By: Mendy Cohen-Twitter: @mendy_coh
This is a new year for the Patriots, nay, a new era. Under center is Cam Newton, who is mirroring his MVP caliber play from 2015. Patriot fans for years have watched the likes of Colin Kaepernick, Lamar Jackson, and Russell Wilson run and dance around their defense. Now with pocket-limited Brady gone, New England has a multi-faceted and exciting offense to cheer on.
For the past couple of years, the Patriots offense with Brady had shifted successfully to a more rushing-focused attack. With a lack of potent receivers, besides Edelman and Gronkowski, the Patriots found themselves in a situation that Belichick likes to say, “Puts the team in the best position to win”, employing a Power Running Offense.
Below is a rough timeline showing how the team has progressed offensively and why this year will be completely different from last year, even if Brady were still at the helm.
After finishing the season 11-5 and the second seed behind the KC Chiefs, the New England Patriots opened up their playoff game at home vs the LA Chargers. A few weeks earlier, the Patriots had been playing a balanced, mildly successful offensive attack. Then came the suspension of WR Josh Gordon in Week 16. The constant run-ins with the drug policy for Gordon continued. This depleted an already weak receiving corps and forced Belichek to switch up the way their offense ran to that point. They experimented during the last two weeks of the season to figure out what they would be able to do with the personnel they had.
The Patriots started to employ a power run look with Rob Gronkowski and James Develin serving as lead blockers to Sony Michel and James White. Gronkowski was one of the best - if not THE best - blocking tight end in the NFL at that time. Develin was a superb blocker who ate up players and created holes that Vince Wilfork could dance through.
Sony Michel averaged 5.4 yards per carry on 24 attempts. That was good for 129 yards in his first postseason game. A good running game generally improves the passing game. When the defense loads up on linebackers to counter the run, the offense can then switch things up at the line of scrimmage and call a play-action.
Tom Brady is renowned for his use of the play-action. He and Gronkowski torched many teams with play-action off a 'counter hot' protection, an offensive line scheme where after the ball is snapped, the quarterback fakes a handoff, as an offensive guard is pulling out of his position to be another lead blocker for the RB. Offensive lineman generally don’t pull on a pass play, so when the linebackers see this, they move up to defend the assumed run, however, the tight end is now running towards the spot vacated by the linebackers and is now wide open.
Diagram of Counter Hot Protection
This was a play Brady heavily employed and according to him, “I swear to god, off of that action, we do a lot of things,” Brady said during an appearance on NFL Network for the NFL100 series. “We call that protection at least one or two times per game….And Rob Gronkowski has probably 50 percent of his offensive production on that play.”
Throughout the playoffs, Develin and Gronkowski continued to create big holes for Sony Michel which led him to 336 yards and 6 touchdowns in 3 games, including a Super Bowl win over the LA Rams.
Coming off his third Super Bowl win as a Patriot, Rob Gronkowski surprised many by announcing his retirement. This left a gash in the Patriots’ offense at the tight end position, one they hadn’t felt since Ben Watson left for the Cleveland Browns in 2010. This was the first domino to fall from the previous season’s ground game.
It was reported by The Athletic’s Jeff Howe that the Patriots starting center, David Andrews, went to the hospital for blood clots in his lungs. This effectively ended their Super Bowl-winning center’s season. This was a huge blow to Brady and the offense. The center is the offensive line’s lynchpin, communicating with the rest of the line and Brady to determine protections and identify blitzes. Without him, there was a huge drop-off of skill and communication.
Week 2 at Miami was a rough week for the Patriots rushing attack. The starting left tackle, Isaiah Wynn, who had spent the entire last year on IR went back on IR for 8 weeks. Unfortunately, it didn’t end there for them as James Develin (the same Develin who blasted holes open big enough for Vince Wilfork to dance through) also landed on IR with a neck injury, which ultimately forced him to retire.
With Develin gone, Belichick had to scour the markets for a replacement at Fullback. He settled on a fullback from Stuttgart, Germany named Jakob Johnson. He had been on the practice squad after he was cut from the team following training camp. Jakob played a great four weeks blowing up D-ends and LBs on the Power Run Plays. Only lasted for four weeks though, as the Patriots’ misfortunes once again continued. In week 6 against the Jets, he hurt his shoulder after getting tackled. This sent yet another fullback to the IR for the Patriots.
Nov 2019-Jan 2020
With so many injuries to key players from their running game and a scarcity of offensive players, the Patriots were never able to build an identity on offense. Only with a historic defense and one of the easiest schedules in the NFL were they able to secure the 2nd seed in the AFC. Linebacker Elandon Roberts had to step up and play the fullback position with Develin and Johnson out. With no fullback and still no competent tight end, they were left with rookies and scrubs, which resulted in a hapless rushing attack. The New England Patriots, for the first time since 2009, were bounced from the playoffs in the Wild Card Round by the Tennessee Titans and their far superior rushing game.
After much anticipation, week 1 began this year with the New England Patriots sporting an entirely new look. It isn't only the new uniforms, which were changed for the first time since 2000, it is their new starting quarterback, Cam Newton. With Newton also comes a healthy David Andrews and Jakob Johnson, officially the new fullback with James Develin retiring in the offseason. This helps Belichick and Josh McDaniels get back to their old “run the ball down the throat of the defense” offensive scheme. Jakob and the offensive line, led by Andrews, is now able to be the leading charge into the defense on every run, which, in turn, opens up the whole passing game.
With Cam as the quarterback rather than Brady, it brings a whole new element to their offense. Josh McDaniels (one of the main reasons Cam was motivated to join the Pats), is now able to go deep into his playbook from his Denver days with Tim Tebow. With Brady, the offense relied heavily on the short to intermediate passes. Now it is much more dynamic and unpredictable. The offense is now full of read options and triple options, creating a third element of the offense that defenses have to be wary of: The running back and quarterback who can run as well as a pass. Cam is best known for his strong arm and freakishly athletic plays, but what goes unnoticed is how dominant he is in the quick passing game, as Brett Kollman explains here.
When the Patriots have a healthy fullback, tight end, and center they are a solid, well-balanced team. With Cam Newton taking the snaps they get to another level of scary. Being able to both pass and run consistently is what the elite teams - Ravens, Seahawks, and Chiefs are able to do. Staying healthy for this team is always a challenge, but if they do, they may surprise the league by season’s end, and once again be competing for a Super-Bowl ring.