Why Bill Belichick Doesn’t Need to Care About a Balanced Offense

The New England Patriots have found success all season by relying heavily on the passing game, so what’s the problem?

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick doesn’t care much for Dan Fouts, former San Diego Chargers quarterback and current color commentator.

Maybe that’s not totally true. Perhaps they’re even buddies off the field, or as much as one could be off-field buddies with Bill Belichick.

What the New England coach doesn’t care much for is Fouts’ strong belief in establishing the run on offense. Through the first two drives for the Patriots against the Chiefs in Saturday’s Divisional Round game, the Patriots' offense came out with 16 passes to a single run. This befuddled the CBS commentator, who thought that type of pass-to-run ratio would never last, at least not with New England sustaining success.

New England finished the first half with 26 pass attempts and 6 runs -- 2 of them from quarterback Tom Brady -- and a 14-6 lead.

This type of game plan is not new for the Patriots; they’ve run variations of this pass-heavy approach in a few games this year. They were also one of the most pass-heavy teams overall in the league this season. The Patriots finished the year with the ninth highest pass-to-run ratio in the league and as the only team in the top-10 that also finished the season with a positive overall point differential.

The Browns, for example, were pass-heavy this year to catch up. The Patriots were pass-heavy to score points.

Gaining an Advantage

Some of this is just game planning to a specific opponent and finding the best way to match New England’s strengths and opponents’ weaknesses. That’s surely something the best prepared coach in the league would do on a daily basis.

Another part of this pass-first approach is Belichick knowing that passing is so much more valuable than running in today’s NFL, and that part is analytics.

Belichick’s understanding of this shift is what makes his answers to analytics questions in press conferences so misleading. No, he’s not sitting in his office going over Excel spreadsheets or running regressions in R, but his understanding of trends and where to get an advantage is surely analytics.

We can take a look at this pass-heavy approach by our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. 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.

This year, 46 quarterbacks dropped back to pass at least 100 times. Among them the average Passing NEP per drop back was 0.11. Meanwhile, 44 running backs carried the ball at least 100 times in 2015, and the average Rushing NEP per attempt from those players was -0.03.

In terms of passing, Brady finished the season fourth in Passing NEP per drop back at 0.25, well above the average mark for passers.

The difference is even more jarring at the team level. The Buffalo Bills led the league in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play at 0.10 and were the top team by a wide margin. 16 teams had Adjusted Passing NEP above the 0.10 mark, and the average Adjusted Passing NEP per play for all teams was 0.11.

Establish the Pass

Again, Belichick isn’t figuring out these exact numbers on his own, but his understanding of what they mean certainly help create an advantage. What makes him great is his ability to take ideas like this and implement them on the field.

The Patriots came out of the gate against the Chiefs in shotgun, mostly with 11 personnel (three wide receivers), which basically acts as a four-wide set with Rob Gronkowski also out wide. Six of the first 11 plays on New England’s opening drive came out of a 3x1 set with the receiver getting isolated rotating depending on the play. Occasionally, it was Brandon LaFell; other times it was getting Gronkowski one-on-one. Many of these throws were set up as quick passes, almost like extended handoffs to continue moving the ball.

Where New England found the most success, though, was spreading the defense out with two receivers on each side of the formation. In the first half, the Patriots ran 13 plays out of a 3x1 set and ended with 1.65 NEP, 0.13 NEP per play. New England ran nine plays in a 2x2 set that totalled 8.07 NEP, 0.90 NEP per play. Plays from that formation get a boost from the Gronkowski touchdown to cap off the first drive.

Both of these formations were also used to keep Julian Edelman in the slot and mostly away from Chiefs cornerback and numberFire Defensive Rookie of the Year Marcus Peters, who mainly sticks to the outside in coverage. These plays ended up being rather successful ,and Edelman led all receivers in the game with 9.24 Reception NEP.

New England threw the ball 14 times before their first rushing attempt, which saw Steven Jackson gain just two yards (-0.31 NEP). The play after the rushing attempt, the Patriots ran play action, a throw that ended incomplete and almost intercepted, but initially hit Edelman in the hands.

Stay Who You Are

This isn’t even the first time this year the Patriots have come out with an almost exclusive passing game plan. Back in Week 7, the Patriots unleashed a similar plan against the New York Jets, a team with a defense comparable to the Chiefs. The Jets came into that game ranked better against the pass than the run by Adjusted NEP per play, but the Patriots found their advantage and targeted the secondary often. The Chiefs finished the regular season 4th against the pass and 8th against the run, but the Patriots, who ranked 5th through the air and 10th on the ground by Adjusted NEP per play on offense, matched up better with the pass.

It wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see New England continue to be pass-heavy against the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game. The Broncos, like the Chiefs and Jets ranked better against the pass than the run -- first to fifth -- but New England could again find their advantage through the air, especially if Denver corner Chris Harris is limited with a shoulder injury.

Some teams would waste time trying to establish the run early in games. Belichick has learned the best way to win is to score points as often and as early as possible. He’s found that comes through the air much more easily, and this season, he hasn’t been afraid to exploit it.