field at a greater rate than at any other time under Belichick.

Curiously, 2017 Brady’s been the most accurate on short and deep passes in his entire career, completing 50.0% of deep passes and 78.6% of short passes, both career highs. Those will likely drop over the course of the season, but he’s starting out on a positive note, with Cooks and Hogan and Gronkowski and Amendola (and Phillip Dorsett!) taking advantage of the deep passes and White and Amendola moving the chains on the shorter passes.

However, Brady’s struggling on his intermediate routes, completing just 50% of his passes (albeit with a few throwaways included), the same success rate as on his deep passes. My theory is that this is Julian Edelman’s bread-and-butter and the Patriots intermediate game disappeared with his ACL injury.

Brady completed 71% of his intermediate passes in both 2014 and 2016, but just 58% when Edelman injured his foot in 2015. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

Maybe the Patriots can get Amendola or Hogan or Cooks more involved in the intermediate range because these are important plays to sustain long drives and to move the chains for a new set of downs.

The loss of Edelman forced the Patriots to make adjustments immediately before the start of the season and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels decided to scrap the short passes in favor of more home run throws.

There have been just two seasons under Belichick where the Patriots threw for 10 or fewer yards less than 60% of the time: 2004 and 2014. Both of those seasons worked out pretty well for the Patriots; 2017 is looking like it could be another special year for New England.