With the Patriots’ defense having rounded into form heading into the postseason, much of the focus from the media and fan base has remained on the offense, which ranked fifth in DVOA this season.
The unit’s identity involves more trust in the ground game than we’ve seen in years past — an approach that requires increased efficiency. And as stiffer competition lies ahead, there are some areas withing the offense that could be tightened up.
Infuse some unpredictability into goal line situations
The team’s red zone struggles have been well-documented this season, but an interesting subclass of that deficiency lies in the unsatisfactory work they’ve done around the goal line — specifically in the ground game.
The offense had 37 plays from at or inside their opponent’s three yard line this season. Of those, 25 were runs — a total that ranks second in the league, and they’ve converted nine of those carries into touchdowns. That 36% clip ranks just 23rd in the NFL, with the league average being 48.8%. However, we’re not only talking about high-variance plays, but ones that actually carry a negative point expectancy. Theoretically, if the sample size was extrapolated, an increase in such plays should produce a decrease in the touchdown conversion percentage.
So why are the Saints and Rams so much more efficient (still below league average) on these plays? Well, skilled personnel is certainly a factor. Todd Gurley, Alvin Kamara, and Mark Ingram are three of the league’s best running backs. But the main factor in the success of those clubs inside the three yard line is their innovative play calling — something the Patriots haven’t shown yet this season.
The issue has really presented itself on their 12 first downs plays. They have a total of -9.73 expected points added on those first downs compared to their -3.13 mark on second downs, and 4.25 on third. Of those 12 first downs, ten were running plays — nine of which were executed from a heavy or goal line personnel package.
What’s even more surprising than the predictable, vanilla play calling has been the fact that they’ve only utilized play action once out of the 37 plays. Once. Oh, and it went for a two-yard touchdown to Julian Edelman.
Expect to see an uptick in this area during the postseason, as they’ve seemingly gone out of their way to keep any goal line play action plays from showing up on tape this year.
Ditch the two-RB packages
In 2017, offensive personnel packages utilizing two running backs were by far the most effective groupings at the Patriots’ disposal. The numbers are actually startling.
- 46 plays
- 34.06 expected points added — .74 points per play
- 54.3% success rate
- Passing to running backs: 19 of 22 (86.4%), 147 yards (6.7 per att) — 94.51 QB rating
- Passing to wide receivers and tight ends: 16 of 20 (80%), 283 yards (14.2 per att), one touchdown — 135.42 QB rating
Unfortunately, defenses have on. This season’s numbers are drastically different.
- 39 plays
- -8.66 expected points added — -.22 per play
- 41% success rate
- Passing to running backs: 14 of 23 (60.9%) for 112 yards (4.9 per att), one touchdown and two interceptions — 51.36 QB rating.
- Passing to wide receivers and tight ends: 3 of 10 (30%) for 44 yards (4.4 per att) — 45.42 QB rating
So why the massive fall off in production from this once-dynamic wrinkle in the Patriots offensive attack? While a handful of minor factor could be contributing, it’s really just coming down to Tom Brady working the football effectively down the field.
Last season, Brady accumulated 364 air yards on his 42 pass attempts (8.67 per att) from two-RB looks, and racked up 265 completed air yards (7.57 per comp). In 2018, his attempted air yards figure is 212 on 33 attempts (6.84 per att), and he’s accumulated just 41 completed on his 17 connections (2.41 per att).
Heading into the postseason, the Patriots just need to scrap these packages. They aren’t working, and there’s no sense in trying to force them since they clearly aren’t creating the mismatches needed for consistent success.
Keep Cordarrelle Patterson on the field
With Phillip Dorsett’s solid production coming with Cordarrelle Patterson’s injury sidelining him in week 17, it can be easy to forget how much of an impact the latter has had on the team’s offense attack this season — and specifically since the bye.
With Josh Gordon no longer in the picture, Patterson remains the prominent big-bodied deep threat on the outside. And, in addition to the myriad of concepts New England utilizes to get the football in his hands, he’s also been an effective blocker from multiple formations and angles in the ground game.
All of that versatility has shown in the efficiency numbers. Since the bye week, when Patterson is on the field, the Patriots are averaging .30 expected points per play — the highest such figure of any offensive skill player on the roster. In fact, it’s Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett’s figures — .15 and .14 respectively.