FOXBOROUGH — There are two trends going on with the Patriots offense.
They’re running the ball more. They’re also using more sets with three wide receivers and passing more frequently out of them. Against the Chiefs, they substituted less than they usually do.
Are the Patriots becoming . . . predictable?
“Some teams you’re willing and able to run the same play multiple times and just try to count on your execution at times, and other times that’s hard to do because teams will give you different looks or adjust quickly and try to take things away that you’re doing or showing early in the game,” said Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. “I think there’s a lot that goes into that initial decision each week. I think we try to do both as much as we can.”
In so many words, no. They aren’t predictable at all, because they’ve scored at least 38 points in three consecutive games. But how does an offense stay unpredictable and effective while also doing certain things consistently? There are a number of ways, but having a solid running game has helped first and foremost.
Against the porous Chiefs defense, the Patriots ran the ball 38 times, one more play than the number on which Tom Brady dropped back to pass, including sacks. Even including the Colts game, when the Patriots’ game plan was pass heavy, New England has had better balance between running the ball and passing the ball over its recent three-game winning streak than it did during the first three weeks of the season. In Weeks 1-3, the Patriots ran 74 times and passed 106 times. In Weeks 3-6 they’ve run 101 times and passed 116 times.
Multiple Patriots pass catchers have said that getting the running game going has helped them significantly. The threat of the run also improves the Patriots’ play-action game, which they’ve used in particular to try to help Rob Gronkowski get open.
“I love a balanced offense,” Gronkowski said. “I believe it helps both parts of the game out and it’s a crucial part of the game on both sides, passing and running.”
The Patriots also have been playing more three wide receiver sets. For the first three weeks of the season, New England used 11 personnel (three wideouts, one running back, one tight end) 42 percent of the time, according to Sharp Football’s charting data. For the last three weeks, they’ve used 11 personnel 56 percent of the time and they’ve also been throwing more consistently out of it. For the first three games, the Patriots ran a passing play 68 percent of the time they lined up in 11 personnel; they’ve done so 78 percent of the time since.
We’re using Week 3 as the cutoff point to be consistent with the analysis of the run-pass balance, but the more telling range to look at might just be the last two weeks since the Patriots have had Julian Edelman back. They’ve used 11 personnel 61 percent of the time and thrown out of it 76 percent of the time.
There is a point at which this could become easier for defenses to predict if the Patriots came closer to always throwing out of 11 personnel. McDaniels doesn’t think they’ve hit it yet.
“You have to keep track of what you’ve shown,” McDaniels said. “If you’ve demonstrated a strong tendency in any area, any one area — either run, pass or formationally or with motions or some area of the field you’re doing something a little bit more than something else, you just want to be conscious of that.”
Up to that point, wherever it is, there isn’t much value in sending your best players off the field just for the sake of switching things up.
“You want to try to maintain balance, and at the same time, you want to try to do something that gets a positive result, as well,” McDaniels said.
Right now, they are getting positive results. The Patriots kept Gronkowski, Edelman, and Josh Gordon on the field for most of the Chiefs game – Gordon was in 81 percent of the time on offense, the lowest of the three – in part because the running game was helping keep them fresh and freeing up space.
From the perspective of a defender who has to decipher all this with different offenses on a week-to-week basis, safety Devin McCourty said he can’t rely on the tendencies an offense has shown out of a particular formation because it changes so often. This is especially true for defenses preparing to face the Patriots, a game-plan team if there ever was one.
McCourty also said that teams with versatile players at the skill positions make predicting what teams do based on personnel even more challenging.
“I think you’ve always got to remember the versatility of the players,” he said. “This offense that we’ve got Sunday can come out in 11, but [running back Tarik] Cohen can play like a receiver so now we’re in four wide and with [tight end Trey] Burton, it’s kind of like five wide.”
The Patriots are a good example of this, too. Last year, they used 21 personnel (two wideouts, two running backs, and one tight end) more than any other team except the 49ers. They threw nearly as much as they ran out of those heavy sets, though, because of pass-catching backs such as James White, and were effective. Brady had a 110.0 passer rating throwing out of 21 personnel last season.
This year, they haven’t been so good out of that grouping, but they’ve been getting better. Brady’s overall passer rating throwing out of 21 personnel is 67.8 but over the last two weeks, it’s 116.7, with an average yards per attempt of 13.1.
That’s a lot of numbers to say that the threat of the run is helping. There are multiple ways to keep an offense unpredictable, but having a good run-pass balance helps pretty much all of them.