The New England Patriots are still one of the best teams in football. At 9-1, they’re not just a lock for the playoffs, but they’re nearly guaranteed a first-round bye. Football Outsiders gives them a 95.2% chance at a bye and still a 75% chance of the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The Patriots are still the favorite to win the Super Bowl at 25.7%.
In some ways, New England is one of the most impressive teams we’ve ever seen. They have one of the best defenses, especially against the pass, through 10 games in the modern NFL. It’s a defense first in DVOA, yards allowed per drive, and points allowed per drive — almost half of what the next best defense has allowed (0.65 for New England, compared to 1.22 for San Francisco).
But despite that, there’s still a looming dread hanging over the Patriots like we’re finally seeing the last days of the Patriots’ reign over the NFL. That falls on an offense that is merely good and with New England, anything that’s merely good feels bad. It’s an unintended consequence of being closer to great for nearly two decades.
Of course, there is some reason to be concerned about the Patriots’ offense. And perhaps the success of the defense makes New England’s offensive performance more notable. Over the past two games, the offense couldn’t keep up with Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens and in Week 11, the unit struggled against an unimpressive Philadelphia Eagles defense in an ugly win. As a spark in the game, the Patriots called for Julian Edelman to throw the team’s lone touchdown pass.
For the whole season, New England’s offense ranks 22nd in yards per drive,16th in points per drive, and 12th in DVOA. So the question is, what’s going on with the offense and is it something that’s going to limit how far this team can go in the playoffs?
The 2019 Patriots were already set to look different on offense, with the biggest difference being the loss of Rob Gronkowski to retirement. 2019 Gronk wasn’t near peak Gronk, but still his presence on the field as both a receiving threat and a blocker helped the offense function.
New England entered 2019 with the intention of using more two-back sets, especially with fullback James Develin. Develin had played 36% of New England’s offensive snaps in 2018 and had played 46% and 37% of the snaps in the first two weeks of 2019 before he was lost for the season with a neck injury.
Develin’s loss shifted what the Patriots had wanted to do on offense, where they used 11 personnel (three wide receivers) on just 39% of their offensive snaps over the first two weeks of the season. With 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end) on 31% of snaps and 20 personnel (two backs, no tight ends) on 17% of snaps.
Personnel packages started to shift toward more wide receiver heavy in the following weeks and after a trade for Mohamed Sanu, the Pats turned into one of the most 11 personnel-heavy teams in the league.
New England Personnel Rates, 2019
While New England has done a good job at shifting personnel to what is available on the roster, the Patriots aren’t always making the most out of those packages. In that Week 8-11 stretch, which features three games and a Week 10 bye, New England has a 76% pass rate from 11 personnel with a 47% success rate and minus-0.01 Expected Points Added per attempt. On the 24% of plays that feature runs, the Patriots have a 57% success rate and 0.06 EPA per attempt.
When the Patriots have used 12 personnel, it’s been almost exclusively a run package over the past three games with a 91% run rate. New England averaged minus-0.33 EPA per attempt on 18 runs from 12 and only 26% of those runs produced positive EPA.
What makes this offense feels worse is that Tom Brady hasn’t been able to compensate for other weaknesses. This season, he’s averaged just 6.8 yards per attempt and 0.06 EPA per play, which ranks 15th among quarterbacks. He’s also 15th in QBR.
Per Sports Info Solutions charting, Brady’s on-target percentage has dropped for the fourth straight season, which has also led to a drop in completion rate and a career-low touchdown rate.
The drop in on-target rate and completion percentage is troubling because Brady is throwing shorter passes on average, more than half a yard shorter than 2018 and a yard shorter than in 2016 when he completed 67.4% of his passes, per Next Gen Stats.
Opponents have also been more likely to blitz Brady to disrupt his timing. It’s long been understood that blitzing Brady is a bad idea because he’s too smart and can find the weakness in the defense before the rush can get to the quarterback. This year, Brady has been hit or miss against the blitz with a 58.8% completion rate, 7.5 yards per attempt, five touchdowns, three interceptions, and six sacks.
Some of these blitzes are more aggressive in the open field. Opponents have used Cover 0 — an all-out blitz with no deep safeties — against Brady nine times outside the red zone this season. From 2016-18, teams only used 10 zero-blitzes against Brady outside the red zone. Against these blitzes this season, Brady has as many completions as sacks (two).
These figures might be expected of a 42-year-old quarterback, but they matter so much to the Patriots because they’re relying on Brady arguably more than they ever have on a volume basis. Brady already has 402 pass attempts through 10 games. That 40 attempts per game average would lead to 643 pass attempts over 16 games, which would be a career-high. His current career-high was 637 passes in 2012. To match last year’s total of 570 attempts, Brady would only have to average 28 passes per game over the final six games of the season.
Part of this high volume pass approach is necessary because of a lack of production from the running game. New England is 18th in rushing DVOA and 25th in EPA per attempt on the ground. Throughout 2019, the Patriots have struggled to run block and pick up yards after contact.
Per pro-football-reference, the Patriots have averaged just 2.0 yards before contact on the ground after averaging 2.5 yards before contact last season. New England is 14th in Adjusted Line Yards, per Football Outsiders, but still struggle in power situations when two or fewer yards are needed on third or fourth down (22nd) have one of the worst stuffed percentages (27th). Patriots backs have also struggled to gain yards on big plays when blocking has worked; they rank 21st in second-level yards (gains between 5-10 yards) and 30th in open field yards (gains of 10 or more yards).
These rates are concerning because New England isn’t inherently hurting itself by the way it runs. Just 24% of Patriots rushing attempts have been into a heavy box (eight defenders or more), per SIS charting, and while that number can always be lower, that rate ranks 17th among all teams. Just over a third of New England’s attempts come against light boxes of six or fewer defenders (33.5%), which ranks 18th.
All of this is compounded by a lack of tackle-breaking ability from Patriots runners which causes first contact to be meaningful contact more than any other team in the league. Per SIS, the Patriots have a broken tackle rate of just 7.3% on rushing attempts, the lowest rate in the league. The next lowest belongs to the Pittsburgh Steelers at 10.1%.
Is this the end?
The good news is the Patriots aren’t a finished product. They’re still figuring out the best ways to use the personnel currently at their disposal. The better news is nothing the Patriots are doing right now is irreparably broken.
New England could benefit more from running at a higher rate from 11 personnel to make an effort to create more light boxes and manipulate when the first contact might come. The Patriots could also throw more from heavier packages — not just 12, but two-back sets with James White and Rex Burkhead on the field at the same time, or one of the receiving backs on the field along with Sony Michel. Burkhead on the field along with Edelman, Sanu, and a now healthy N’Keal Harry in 20 personnel could cause confusion for opposing defenses. Along the offensive line, they’ll also get Isaiah Wynn back at left tackle and while he’s still an unknown, he should be an upgrade over current left tackle Marshall Newhouse.
The great news for the Patriots is there’s plenty of time to play and figure out what works the best. As mentioned in the opening, New England is assured a playoff spot and a first-round bye. That gives them what almost turns into six preseason games to figure this out. The next three games are against playoff contenders in the Cowboys, Texans, and Chiefs, but the final three come against the Bengals, Bills, and Dolphins.
Right now, the Patriots offense isn’t good enough to win the Patriots the Super Bowl. That would come from the defense. But at this point, the offense isn’t bad enough to lose it, either, and there’s still enough time to get things on the right track before everything really starts to matter.