With the retirement of Rob Gronkowski this offseason, many wondered how the New England Patriots would replace his production at the tight end position going into the 2019 season. No one player (or collection of players) can replace the best all-around tight end of all time. When Gronkowski missed time due to injury in his career, the multitude of replacements, including some big names in Scott Chandler, Martellus Bennett and Dwayne Allen, couldn’t hold a candle to the kind of dynamism that Gronk brought in the passing and running game.
The Patriots went into last week’s season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers with only Ryan Izzo and Matt LaCosse active, with LaCosse really only being an extreme emergency option because he was nursing an ankle injury. So rather than try to replace Gronk, the Patriots played a multitude of snaps with no tight ends on the field at all.
Introducing 20 formation, a two-back zero-tight end formation, that aims to simply put the best five offensive skill players on the team on the field at once. According to the NFL’s NextGen Stats, the Patriots were in 20 formation for 23 plays last Sunday night. Sharp Football’s personnel grouping tracker has the Patriots running only 26 plays out of that formation from 2016-2018. Early in the game, the Pats emphasized 11 formation with Izzo at tight end but as the game went on they unveiled 20 formation.
Burkhead is out wide on the top of the screen drawing another defender out of the box. White is running an option route against #26 Mark Barron, who has inside leverage because he needs to protect the empty middle.— Tian (@tianrossidraft) September 13, 2019
White dips outside and it's an easy 1st down conversion. pic.twitter.com/1CDkFIczFk
James White is a proficient receiver for a running back and he takes advantage of this by running an option route versus man coverage. Mark Barron doesn't have a chance. This is the exact same play call the Patriots used against Wade Phillips’ man defense back in 2012, with Aaron Hernandez as the second “running back”.
Shaq Mason had a rare off game Sunday night. Here he gets beat by Stephon Tuitt, forcing Brady to leave the pocket to the right and throw the ball away.— Tian (@tianrossidraft) September 13, 2019
If Brady had more time, White vs Barron on the left was about to be another mismatch and a possible walk in touchdown pic.twitter.com/IGPdjffZY4
I’m a big fan of this formation already, even though the end process on this play was a failed third down conversion in the red zone. The Patriots have featured a two back look on 3rd down in the past, with each running back chipping a defensive end. But without a tight end on the field, they can clear out an entire side of the field for a running back versus linebacker matchup in man coverage.
White gets a solid chip on Bud Dupree and gets wide open vs Barron again even with a solid (and legal) jam from him within five yards. He’s stumbling and still open by a good 2-3 yards. The magic of James White.
As fellow Pulpiteer Brian Phillips noted, the Patriots also ran 20 personnel with James Develin as the second “running back”. This formation has the potential to create all sorts of mismatches in the running game. In the past, trotting Develin onto the field in 21 formation with a tight end would result in the opponent matching with the base defense, but in 20 formation, the Steelers matched with nickel.
The Patriots consistently ran the ball out of that formation, taking advantage of the lighter defense.
No tight end, no problem. Every Patriots wide receiver is expected to block in the run game and Jakobi Meyers executes a textbook crackback block, allowing Cannon to pull and reach the next level.— Tian (@tianrossidraft) September 13, 2019
Being in 20 personnel vs the typical 21 personnel keeps the Steelers in nickel pic.twitter.com/YBmBxNBnKI
Cris Collinsworth kept referring to Josh Gordon as a “240-pound wide receiver” Sunday night. While Gordon is listed at 225, I can believe that he’s bulked up to that level. While he got a breather on this play in favor of Jakobi Meyers, if Gordon can block like a 240-pound man on running plays the Patriots should churn out yards in 20 formation with Develin. Meyers at 6’2 is also a physical outside wide receiver that can move cornerbacks and safeties in the run game.
This is 20 formation with Develin as the 2nd back. Off play-action Edelman wins over the middle pic.twitter.com/DyB43U504v— Tian (@tianrossidraft) September 13, 2019
Even with five defensive backs defending, the Patriots can succeed off of play-action. This was the only passing play of the night out of 20 formation with Develin. I expect there to be a lot more of these plays as the season progresses. As former colleague Evan Lazar noted, the Patriots actually did worse out of this formation compared to plays with Izzo on the field. But it was Week 1 and the sample size was small. As we saw with the red zone play, the Patriots had open receivers and opportunities even in unsuccessful plays. I would love to see a 2-minute or hurry-up offense out of 20 personnel.
This isn’t the first time the Patriots introduced a new formation on Week 1 Sunday Night Football against the Steelers at home after winning a Super Bowl. Week 1 in 2015, after the Patriots beat the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX, the Patriots introduced 14 formation, featuring 4 tight ends. The Patriots were a little more successful using that formation as they scored three touchdowns out of their four-tight end set.
After trading Michael Hoomanawanui before week four, the Patriots never went back to their four-tight end sets. But I don’t believe that 20 formation will meet that same fate, especially since they have another guy in Damien Harris waiting in the wings if any of the running backs go down with an injury. While they struggled (relative to the rest of the plays), I think that this is just the beginning of a season long trend.
With two very good running backs in the passing game, as well as a top-tier fullback that can produce yards on the ground against a nickel defense, this is a dynamic group that could be even more dangerous if Antonio Brown replaces Phillip Dorsett’s role in the starting lineup.