How New England Beat the Jets By Abandoning the Run
Bill Belichick is one of the best game planners in the NFL. He is also one of the most unique game planners in the league as well.
There’s arguably no better coach at knowing what is team does and does not do well -- what the opponent does and does not do well -- and scheming to exploit the overlapping parts of that Venn diagram.
For most of Belichick’s tenure in New England, what his team has done well is just about everything, which usually give him a few options to attack and defend opposing teams. That was the case when the New York Jets came into the Week 7 matchup at Gillette Stadium.
According to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, the battle of the Patriots offense against the Jets defense was going to be the most interesting of the day. NEP measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data.
The Jets came into the game ranked second overall in Adjusted NEP per play on defense, fourth against the pass and first against the run. The Patriots offense ranked first overall in Adjusted NEP per play, third through the air and first on the ground.
While it was a strength-against-strength matchup, regardless of how game planning played out, Belichick and the Patriots decided to forgo testing the Jets’ run defense and instead relied solely on the passing game. This makes sense, to an extent.
New York has one of the best defensive lines in the league with Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams lining up together. But while all three of those players can create pressure, the Jets lack a true pass rushing threat who can consistently get in the backfield on his own. New England bet it could withstand the blitzes of Todd Bowles’ defense and find favorable matchups through the air, and they went all-in on that bet.
Tom Brady dropped back to pass 57 times against the Jets on Sunday, 54 pass attempts and 3 sacks. On the ground, the Patriots ran the ball just nine times; four of those carries came from Brady, who was the team’s leader in carries and rushing yards.
Despite winning all of their games this season, having run friendly game scripts with the second best point differential in the league and the best running game by NEP, the Patriots were still fairly pass heavy through their first five games of the season. New England ranked ninth heading into Week 7 in pass-to-run ratio, and the only other team with a positive point differential ahead of them was the Denver Broncos.
New England was without Dion Lewis for the game, who has emerged as the Patriots’ leading running back and was fifth among all running backs in Rushing NEP through Week 6. But the loss of Lewis should not have been devastating to the Patriots because LeGarrette Blount is just behind him, ranked eighth in Rushing NEP.
Blount was not where the team went in the backfield, though. That, instead, was James White, who played 43 of New England’s 67 offensive snaps. White, while only receiving two carries, lined up all over the formation, and allowed the Patriots to create mismatches in coverage. For a good portion of the game, Darrelle Revis followed Julian Edelman in coverage, but it was not on every play. There were times when the Patriots went to an empty backfield, split White out wide, and lined him up across from Revis. While that’s not a matchup the Patriots would look to take advantage of, it opened opportunities for the three other wide receivers and Rob Gronkowski.
The Patriots relied heavily on formations from 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers) during the game. 54 of New England’s 67 offensive snaps came with at least three wide receivers on the field. The Pats even ran a goal line formation from 11 personnel with Brandon LaFell as the only player out wide with Edelman and Danny Amendola inline as blockers.
Running on Empty
With the Patriots so pass heavy in this game, there was rarely an illusion of the run. New England ran 25 plays with an empty backfield, going almost exclusively to an empty set starting at the end of the third quarter and through the final drive. Brady ended with 5.87 of his 9.96 Passing NEP on the day out of empty backfield sets, per numberFire Live. However, much of that success came on a few big plays while the per-play Success Rate was under 50 percent. Of the 25 plays run with Brady alone in the backfield, 13 resulted in negative NEP for a success rate of 48 percent.
That turned around when the Patriots needed to move the ball late in the third quarter when they were trailing. Brady and the Patriots recorded 8.72 NEP from empty sets during the last three drives of the game, with 15 of the 25 such plays coming on those drives. The two drives ended in a punt and two touchdowns, the second of which came while New England had a three point lead and started the drive with 5:32 minutes left, a time when many coaches would call for run plays in an attempt to drain the clock. New England still accomplished that, throwing only two incompletions in nine pass attempts with one run play mixed in. On the final two drives New England bumped its win expectancy by 56.7 percent, with 3 rushing attempts among 17 passes.
This has not been the first time Belichick and the Patriots have gone to this type of plan. ESPN Stats and Info tweeted the Patriots are 4-0 in the past 10 years when 80 percent or more of their plays in a game are drop backs. The rest of the league in that same time is 3-109. Much of that is when teams are pass heavy trying to come back from large deficits, or there’s a lack of logical coaching like the Miami Dolphins earlier this season.
Belichick, though, knows when to strike and has no reservations about veering from a conventional balanced offense when he feels it gives him the best chance to win. On Sunday he decided the best chance to win was throwing repeatedly against one of the best secondaries in football, and like most Belichick game plans, it worked.