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Film room: How the Patriots used Antonio Brown in his debut against the Dolphins

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Related: ‘It’s pretty tough to try to contain us’: Patriots offense shows potential, room for growth against Dolphins

NFL: New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

No player on the New England Patriots’ roster made as many headlines during the week leading up to the team’s game against the Miami Dolphins as Antonio Brown. Between allegations of sexual misconduct and rape being brought forward, the 31-year-old prepared for his first contest in a Patriots uniform after the team had acquired him on the previous weekend — leading to questions about whether or not he would actually suit up.

Suit up Brown did, and he played a big role in his new team’s 43-0 blowout against the Dolphins. Let’s dig a little deeper to find out how New England used him.

Playing time and statistics

Speaking strictly in terms of playing time, Brown was the Patriots’ number four wide receiver on Sunday behind Julian Edelman, Josh Gordon and Phillip Dorsett II. All in all, he was on the field for 24 of a possible 72 offensive snaps (33%), and was targeted a team-high eight times by quarterback Tom Brady. His playing time and offensive statistics can be broken down as follows:

Antonio Brown: Week 1 statistics

Player Snaps Targets Receptions Receiving Yards Receiving TDs Rushing Attempts Rushing Yards Rushing TDs
Player Snaps Targets Receptions Receiving Yards Receiving TDs Rushing Attempts Rushing Yards Rushing TDs
Antonio Brown 24 8 4 56 1 1 5 0

Four of Brown’s eight targets were completed, for a combined 56 yards and a touchdown — all of the receptions happened in the first half, while all of the incompletions came in the second. Needless to say that New England wanted to get its high-priced free agency acquisition up to speed quickly, and Brown, who also was given the ball for one carry, responded accordingly by leading the team in catches and receiving yards.

Despite the inconsistent nature of his target distribution between halves one and two, Brown’s debut performance was therefore certainly an encouraging one for him and the Patriots’ passing attack: he showed his elite skill set and if not for some miscommunications with Brady could have had more receptions.

Route chart

As noted above, Brown was targeted eight times by Brady. What stood out among the targets he received was that the vast majority of them came when he lined up on the left side of the formation: according to NFL Next Gen Stats, seven of his targets happened when he ran a route from the left — including all four of his receptions. Meanwhile, Brown only saw one target while lining up on the other side:

NFL Next Gen Stats

The route chart generally reflects where Brown lined up on the day. According to advanced analytics website Pro Football Focus, he played exactly half of his snaps in the slot and the other half split out wide on the boundary — primarily lining up on the left side of the formation. Unsurprisingly, all four of his catches came from there as Tom Brady found him on a hitch, an out, a corner fade route, and a shallow crosser towards the middle of the field.

Film review

Despite the rather limited sample size, Brown showed why he can still be considered one of the best wide receivers in all of football: his route running was tremendous (when he was on the same page as Brady, at least) and his ability to track the football in the air and come away with the reception also stood out.

2-7-NE 43 (12:58) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass short middle to A.Brown to MIA 39 for 18 yards (M.Fitzpatrick).

Brown’s first snap of the day came on the Patriots’ opening possession, with the team using a 10 personnel group consisting of Brown and the three wideouts mentions above: Gordon and Dorsett aligning on the boundaries, with Brown and Edelman in the slot. Running back James White motioned into the backfield before the snap, indicating that the Dolphins defense was in a zone coverage.

Brady knew that Miami’s defensive alignment could create an opening in the middle of the field either for Brown to exploit from the left side of the formation, or for Julian Edelman in the right-side slot. And with the Dolphins’ defenders not dropping deep enough into their underneath zones, Brown’s crossing route remained wide open:

NFL Game Pass

New England’s quarterback completed an easy throw to Brown for a gain of 18 yards. While the play itself was not necessarily spectacular, it showed two things: 1.) Brown’s quickness to get open in the middle of the field as well as his ability to create yards after the catch (he picked up 5 yards after grabbing the pass); 2.) the challenges defenses face when playing the Patriots’ talented offense and its weapons — you cannot double-cover everybody.

In this particular case, the Dolphins defensive lineman Avery Moss was drawn towards Edelman which allowed Brady to find an opening to get the football to Brown. The wide receiver was where he was supposed to be, allowing for the first connection between the quarterback and receiver.

1-10-MIA 20 (1:24) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass deep left to A.Brown for 20 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

After catching two more passes on New England’s first possession of the game, it took Brown until late in the second quarter to see another target — but he made it count: the seven-time Pro Bowler caught his first touchdown as Patriot on a beautifully executed 20-yard back-shoulder pass from Brady.

The Patriots again had their 10-personnel package on the field in a 2x3 alignment with James White motioning to the far-right side of the formation. Brown, meanwhile, lined up in the left side slot again facing off-man coverage from Dolphins rookie and ex-Patriots defender Jomal Wiltz:

NFL Game Pass

The Patriots ran a variation of their famous Hoss Y Juke playcall, by having run the slot receivers — in this case Brown and Dorsett — run fade routes instead of seams. Brown executed his route perfectly, by getting outside leverage on Wiltz and simply racing by the rookie. While the defender was close to his assigned receiver, he never stood a chance thanks in part to a subtle push by the veteran pass catcher.

With the back-shoulder throw placed away from Wiltz to where only Brown could get it, the wide receiver made an easy-looking grab. However, the sheer brilliance he displayed on the play cannot be understated: he adjusted well to the perfectly thrown ball to come away with the 20-yard grab. Back-shoulder throws are notoriously hard to defend, and it looks like Brady and Brown have the timing down already despite having spent only a week together.

All in all, there was a lot to like about Brown’s first game with the Patriots. While the chemistry with Brady is not yet where it needs to be — as had to be expected — his outstanding athletic skillset and feel for routes and coverages were on display for most of the day. Even though Brown’s future remains unclear in light of the allegations brought forward against him, New England should feel good about what he brings to the team from a strict football perspective.