Since 2007, the New England Patriots have been blessed with exemplary offensive teams. Unlike most teams, the unwavering foundation of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady has allowed the Pats to maximize players' specific strengths and mold them into their system, rather than the other way around.
Even with catastrophic level of personnel turnover last season, only the Denver Broncos averaged more points per game. With all 11 offensive starters and most depth players expected back for 2014, New England's continuity should theoretically lead to more consistent results.
However, it appears this group comes with fewer guarantees than previous years. Between the injury histories of several key players and a reliance on young contributors, the Patriots are no sure bet to remain the dominant scoring machine they have been for the past seven seasons.
Injuries are impossible to predict, but digging deeper into the New England offense, it appears no one is truly indispensable (perhaps not even No. 12). Taking the 2013 film and stats into account, let's project how the Patriots might attempt to optimize their current offensive personnel in 2014.
The Gronk Effect
It's not exactly breaking news that Rob Gronkowski has an enormous effect on the offense. Last season's numbers speak for themselves:
Frustratingly, the most important non-Brady key to New England's offense is one whose availability they cannot depend upon. But while the Patriots cannot guarantee that their All-Pro tight end will be healthy for 16 games, they can take precautions to preserve some of the concepts he allows them to run.
When people talk about Gronkowski's importance, they often refer to his versatility, which opens up the Pats' play-calling arsenal and allows for more multifaceted formations. To illustrate what exactly that means, take a look at this play from New England's Week 9 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers:
As we can see pre-snap, the Patriots are lined up in their "Heavy" 13 personnel (1 RB, 3 TE, 1 WR). Against an ostensibly run-oriented formation, the Steelers predictably countered with their base 3-4 defense. However, that left them at a significant disadvantage based on how the play actually unfolded:
Last season, Brady had an exemplary 99.8 quarterback rating on play-action passes, and plays like this show why he had so much success. Poor rookie linebacker Jarvis Jones was helpless against Gronkowski down the seam, and the play action froze safety Troy Polamalu just long enough for Brady to sneak the pass in over the top.
If the Patriots are able to pass successfully from run formations, then the opposite is true as well. With Gronkowski, New England is one of the best "11" personnel teams in the league. This is because defenses are caught in a true catch-22: Gronkowski's blocking ability essentially makes him a sixth offensive lineman, but with three receivers on the field, they have little choice except to counter in nickel packages and gamble that the Patriots do not run the ball on their smaller personnel.
Here's an example of that exact scenario unfolding from the same game:
With the Patriots showing "11" personnel, the Steelers countered with an extremely light 2-3-6 (No. 99 Brett Keisel is a defensive end who is in a two-point stance). Even with Polamalu showing blitz, Gronkowski's presence allows the Patriots to have a blocker for each potential blitzer, resulting in a nice 11-yard gain on the ground (with the help of a nice seal block from Gronk):
Thus, the Patriots are able to pass from run formations and run from passing formations, making them one of the league's most unpredictable offenses. With New England able to hide its hand, they break defenses by forcing them into uncomfortable assignments—linebackers dropping into coverage, defensive backs tackling downhill, etc.
Last year, that enormous advantage disappeared without Gronkowski because defenses did not respect Michael Hoomanawanui or Matthew Mulligan in the passing game. While no tight end is capable of replicating Gronk's talent and natural physical tools, a couple veteran alternatives could provide a reasonable facsimile:
Let's be clear: Dustin Keller or Jermichael Finley would not revitalize the two-tight end sets that terrorized the league from 2010-12. However, in the event of another Gronkowski injury, Finley or Keller would present enough of a threat to sustain the Patriots' coveted formational versatility. If either checks out medically, New England would be wise to take out a Gronk insurance plan.
Arguably no one in the league presents as great a mismatch as Gronkowski, for he is a rare blue-chip talent that teams build around. But the Patriots' roster construction philosophy is all about minimizing the drop-off from the starters to the backups. If they can accomplish that feat in 2014, the Patriots can at least retain the core foundation of their offense, with or without Gronkowski.
What About the Running Game?
While most teams continue to realize the inefficiency of the running game and skew toward passing, the Patriots veered the other direction at the end of last season. After Gronkowski's injury, the Pats were almost a 50-50 team the rest of the season, with 168 passes to 161 rushing attempts, per Pro Football Reference.
That switch was out of necessity, and the Pats are more likely to lean to the 60-40 split they employed the first 14 games of the year. New England's four-headed committee of Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden and James White possesses a nice array of skill sets that should allow the Patriots to liberally rotate their backs based on game plan and situation.
Indeed, it's hard to find a trend in New England's running game besides the week-to-week variability. While there are certainly pro-Ridley or pro-Vereen camps, New England is unlikely to deviate too much from its egalitarian system to feature any one particular back if necessity does not dictate a change.
The "who" is not the question, as most teams have trended toward a committee philosophy anyways. However, looking at the direction of the Patriots' 2013 running plays reveals a lot about the offensive line:
For those who are unaware, the A-gaps refer to the space between the center and guard, the B-gaps lie between the guard and tackle and so on. As the chart shows, the Pats had plenty of success running behind the likes of Nate Solder and Logan Mankins on the left side, but much less so with center Ryan Wendell and right guard Dan Connolly.
The advanced metrics back up the traditional ones—Connolly and Wendell both finished as negative run-blockers—as does the film. New England utilizes both zone and power-running scheme concepts; unfortunately, both schemes lead to a problem for one of its interior starters.
Zone blocking is an issue for Connolly, who struggles with containing top-notch one-gapping linemen from getting upfield and disrupting running lanes. Here's an example of Connolly's lateral agility failing to catch up to Jets defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson:
Conversely, the smaller Wendell struggles with powerful defensive tackles who can bull rush effectively. Though he fared well against quicker and lighter defensive tackles like Geno Atkins, Wendell was unable to fend off heavier opponents like Wilkerson, Terrance Knighton and Phil Taylor, who single-handedly demolished this running play:
To remedy these issues, the Patriots might seek to run the ball out of the no-huddle more often. Anyone who has watched the Pats on a regular basis is familiar with the outside zone stretch play they like to run out of the no-huddle (example here). When New England is at its best, opposing defenses are often not even lined up at the snap:
Last year's massive turnover forced the Patriots to slow down their pace for much of the season, but it would not be surprising to see them return to those roots. Connolly and Wendell may have their physical limitations, but the no-huddle highlights their strengths by requiring stamina and intelligence to coordinate with the rest of the line.
The staples of the New England running game will remain the Power-O runs for Ridley and shotgun draws up the middle for Vereen. However, by pushing the tempo, the Pats can not only protect their offensive linemen but also maximize their rushing efficiency.
Think Outside the Numbers
It's clear where the Patriots' offensive strengths lie. However, ever since Randy Moss' departure, the Pats have not had much of a vertical or perimeter presence, allowing defenses to clog the short-to-intermediate middle of the field.
In the rare instances when the Patriots have experienced success outside the numbers, it has often catalyzed huge offensive days. New England's Week 13 win over the Houston Texans was a textbook example of that, as the Pats scored 27 second-half points.
In that game, the Patriots made Houston pay for ignoring the perimeter. On this play, the safety never bit on Julian Edelman's corner route, leading to a big gain by attacking the sidelines:
Later on, New England faced a 3rd-and-8 in the red zone. This time, the safety helped on a similar corner route from Gronkowski instead of biting on one of the underneath routes. That opened up what the Patriots really wanted, a slant from Edelman that led to a first down:
Any offense is more dangerous when it is more versatile, and the Patriots might finally have a player capable of stretching the defense beyond the hashmarks.
Aaron Dobson's progress was prematurely stunted when he suffered a foot injury against the Carolina Panthers in Week 11, but there are indications that he could develop into the receiver that diversifies New England's passing game. Despite receiving little national attention, Dobson was actually one of the league's top rookie receivers:
Indeed, though he may not possess the speed or leaping ability to develop into a lethal deep threat, he certainly has the length to threaten the defense from sideline to sideline. As we can see by Dobson's passing chart, his greatest success came when Brady targeted him in the short-to-intermediate perimeter:
|Aaron Dobson's 2013 Receiving Chart|
|via Pro Football Focus|
It's a small sample size, but on 25 perimeter throws that traveled between 0-19 yards, Brady posted an eye-popping 130.8 quarterback rating when targeting Dobson. For reference, only two receivers who were targeted at least 20 times anywhere on the field created a quarterback rating that high.
Much of that damage came against teams like the Steelers and Saints, who often rotated safety help away from the perimeter and dared Dobson to beat his man one-on-one. The rookie put up a combined 11 catches, 193 yards and two touchdowns in those games, exhibiting impressive route-running ability and a large catch radius:
Unlike some of the other top AFC contenders, the Patriots do not have a superstar big receiver like Demaryius Thomas or A.J. Green. However, while Dobson is unlikely to emerge as the No. 1 receiver this season, he can provide a valuable secondary option unlike anything the Pats have employed in recent seasons.
Like a pitcher who needs an off-speed pitch to keep batters honest, the Patriots need Dobson to make a sophomore leap if they are to fulfill their offensive potential. New England will almost certainly reach the postseason regardless of Dobson's development, but against stiffer competition, he could represent a critical Plan B.
Barring a series of catastrophic injuries, the Patriots will once again boast one of the league's top statistical offenses. Such is the luxury of having one of the most dependable coach-quarterback duos in NFL history, a rarity taken for granted a bit too often in these recent championship-less seasons.
It's a bit paradoxical to consider, but the number of points the Pats score this year is not particularly important. Since 2000, only the Saints have won the Super Bowl while leading the league in scoring. The Patriots will likely average around 30 points per game, placing them near or at the top of the NFL.
However, those gaudy numbers will do them little good if they are not multi-dimensional enough to adjust on the fly. Diversity is critical, and the true championship contenders are capable of defeating opponents in multiple ways.
Because of injuries, the 2013 Patriots were unable to fit that criteria. But with better health and expected player development, the 2014 rendition should have the versatility to give the team a more realistic opportunity.
*Unless otherwise cited, all stats via Pro Football Focus (subscription required).