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Will Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels have something fresh for the playoffs?

Always expect the unexpected with the Patriots’ offense

NFL: Houston Texans at New England Patriots Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The Patriots always seem to save something fresh for the playoffs, just ask John Harbaugh. From flea-flickers to bizarre alignments, New England consistently strikes gold with trick plays in meaningful playoff games. In addition to trick plays, the Patriots always add small wrinkles to existing plays and formations to take advantage of personnel mismatches that the defense isn’t prepared for.

Below are two underutilized or new concepts the Patriots could use to surprise defenses in the playoffs.

Brandin Cooks Shallow Crossing Routes

Brandin Cooks had a strange regular season in New England. On one hand, Cooks was very good. He finished 11th in receiving yards and 7th in yards per reception. No other Patriot wide receiver has finished in the top 15 in both categories since Randy Moss in 2007. Those numbers don’t include the additional 141 pass interference yards Cooks drew over the season or the fact that Cooks’ speed routinely opened space for others to work underneath the coverage.

On the other hand, Cooks left a little to be desired. He finished the season ranked 58th in catch rate among wide receivers and caught just 26% of 3rd down targets. Despite his speed, Cooks’ inability to separate from press coverage was on display in New England’s Monday Night shellacking in Miami.

Cooks’ inconsistent connection with Tom Brady is worrisome, but could the Patriots coaching staff be sitting on a remedy? Cooks primarily operates on the outside, lining up in the slot just 19% of his routes (for perspective, Amendola is at 83% and Gronk is at 51%). Most of Cooks’ routes are deep patterns or shorter comeback routes on the sideline. It’s tough for a wide receiver to consistently beat press coverage without the threat of horizontal routes.

With Cooks’ route tendencies well known, I wouldn’t be surprised to see New England throw a wrinkle at the defense with some shallow crossing routes. Below is an example from week one against Kansas City with Cooks running a rare crossing pattern:

Cooks is lined up at the top of the formation with the Chiefs in man coverage. New England runs play-action, with Cooks delaying before crossing the field. This delayed-action, shallow crossing route is similar to what the Patriots often run with Martellus Bennett. The run fake moves the linebackers out of the middle of the field while forcing the corner to fight through the bodies to stay with Cooks, which he can’t.

The Patriots’ could also steal a crossing route concept from Cooks’ former employer, the New Orleans Saints. The below clip is from week 15 of the 2016 season:

The Saints line up in bunch formation, with Cooks on the outside. The Cardinals actually handoff coverage pretty successfully, but Tyrann Mathieu takes a bad angle and can’t recover against Cooks’ elite speed. The deep safety is forced to respect Coby Fleener and Michael Thomas long enough to lead to an easy score. It’s easy to imagine Rob Gronkowski eating up coverage down the seam in this play, giving Cooks space in the middle of the field.

It’s hard to be too disappointed with Brandin Cooks. He’s had a productive season, and his ability to routinely draw penalties is often overlooked. Yet, it’s impossible to ignore the recent struggles against press coverage. New England could do Cooks a favor with a more diverse route tree, specifically putting Cooks in more crossing route concepts like the two above. At the very least they would loosen up his defenders. Perhaps the Patriots have been sitting on these routes until the playoffs and are prepared to unleash devastation.

31 Personnel

New England has a gluttony of running backs and they love using them in pairings. The Patriots lead the NFL in 21 personnel usage (2 RB’s, 1 TE, 2 WR’s) and will rotate backs depending on the defense, down, distance, etc. The coaching staff has deployed seemingly every combination possible within the 21 personnel, but could we ever see the 31 personnel (3 RB’s, 1 TE, 1 WR)?

To my knowledge, the Patriots have not run a single play out of 31 personnel this year. And while a 31 personnel grouping seems ridiculous, given the versatility of New England’s backs, it’s not that outrageous. Both Rex Burkhead and James White spend time lined up as wide receivers. They could easily line up wide in a formation featuring Dion Lewis and James Develin in the backfield.

A major benefit of using 31 personnel is simply creating confusion. Imagine spending all week studying Patriots tape and tendencies, only to see a personnel grouping you’ve never seen in your life. Even the slightest bit of confusion can lead to defensive breakdowns that result in big gains.

Beyond the potential to create confusion, using Burkhead as a WR in a formation with Lewis and Develin is highly intriguing. Not only is Burkhead a great pass catching RB, but the Patriots have featured him in reverse concepts multiple times this season. The below is a clip from week 12:

New England lines up in 22 personnel, with James White in the backfield and Dwayne Allen as the second TE. The Patriots fake to White to set up Burkhead’s big gain. It’s not hard to imagine Develin making Allen’s block from the FB position. By the way, if this play looks familiar, it’s because this is the same play that went for a big gain to Brandin Cooks against Pittsburgh:

The entire defense, including corner Artie Burns, bites on the Burkhead fake. There’s a good chance Pittsburgh saw the Miami tape and prepared for this look, which opened up Brandin Cooks for the corner route. Nice job by Josh McDaniels here.

Burkhead is the perfect player to use as the reverse man because of his running ability and the fact that you have to account for his ability as a pass catcher. This play design is outstanding, but it’s now out on tape. Teams will likely be prepared. The Patriots could still surprise a defense by running this play out of the 31 personnel. You’ve already imagined the confusion of seeing the 31 personnel for the first time, now imagine being confused by the personnel and then having to deal with a reverse or a fake reverse pass. This play would be especially effective with the Lewis/Develin combo, given Lewis’ sudden surge as one of the best RB’s in the NFL. Any play fake to Lewis would command more attention than one to James White.

It really isn’t crazy to image the Patriots running 31 personnel given the versatility of its backs. Develin can step into Allen’s role or achieve the same outcome from the FB position. This grouping would be a great way to add a new twist to an existing gadget play, like the Burkhead reverse. It would also be perfect for the mid-game, no-huddle offense that New England always seems to deploy at some critical moment in the playoffs. It’s both a grouping that nobody has seen before and allows for maximum flexibility.

It’s a certainty New England will unveil some new gadget play, new formation, or small tweak in the playoffs. Don’t be surprised to see New England try to get the ball to Brandin Cooks in space, with the underused shallow crossing route as a great option. Given the flexibility of the New England backs, perhaps it’s time to use the ever-elusive 31 personnel.