The New England Patriots offense in Thursday’s preseason opener looked quite familiar. New England ran concepts through the air that made it appear Josh McDaniels was still on the sideline, while hammering home their regular gap-style runs on the ground.
But, that once familiar offense has not been what we've seen of late.
Through the first several weeks of training camp, the Patriots have been shifted towards more zone runs and play-action passes as a counter-attack. Thursday night, the zone runs took a back seat and appeared just seven times, all with Bailey Zappe under center in the second half.
Like it’s been on the back practice fields of Gillette Stadium, there was not much room to gain on the ground. New England averaged 2.9 yards per carry against the New York Giants, as the interior of the offensive line continues to struggle getting to the second level and along the backside.
The Patriots could benefit from running the zone concepts out of 12 personnel, something they have been committed to throughout training camp with Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. The extra tight end on the field would assist the run game on the backside. Thursday night however, with Matt Sokol as the lone tight end, the Patriots ran 51 of their 59 offensive plays from 11 personnel.
Beyond the run game, another potential offensive shift from the practice fields to the game fields was noticeable within the passing attack. With much of their focus on play-action boot concepts to counter their zone-runs in training camp, the Patriots did not attempt one play-action pass Thursday night.
The lack of play-action could have been a result of an aggressive Giants defense, which blitzed the Patriots 21 times, according to Pro Football Focus. Zappe impressed under pressure, going 12-for-16 for 135 yards and a touchdown with one interception, but the dialed up pressure was unusual for preseason action, perhaps leading to the lack of play-action.
“Well, with what the Giants were doing, there’s a lot of reasons for some of the things that we did just to try to manage the game. So, just leave it at that,” head coach Bill Belichick said on Monday.
While the Patriots seemed to spend most of the night covering up their new-look offense, one potential addition did slip through the cracks. With Matt Patricia and Joe Judge sharing play-calling duties, both coaches dialed up run-pass option (RPOs) plays while on the headsets.
It’s a notable change from last season, especially under Joe Judge. With the Giants last season, Judge’s offense ranked 12th in the NFL in RPO plays. Under Josh McDaniels the Patriots ranked dead last in the NFL despite Mac Jones leading a successful RPO-style offense in Alabama in 2020. More of those would be a welcome site for Jones in year two.
Despite players themselves calling this year’s offense “different” than year’s past, it was a different story on the game field Thursday night. The Patriots did their best to not reveal their tricks, whether it be a play-caller or the plays themselves.