It’s a typical September in Foxborough.
Bill Belichick isn’t conceding an inch in press conferences. On an almost quarter-quarter basis, the defense has vacillated between garnering superlatives and displaying a demoralizing ineptitude. And the Patriots’ offense — as evidence by Sunday’s 31-20 loss in Jacksonville — is clearly still a work in progress.
On Monday, the offense received what the team hopes will be a key component of that progress with the addition of Josh Gordon — a 27-year-old pass catcher whose electric skill set and potential is matched only by the gravity of his checkered past and current off-field battle with addiction. Before the impact of Gordon’s arrival on the offense can even begin to be properly anticipated, it’s important to explore the context of the situation he’ll enter into this week.
As ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported on Monday, the Patriots have made a league high 28 roster transactions at the wide receiver position since the beginning of the league year in March. There isn’t much more evidence that needs to be provided in order to accurately deduce that a lack of play makers in the team’s wide receiver room has been at the forefront of Bill Belichick’s concerns. Yet, while a big name was available on the free agent market with the regular season approaching quickly, Belichick ultimately decided that continuing to scheme around the deficiency presented itself as the wiser economic choice.
Through the season’s first two weeks, that decision has had mixed results — which is, of course, to be expected in September. But what has become apparent — thanks to a schedule that brought the team face to face with the AFC’s best defense in week-two — is that the task of scheming production out of the roster’s current personnel against elite contenders was one that became a hell of lot less palatable following last Saturday’s news of Josh Gordon’s potential availability.
Of course, this isn’t to say that internal processes will be abandoned solely due to the arrival of one pass catcher — especially one like Gordon, who obviously comes with an array of question marks. But the addition of a player with his talent simply allows Josh McDaniels and company to persist in their efforts to develop young personnel and maintain an innovative, intricate collection of concepts and looks without the necessity for every yard and point to be derived directly from it.
With that said, when taking a look at McDaniels’ personnel package usage through two games, some interesting wrinkles and trends emerge.
A quick Refresher
11-personnel: 1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs - the most common personnel package in today’s NFL.
12-personnel: 1 RB, 2 TEs, 2 WRs
13-personnel: 1 RB, 3 TEs, 1 WR
20-personnel: 2 RBs (or a FB), 3 WRs
21-personnel: 2 RBs (or a FB), 1 TE, 2 WRs
22-personnel: 2 RBs (or a FB), 2 TEs, 1 WR
23-personnel: If witnessed, immediately call the authorities.
The Raw Numbers
Through two games, the Patriots have used eight different personnel packages, 6 of which they’ve utilized more than once. For reference, the team utilized 12 unique packages in weeks one and two of the 2017 season.
35.07% of snaps — 32% Run vs. 68% Pass — 5.98 yards per play
21-personnel (w/ Develin):
26.87% of snaps — 53% Run vs. 47% Pass — 4.0 yards per play
22-personnel (w/ Develin):
13.43% of snaps — 88% Run vs. 12% Pass — 3.44 yards per play
11.94% of snaps — 11% Run vs. 89% Pass — 6.88 yards per play
21-personnel (w/ two RBs):
7.46% of snaps — 30% Run vs. 70% Pass — 5.60 yards per play
3.73% of snaps — 100% Pass — 7.40 per play
Two popular solutions to the issues at wide receiver this summer were the utilization of two-RB packages, and the involvement of tight ends Dwayne Allen and Jacob Hollister. Each of these avenues has been vetted through game reps thus far in 2018, but what was interesting was the contrast with which each was featured.
In week one against Houston, with Hollister nursing an injury and failing to dress, McDaniels aimed to isolate the Texans’ larger personnel with two-RB packages early and often. With Sony Michel also inactive, the Patriots utilized the combination of Rex Burkhead and James White nine times in the first half alone, often manipulating formations with motion to allow Tom Brady to diagnose weaknesses in coverage.
In total, when utilizing two-RB sets, the Patriots ran the football three times — all with Rex Burkhead — for just four yards, but Brady was four of seven for 47 yards through the air, with Rob Gronkowski also drawing a 14-yard defensive pass interference penalty.
With Jacob Hollister and Sony Michel healthy last Sunday in Jacksonville, the game plan was much different. From the onset, McDaniels was intent on developing a rhythm with his bigger-bodied personnel. The offense came out in 13-personnel to start their opening drive, and their first four plays — as well as five of the drive’s seven — were executed out of a personnel package containing at least two tight ends.
In total, the Patriots utilized 12 and 13-personnel at a 21.6% clip in Jacksonville, up from a 12.2% usage against Houston the week prior — a clear result of the addition of Jacob Hollister to the active game day roster. But the interesting aspect about the usage in last Sunday’s game was that there was a clear strategic dedication to deploy these traditionally ground game-oriented packages strictly as a vehicle for the passing game. The Patriots did not run the football once from 12 or 13-personnel, and Tom Brady completed 10 of 12 passes for 98 yards and a touchdown.
Although one would think that an obvious explanation for the lack of running the football from these packages would be game script-related — the Patriots having had a lead for all of week one, whereas they trailed for all of week two — but an uptick in 11-personnel usage in the second half of the Jacksonville loss actually accompanies that context more effectively. And unlike week one, where two-RB packages were often used to create mismatches, not a single two-RB package was used in week two. Josh McDaniels clearly had a plan for those available snaps.
The staple of any NFL offense, the Patriots utilized this three-WR package 45.6% of the time a year ago, and 49.65% through last season’s first two weeks. Given the state of the roster heading into the 2018 regular season, no one should be surprised to see the team’s deployment of 11-personnel drop to the aforementioned 35.07%.
In week one, Riley McCarron — put on IR on Tuesday after being released and signed back to the practice squad last week — saw all of his offensive snaps (14) come as a member of this personnel package. The other five came from Cordarrelle Patterson. In week two, with the team dressing only three wideouts, Patterson was on the field for each 11-personnel snap as the Patriots were forced into throwing the football for much of the fourth quarter while trying to mount a comeback.
Moving forward, the addition of Josh Gordon and Julian Edelman to the Patriots’ 11-personnel package should make it one of the most formidable in the entire league.
Through two games, the Patriots simply haven’t moved the ball efficiently enough to gain access to their opponents’ red zones. In fact, when combing through the first two games of the past five seasons in which Tom Brady was leading the offense, 2018’s numbers become significant.
The Patriots haven’t created enough of the chunk plays between the 20s that lead directly to more red zone trips. In 2017, Brandin Cooks consistently stressed defenses by stretching the field, resulting in numerous long completions and defensive pass interference penalties on deep balls. This is where Josh Gordon’s skill set is needed the most.
More concerning than the depressed number of total plays in the red zone is the lack of a presence inside their opponents’ 11 yard line. Just 23.5% of the Patriots’ red zone snaps have come from inside the 11 yard line. Going back to 2013, no other Patriots team has had a percentage of less than 50%. That puts the offense at a tremendous analytical disadvantage.
According to the numbers compiled by Optimum Scouting’s Justis Mosqueda, every yard closer to the goal line that a play originates is worth an average increase in touchdown percentage of 2.47% . Plays originating from the 19 yard line have a 6.4% touchdown percentage. Plays that start from the 10 yard line result in touchdowns at 17.2% clip. And plays starting from the 5 yard line have a 29.4% chance of reaching pay dirt.
Needless to say, the more opportunities a team can manufacture, the better opportunity they have of scoring. If that sounds incredibly simple, that’s because it is. The Patriots just need to get there more often — something Josh Gordon is certainly expected to help with.