Tom Brady's Return Is Already Trouble for the Rest of the NFL
Tom Brady is back.
Brady physically returned to the field in Week 5 after serving his four-game suspension, but Brady also returned to doing Tom Brady things once he got there. He got eased back into the swing of things by getting to play the Cleveland Browns in his Week 5 return, but the New England Patriots weren’t treating this like some third preseason game dress rehearsal. The Patriots' offense was in full swing against the Browns, and that should scare the rest of the NFL.
During Brady’s absence, the Patriots did much better than many expected by escaping the four-game stretch with a 3-1 record. New England had been so dominant through the first three games, the loss to the Buffalo Bills in the finale felt like a letdown. But even with how well the Patriots played over the first few weeks, there was another level to be unlocked with Brady and it started to show against the Browns.
Return to the Top
By our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, Brady’s return to the field was already one of the best performances of the 2016 season. According to Passing NEP per drop back, Brady had the fifth-most efficient quarterback game through five weeks.
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With that, Brady sits atop the season-long rankings for Passing NEP per drop back among quarterbacks who have dropped back at least 25 times. While Brady won’t be able to sustain his current pace -- his 2007 season was worth 0.43 Passing NEP per drop back -- it’s not as hard to imagine the New England quarterback staying in first in the rankings through the season.
The Patriots have a perfect combination of coaching and talent -- Jimmy Garoppolo remains second in Passing NEP per drop back this season, after all -- that could produce one of the best offenses in the league in 2016. Week 5’s meeting with the Browns might have just been the beginning.
One of the parallels to the 2007 Patriots is the presence of two dominating forces at tight end. Neither Rob Gronkowskii nor Martellus Bennett will be used like a move tight end or H-back like New England had in 2007, but the Patriots are already using the two to set up mismatches against the defense. Week 5 was also the first that Gronkowski was used to his full extent. He played on 69 percent of the offensive snaps in Week 4, but few of those involved him running routes. His impact was significant when unleashed in Week 5.
Early in the first quarter, the Patriots ran a play for Gronkowski that showed the perfect mix of concepts and talent. Gronkowski lined up isolated on the left of the formation and ran a shallow crossing route at the snap. The Patriots had three receivers to the other side of the formation, and the two inside receivers ran a double slant to the middle of the field that was used as a natural pick to get Gronkowski separation from his defender. Gronkowski then got the ball in his hands and broke about five tackles while making his way inside the five-yard line.
Gronkowski was targeted seven times against the Browns and finished with 5 receptions for 109 yards. His 1.47 Reception NEP per target was the second-best among tight ends in Week 5 and the fourth-highest among players targeted at least five times. Even when Gronkowski wasn’t the target, he was making an impact on pass plays, such as Martellus Bennett’s second touchdown.
WIth the ball on the five, the Patriots lined up in another 3x1 set with Gronkowski isolated on the right of the formation. His presence was enough to draw two defenders into the back of the end zone. That left the underneath on that side open for a crossing Bennett, who was lined up as the inside receiver on the left.
The play wasn’t just about scheming a player open in the end zone. Brady also had to make a throw into a pretty tight window -- something he was able to do with ease.
On the day, Bennett had 6 receptions, 67 yards and 3 touchdowns on 8 targets. He was also worth more than a point per target, netting 1.25 Reception NEP per target. It wasn’t just the tight ends that were productive, though. In total, there were three Patriots worth over 1.00 Reception NEP per target against the Browns. The third was Chris Hogan, who had 114 yards on four receptions from five targets. His 1.87 Reception NEP per target was the highest of any player with at least five targets on the day.
For reference, anything above 1.00 in the Reception NEP per target category is completely elite.
Hogan was able to get behind the Browns defense for a few big plays, and Brady’s ability to take advantage is what makes the potential of this offense scary for those around the league. Brady’s raw ability to throw deep down the field has been diminishing for quite some time, but his shift to playing smarter kept him in the top tier of quarterbacks. That extends to how to capitalize on these types of plays.
With just one deep safety on the play below, Brady knew Hogan was wide open once he gets past his defender on the top of the screen. Brady recognized it, stepped up in the gigantic pocket created by the offensive line, and got enough momentum to heave the throw downfield for a gain of 63.
What's to Come
Yes, all this took place against the Cleveland Browns' defense, but the Browns haven’t been the worst defense in the league like they were expected to be. They haven’t been good, but they haven’t been the worst.
Through five weeks, the Browns rank 21st in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play. New England’s Week 6 opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals, are only ranked 19th. Then, the following week, the Patriots play the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are ranked worse than the Browns defensively at 24th.
New England won’t really get another defensive challenge until a Week 8 matchup against the Buffalo Bills, the one team that has defeated the Patriots thus far. Following that matchup, the Patriots get a bye then host the Seattle Seahawks, who are currently ranked fifth by Adjusted Defensive NEP per play.
It’s easy to write off this game as it coming against a bad defense, but in the next two weeks, the Patriots get two defenses that have performed similarly so far this season. This offense has a chance to really get rolling with Brady over the next few weeks and, if it does, it could become extremely difficult to stop.