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Patriots vs. Packers game plan: How New England will find success in Week 4

New England will have to face the Packers without its starting quarterback. So, what should the plan look like?

Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New England Patriots are in a difficult situation heading into their Week 4 game against the Green Bay Packers. Not only will they be facing one of the NFL’s top teams — and certainly one of its top quarterbacks — on the road, they also will have to do so without two of their most important players on either side of the ball.

The first is defensive tackle Lawrence Guy, who suffered a shoulder injury in last week’s loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Guy has been a starter-level member of the Patriots’ interior D-line rotation, and especially important against the run due to his ability to control his gaps and diagnose misdirection (two things that will be important against the Green Bay offense).

The far bigger loss as far as importance to the overall operation of the team is concerned, however, is Mac Jones. The Patriots’ starting quarterback suffered a high ankle sprain versus Baltimore and will be out for the foreseeable future despite making a brief appearance at Friday’s practice.

With Jones unavailable, New England will turn to veteran backup Brian Hoyer to lead the troops into a matchup with Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Needless to say that the game at Lambeau Field will be a major challenge for the team, something reflected by the Patriots’ status as 9.5-point underdogs as of Sunday morning (via DraftKings Sportsbook).

“This is a really good football team. Well coached. Well balanced,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick about Green Bay earlier this week. “Offensively this is a great, great, great quarterback. Good running backs. Good skill players. Very efficient offensively. These guys really know what they’re doing. They’re well coached. They execute well. You can see they’ve made some adjustments and improvements defensively and in the kicking game that showed up the early part of the season. It’s a good football team.

“Good opportunity. Good challenge for us. Great football environment always in Green Bay. So, excited about the opportunity to compete there. It’s been good to go up and take a good view at the Packers and how they do things in close detail. It’s not a team we’ve played in a while, but they’re good. They’re good. They’re good players. Well coached. All three units.”

So, how will New England be able to find success against that team? Here is our best-guess estimation.

Patriots offense vs. Packers defense

Make life easy for Brian Hoyer

Earlier this week, Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said that he would not expect the Patriots’ game plan to look much different with Brian Hoyer on the field instead of Mac Jones. There is some truth to that based on the fact that Hoyer is a similar type of quarterback operating a scheme he has considerable experience with.

That being said, every time a new players is inserted into the lineup, especially at the quarterback position, some adjustments have to be made. New England QB coach Joe Judge said so himself when talking to reporters on Tuesday.

“We always look to play to our players’ strengths,” Judge pointed out. “Every player has a unique skill set. Every player does certain things better than other things. We’ll have a plan based on who is going to be the quarterback, and we’ll see how that develops throughout the week. We don’t want to completely turn the offense on its head because we feel like we are making some progress.”

The question now becomes how such adjustments might look like, and there are a few potential ways the Patriots might go when putting the ball in Hoyer’s hands — especially against a Packers defense that has been quite solid versus the pass.

For starters, New England might decrease its depth of attack. Entering Week 4, Mac Jones ranked fourth in the league in intended air yards per attempt (10.0) but it seems unlikely the Patriots will ask Hoyer to take a similar approach.

Instead, we might see the team might call a play it hasn’t run all season: the slant. The Patriots have regularly dialed up slant concepts in the past with Hoyer under center, and despite long-time offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels having left this offseason might do so again on Sunday.

The idea behind calling slants or similar quick passing concepts is to get the ball out of Hoyer’s hands quickly while simultaneously limiting the reads he has to make both pre- and post-snap. The goal should be to limit the pressure the veteran quarterback will face, both figuratively and literally.

In order to do that, New England might also increase its usage of pre-snap motion, misdirection and run/pass option plays. The Patriots have started to incorporate more RPOs recently, and the trend might continue with Hoyer under center.

It would therefore not be a surprise if a concept such as the following was used:

On this play, tight end Jonnu Smith (81) crosses the formation before catching a short screen in the flat. The play itself gained only five yards, but it was a positive drive-starter — and as such a momentum-building play New England will need versus the Packers.

Build off the running game

As noted above, the Patriots might incorporate more misdirection and RPO concepts in order to lift some pressure off backup quarterback Brian Hoyer. Both of those, however, rely on the running game to also function properly.

Luckily for New England, it has done just that this season and will face a favorable matchup: whereas the Patriots offense is ranked eighth in the NFL with 0.021 expected points added per run, the Packers defense checks in at 20th with an EPA of -0.034. The difference between the two units becomes even more pronounced when looking at them through Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric.

The Patriots’ run offense is the best in the league from that point of view (24.5%). The Packers’ run defense? Last (14.0%).

New England relying heavily on the run game on Sunday would not have been a surprise even with Jones under center. With Hoyer now in the lineup, Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson might be seeing even more action.

How the Patriots will employ their two-headed monster at the running back position — one of the most effective in the league thus far — remains to be seen, but it would not be a surprise to see a diverse set of play designs yet again. Based on their first three games of the season that means inside zone, power, duo and toss concepts might all be part of the plan with a few outside zone runs sprinkled in as well.

The Patriots have been effective using most of them, with outside zone being the prominent exception. Still, the Packers should be ready for New England throwing everything at them.

They wouldn’t be the first team to do that, with two of Green Bay’s previous opponents — the Minnesota Vikings in Week 1 and especially the Chicago Bears in Week 2 — using a diverse set of designs to find success on the ground. The Bears were especially effective running toss plays either out of I-formation looks or with a motion player as the lead blocker:

Here, the Bears move to the weak side of the formation with Justin Fields (1) tossing the ball to running back David Montgomery (32). Fullback Khari Blasingame (35) seals off the edge versus linebacker Preston Smith (91) to open up a hole for Montgomery to exploit.

The Patriots have their own stretch concepts in the playbook as well. The following, called Sprint 38 is an example of that:

The keen observer will identify this as an outside zone run, and indeed it is. As noted above, outside zone has not worked well for the Patriots so far this season but other teams such as the Bears have been able to successfully run it. New England will not move away from its bread-and-butter plays such as inside zone and power, but might still incorporate some outside zone elements to stretch the defense horizontally.

Of course, the Patriots could also turn to toss concepts such as this one:

This play is called Toss 39 and sees the right guard serve as a pull blocker. Of course, Toss 39 can also be transformed into a bootleg play with the quarterback faking the toss to keep the ball and throw to the weak-side Z-receiver.

In general, run concepts such as these can help disguise pass plays. New England might therefore also build off of the aforementioned RPO concepts; the following trap design is an example for that:

No matter what the Patriots will do, they will likely try to get their run game and everything build off of it going against what has been a weak run defense so far. While Green Bay has some talent up front, primarily in the form of Kenny Clark, Dean Lowry and Preston Smith, the group has been more down than up when going against fundamentally sound offensive lines.

New England’s has been just that, particularly in the running game. Even with Green Bay likely trying to stack the box to force the ball into Hoyer’s hands, the Patriots could be able to break some runs.

Patriots defense vs. Packers offense

Go heavy on man coverage

The Patriots and Packers have undergone some significant changes since their last meeting in 2018; a 31-17 New England victory.

New England’s defense has completely rebuilt its cornerback group since then, while Green Bay’s offense no longer features All-Pro wide receiver Davante Adams. Despite the personnel changes, however, it would not be a surprise if the plan against Aaron Rodgers and company looks similar to the one employed the last time these two clubs met four years ago.

Back then, the Patriots defense was at its best when forcing Green Bay’s receivers to beat tight man coverage — something they were not always able to do. Take the following 1st-and-9 in the deep red zone as an example:

New England appeared to be in a single-high man-to-man look, but safety Devin McCourty (32) actually moved down to first bracket and then take on Davante Adams (17) out of the left-side slot. Duron Harmon (30), meanwhile, passed Adams off to McCourty while taking over the centerfield role to help defend any crossers into this area.

With the coverage holding up elsewhere, and the Patriots’ three-man rush closing in on Rodgers (12), the quarterback was forced to effectively toss the ball away. New England’s man coverage holding up across the board and the team keeping linebacker Dont’a Hightower (54) as a spy underneath forced the throwaway.

Obviously, the Patriots no longer have Harmon, Hightower, Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, J.C. Jackson and Patrick Chung in the lineup; all of them have left since 2018. Nonetheless, New England has shown that it can successfully hold its own playing man even without all of that talent in its ranks.

Adding to that is the fact that the Packers’ passing offense remains a work in progress as well. With Adams gone, Rodgers has yet to fully establish a connection with his new set of pass catchers.

One player who has been quite busy is Allen Lazard, who has caught six passes for 58 yards and a pair of touchdowns in two games so far. Lazard has been one of Rodgers’ favorite targets when facing man-to-man coverage:

Aligning both in the slot and split out wide, Lazard (13) has been particularly productive on quick-hit concepts such as slants. Here, he held the cornerback just long enough to gain inside leverage and break inside.

What helped was the fake handoff to running back Aaron Jones (33) out of the RPO concept. The threat of the run drew in both off-ball linebackers as well as deep safety Eddie Jackson (4), and helped open up a window for Rodgers and Lazard to exploit for six points.

Just like on this play, the Packers have relied quite a bit on RPOs this season. New England will see them as well to help soften up the man coverage by drawing support players out of their zones. If the Patriots defense can stand firm in such moments, and possibly force Green Bay to run more traditional plays out of longer-yardage situations, they should be able to find an advantage against an average-at-best corps of pass catchers.

Gap discipline will be key

As noted above, Green Bay likes to mix in RPOs but they are just one element of the team’s running game. In general, the Packers use a ton of outside zone to capitalize on what is an athletic offensive line. They do so mostly from shotgun looks, where the threat of those RPOs and other concepts such as bootlegs can be incorporated.

If they do hand off the ball, only two players are legitimate threats to be worried about. They are pretty good, though, and certainly cannot be underestimated despite the Green Bay running back ranking only 18th in EPA (-0.083).

Aaron Jones is a big-play threat with exceptional vision, burst, and balance. The Patriots’ gap discipline and tackling have to be on point to keep him contained. Gaining 217 yards and 32 carries, Jones is averaging an impressive 6.8 yards per attempt this season.

A.J. Dillon, meanwhile, is the thunder to Jones’ lightning in the Packers’ backfield. He’s a downhill finisher who can plow through defenders to convert in short-yardage situations or pick up extra yards in the open field. He also has the patience to wait for lanes to manifest themselves before committing.

Having Lawrence Guy in the lineup certainly would have helped against those two. With him out, however, the Patriots will likely turn to the likes of Davon Godchaux, Christian Barmore and Carl Davis to hold down the fort along the interior. Having Deatrich Wise Jr., who can play everywhere from the 7-technique to the 3-technique spot, also helps.

Given the personnel at hand, and the Packers’ affinity for using outside zone and RPOs, it would not be a surprise if New England rolled out its old tilt fronts:

Basically a 6-1 look, the Patriots create 1-on-1s across the board while still staying flexible over the top to shoot downhill.

Traditionally, they used it in combination with zone coverage in the backend but the Packers’ cast of pass catchers — as noted above — lacks a true No. 1 or any elite-level threats (although second-round rookie Christian Watson is an intriguing talent). Playing man in the secondary even with a tilt look up front would likely work.

Regardless of what the Patriots opt to do, the goal has to be to eliminate the threat of RPOs by keeping Green Bay in unfavorable down-and-distances. As soon as the Packers are forced to move away from such concepts, the coverage advantage New England should have could become relevant again.

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