Sunday night’s game against the Baltimore Ravens brought many firsts for the New England Patriots, not just because the team suffered its first loss of the season. For the first time all year, the Patriots also extensively morphed into a simple but effective offensive identity: the unit ran its plays exclusively out of 11-personnel with up-tempo as a considerable add-on. While it did not lead the team to its ninth straight win, the potential of the package was clearly visible.
All in all, the Patriots ran no-huddle on 36 of their 65 offensive plays against the Ravens. This usage ultimately allowed the Patriots to get back into the game after falling behind 17-0 in the first quarter and proved especially successful from the third quarter on, despite two of the first three drives of the second half ending with turnovers. The plan per se, however, gave New England some of the control of the contest back it had lost when falling behind early.
It also wore the Ravens’ defense down, as it was unable to switch personnel mid-series when New England had its foot on the gas pedal — something cornerback Marlon Humphrey acknowledged after the game (via WEEI’s Ryan Hannable): “I ain’t going to lie. That no-huddle was killing us. When we got to the sideline, we were like, ‘Yo, we have to do something.’ When they were doing that no-huddle, they were almost unstoppable at one point.”
The Patriots did eventually get stopped, but the errors were more self-inflicted than anything else: Julian Edelman lost a fumble on the first drive of the second half that was returned 70 yards by Humphrey for a Ravens touchdown. After scoring on a James White run one possession later, Brady ended the third series of half number two by throwing an interception on what appeared to be a miscommunication with Mohamed Sanu.
Before the turnovers, however, the Patriots were moving the football generally well against Baltimore’s defense out of no-huddle looks — both through the air and on the ground. Quarterback Tom Brady also pointed this out when visiting WEEI’s The Greg Hill Show on Monday: “That was a good mode for us. I thought we played well in it at times last night. It’s really about good execution. We definitely had some good drives in there.”
“The one thing I was happy about was we never quit, we kept fighting, we got back in it. They made some great plays there to kind of keep us pretty far from the lead there at the end,” continued the 42-year-old before stressing the need for the Patriots to elevate their game: “Everybody at this point is going to have to take it to the next level. This is when football season gets tough. It’s a lot of mental and physical toughness we’re gonna need.”
In order to get better, at least offensively, no-huddle, 11-personnel looks appear to be an intriguing tool considering how well the team fared with them on Sunday night. There are two primary reasons for this.
1.) It fits the personnel
The no-huddle looks fit the personnel that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels currently has available at the skill positions: the team’s tight end position on Sunday, for example, was down to 38-year-old Benjamin Watson and Ryan Izzo, who dressed but did not see the field after having missed the previous two games due to a concussion. And with Matt LaCosse still rehabbing from a knee injury that cost him the last three games, the position is far from full strength.
But even with LaCosse as part of the equation, New England would lack the overall quality of previous tight end depth charts (let’s call it the “Rob Gronkowski Effect”) both in the receiving game and when it comes to blocking — something that also has an impact on a running game that has been inconsistent at best heading into the game against Baltimore. Out of the no-huddle, however, the ground game collectively averaged 4.4 yards per carry and could have seen even more success later against an exhausted defense.
While the yards per carry have to be taken with a grain of salt considering the circumstances under which they were achieved, they certainly presented a step in the right direction. The same has to be said for a wide receiver position that looked to be in sync with Brady despite playing a ton of snaps: Julian Edelman and Mohamed Sanu did not leave the field even once, while Phillip Dorsett II missed only one of the team’s 67 offensive snaps (he was briefly replaced by Jakobi Meyers).
As deep as the Patriots are at running back, the wide receiver spot might have the biggest big-play potential. Edelman, Sanu and Dorsett may not be the best three-headed attack in the league, but they do enjoy Tom Brady’s trust. Add first-round rookie N’Keal Harry to the equation after the X-receiver was recently activated to the 53-man roster off injured reserve, and you get a high-upside group that gives McDaniels options while still using a spread, 11-personnel group that fits the offense’s strengths.
Most importantly, however, the offense as a whole took a step forward during the no-huddle portions on Sunday. Look at it this way: with the exception of the first two games of the season, when the likes of Josh Gordon and Antonio Brown were still present, did you ever have the feeling all year long the Patriots could score at will against an opponent? For three drives in the second half versus the Ravens it felt that way, as Humphrey pointed out.
2.) It plays into New England’s hands
The Patriots’ use of the no-huddle worked in large parts because it also challenged the Ravens defense physically. As was already pointed out above, the team was unable to regularly substitute against the up-tempo attack the Patriots ran and it put the team in a difficult position even though it ultimately prevailed. However, Baltimore was forced to adjust to using far fewer personnel groups as they did just one game earlier.
Against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 7 — before Baltimore’s bye — the team of head coach John Harbaugh had 24 mid-drive package changes, according to Ravens film analyst Ken McKusick. Versus New England, on the other hand, Baltimore changed its personnel during drives on only five occasions with four of those happening during official stoppages. The Patriots, therefore, effectively limited how the home team was able to operate.
While New England leaving the same personnel package — three wide receivers (Edelman, Sanu, Dorsett), one tight end (Watson), one running back (either James White, Rex Burkhead or Sony Michel) — on the field at all times eliminated some of the need to move players on and off the field, the stress this put on the conditioning cannot be underestimated. This, in turn played perfectly into the Patriots’ hands and was surely an idea behind the no-huddle.
As NBC Boston’s Phil Perry correctly pointed out, “going no-huddle as often as they did Sunday night — it began in the first quarter — seemed like a Patriots strategy that had the fourth quarter and their running game in mind.” Playing the long game is nothing new for New England and is also a plan that worked to perfection in two of the biggest games in franchise history; both of which were led by Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels.
In Super Bowl 49 and two years later in Super Bowl 51, the Patriots’ superior conditioning allowed the team to overcome late-game deficits: the team ran plenty of plays, used considerable portions of no-huddle, and ultimately tired out the defense and its pass rush in both games which in turn gave Brady considerable time and space to operate. Both the Seattle Seahawks and the Atlanta Falcons fell victim to this approach.
In 2019, the no-huddle could see a renaissance as the Patriots’ weapon of choice to attack stingy defenses in highly contested games. On Sunday, the plan might have worked if not for some untimely mistakes on the team’s end — from the two turnovers mentioned above, to the offensive line not quite holding up its end of the bargain just yet (something that could change with the eventual return of starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn).
“The bye week’s about really getting healthy. Physically, mentally and getting a chance to evaluate where you’re at so you can go forward and be better. It’s really a good time to self scout and reflect where you’re at and what you need to do. Teams who use this wisely usually do a good job,” said Brady on WEEI the other day. “Even though it didn’t go our way we can learn from it and we can try to improve and be better.”
The Patriots surely will do just that over the next two weeks, and it would not be at all surprising if more no-huddle calls by Josh McDaniels will be on the menu once the team returns from its bye week.