Any Given Sunday: Patriots over Bengals

Any Given Sunday: Patriots over Bengals
Any Given Sunday: Patriots over Bengals
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Andrew Healy

Coming into Sunday's game, the Patriots' offense had a serious deep passing problem. On passes more than 15 yards downfield, Tom Brady had completed just four of 26 throws for 105 yards, one interception and one defensive pass interference. And even those stats looked rosy compared to how bad things have been recently. Since the first half of the season opener, Brady's stat line was: 2/21, 40 yards, 1 INT, 1 DPI. Brady's DYAR on deep passes over the first four weeks was -109. By way of comparison, Geno Smith's DYAR on deep passes -- including his disaster on Sunday -- was -14, on almost the same number of attempts. Chad Henne and EJ Manuel had DYAR on deep passes of +78 and +54, respectively, before they were benched. Overall, Brady was the worst quarterback in football on deep passes through four weeks.

Brady and the Patriots seemed to face the worst possible matchup in Week 5. Cincinnati came into Sunday night's game the top-ranked pass defense by a mile. The gap in DVOA between the Bengals and the second-place team was bigger than the gap between No. 2 and No. 14. Moreover, the Patriots were poorly positioned to exploit the area where the Bengals' pass defense was at least a little more vulnerable. Entering Sunday, the Bengals ranked seventh (by DYAR) in defending the deep pass, but were first against short passes.

No wonder, then, that the Bengals were favored. They were the best short-passing defense in football against a team that could only throw short. At kickoff, the Patriots were underdogs by a field goal, the first time they had been getting at least three points at home in almost nine years.

The team that could only throw short ended up flipping the script in large part by throwing over the top of inside zones designed to stop the short pass. The Patriots ended up with the second-best deep-passing performance in football in Week 5, behind only those hard-charging Cleveland Browns. They had more completions on deep passes against the Bengals than they did in the first four weeks combined.

Tom Brady on Deep Passes, 2014
  Comp Att Yds TD INT DPI DYAR
Weeks 1-4 4 27 105 0 1 1-16 -109
Week 5 vs CIN 5 8 111 0 0 1-22 87

The Patriots' greater success throwing downfield came mostly from passes down the seam to tight ends. After Brandon LaFell broke the Patriots' three-game streak without a deep completion to a wide receiver on the first offensive play, the Patriots' four other long completions came from two down the left seam to Tim Wright and two down the right seam to Rob Gronkowski. Wright's second-quarter touchdown doesn't even qualify here since it went 15 yards in the air. Despite only playing 19 snaps, Wright made a huge difference, and much more on him follows below.

Of course, the improvement in Brady's performance owes most of all to improved pass protection. That improved protection largely because for three quarters, the line experimentation was limited to a lone late first-half series where Marcus Cannon replaced Sebastian Vollmer at right tackle. On an otherwise ideal night, the experiment did not go well. Going forward, the line of Nate Solder-Dan Connolly-Bryan Stork-Ryan Wendell-Sebastian Vollmer that kept Brady clean against the league's best pass defense seems set.

By the DVOA

This week's "Dewey vs. Truman" has got to be the weirdest one in the history of this recurring segment. Truman was a plucky underdog for most of his whole life. Other than Truman being famous for wearing Uggs, he doesn't have much in common with the New England Patriots.

And Thomas Dewey with his nefarious little mustache seems a poor match for the long-suffering Bengals. But Dewey was a solid pre-election favorite just as the Bengals were on Sunday night. Here is the DVOA and VOA breakdown for Sunday night.

NE 30.1% -10.2% 14.0% 54.2%
CIN -5.2% 26.4% -11.5% -43.2%
NE 28.9% -0.3% 14.0% 43.2%
CIN -7.2% 23.6% -11.5% -42.4%

The Patriots offense comes out as the highest graded unit of the night, with or without opponent adjustments. After entering the game with the best pass defense DVOA by a parsec, the Bengals had a 60.4% pass defense DVOA on Sunday night. Their run defense was closer to average at 2.6%. Since run defense usually comes out negative, that number would rank 26th out of all teams through four weeks. The Patriots' run offense was even a little better than the basic stats would suggest at first glance due to seven runs/kneeldowns for Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo. The 36 carries for Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen went for 203 yards (5.6 YPC).

Because of the size of their lead before the game, the Bengals continue to hold the top spot in pass DVOA (-18.7%), and they actually inched out of the cellar on run defense (8.4%). They are now just ahead of Indianapolis. (These numbers will be updated on the team defense DVOA page later today.)

A Crazy Outlier after Big Losses

Since 1979, teams have covered the point spread by more than 17 points almost exactly 10 percent of the time. Going back to 2003, the New England Patriots have now done it half the time (5 out of 10) after losing the previous game by more than 14 points. We want to be cautious with this kind of split given the small sample size, but this is pretty remarkable given how rarely teams exceed expectations by so much. After big losses, since 2003, other teams have covered the spread by more than 17 points almost exactly 10 percent of the time. Only Miami, at 21 percent, has even cracked the 20 percent barrier.

The Patriots Defy Expectations After Big Losses, Really
Year Winning Team Winner Pts Losing Team Loser Pts Victory Margin Spread Difference
2003 New England Patriots 31 Philadelphia Eagles 10 21 4 25
2005 New England Patriots 31 Atlanta Falcons 28 3 2.5 5.5
2005 New England Patriots 23 Miami Dolphins 16 7 -2.5 4.5
2006 New England Patriots 40 Houston Texans 7 33 -12.5 20.5
2008 New England Patriots 30 San Francisco 49ers 21 9 -3 6
2008 New England Patriots 41 Denver Broncos 7 34 -3 31
2008 New England Patriots 24 Seattle Seahawks 21 3 -7.5 -4.5
2009 Miami Dolphins 22 New England Patriots 21 -1 -5 -6
2010 New England Patriots 39 Pittsburgh Steelers 26 13 4.5 17.5

To put how unusual this is into context, take an average team that beats the spread by 17-plus points exactly 10 percent of the time. What is the chance that team would beat the spread by 17-plus points five (or more) times out of ten? 0.2 percent! So this is a case where a small sample size really does tell us something. Over the last decade, the Patriots have been completely on their own island in their propensity for following big losses with surprisingly strong wins. And it looks like more than randomness. Note that I am counting 2008, too. If we only include the Brady era, following big losses the Patriots have beaten the point spread by more than 17 points four out of seven times.

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Moreover, the games against the Chiefs and Bengals are reminiscent of the last time the Patriots lost a game by more than 14 points. In 2010, a mediocre Browns team hammered the Patriots 34-14 in Week 9. That game was most notable for Peyton Hillis gashing the Patriots' defense for 184 yards on 29 carries, including a game-clinching drive that featured six Hillis runs. But the more alarming thing for the Patriots was how bad the offense looked. They gained a little under 300 yards on the day and looked bad doing it. Against the Chiefs last week, it was a similar story. The Patriots gained a little under 300 yards and looked maybe even worse doing it.

The following game, both in 2010 and on Sunday, involved breakout performances from a Patriots tight end. After that Browns loss in 2010, the Patriots were 4.5-point underdogs and beat the Steelers 39-26 in Rob Gronkowski's coming-out party. After catching three touchdowns on passes of 5 yards or less through eight games, Gronkowski caught three touchdowns against the Steelers, including two longer ones. The play of the night was the 25-yard touchdown to Gronkowski on a corner route to seal the win.

Just as that game showed a newly potent Patriots offense based on a tight end stretching defenses, the Patriots may have started to unveil a new weapon at tight end on Sunday night.

Film Room: A New Threat at Tight End

Tim Wright had the same number of catches (five) and targets (five) against the Bengals as Gronkowski did in that 2010 game. He also had 13 more yards (85) to go with his one touchdown. Wright, the undrafted tight end whom the Patriots acquired in the Logan Mankins trade, still isn't seeing the field that much -- he appeared in just 22 percent of the offensive snaps on Sunday after being at 18 percent coming into the game -- but that is likely to change.

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Wright has been remarkably efficient in his limited opportunities this year. He has been targeted ten times, catching nine passes for an average of 12 yards per target. No other Patriot is above 10 yards per target. Rob Gronkowski is at 6.8. On Sunday, the Patriots were good overall and even better with Wright on the field. On his 16 snaps before the fourth quarter while the game was still competitive, the Patriots averaged 10.8 yards per play.

Those 16 plays included three throws down the left seam, each of which resulted in a big gain to a wide-open Wright. The first play saw the Bengals playing press man on the outside and zone on the inside. Wright lined up in a standing position just off left tackle Nate Solder. Brady had the protection to look right before finding Wright for 17 yards in the air and another 13 after the catch. On the second play, Wright lined up in a three-point stance, and fired out down the left seam. This one was Brady's best throw of the three, as he got it to Wright's outside shoulder before Leon Hall could close down from his outside zone, and he was coming fast with Michael Hoomanawanui the only receiver on the outside.

The third throw came early in the third quarter and showcased everything that looked better about the Patriots passing game compared to earlier weeks. It also showcased a surprising break from previous form for the league's best pass defense, as this pass was even easier than the other two.

With his number and his position, the comparisons of Wright to Aaron Hernandez are inevitable. But Wright is likely to play a somewhat different role. Three inches taller and 25 pounds lighter, he probably won't be lining up at running back. With his bigger catch radius, though, Wright may offer even more potential as a seam-stretcher. The throws don't need to be as open as they were on Sunday for Brady to hit a target like Wright. And with those seams suitably stretched, the Patriots may find breathing room for the short passes that have put them at the top of offensive DVOA for a decade.


20 comments, Last at 09 Oct 2014, 3:26pm

#1 by RickD // Oct 07, 2014 - 1:28pm

What is the chance that team would beat the spread by 17-plus points five (or more) times out of ten? 0.2 percent! So this is a case where a small sample size really does tell us something.

Thank you! Too often I see people dismiss the possibility of having a meaningful result with small sample size.

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#11 by Andrew Healy // Oct 08, 2014 - 1:42am

Thanks, Rick. Kind of neat when the situation is so unusual that the small sample size does give a clear result.

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#2 by FBPER // Oct 07, 2014 - 2:01pm

Great intro post. Congrats on the hire!

-- Chase

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#3 by commissionerleaf // Oct 07, 2014 - 2:23pm

Wait, you mean Tom Brady threw downfield, and it was a seam pass? What a shock! I've watched a number of Patriots games over the past few years, and it really seems that Brady has very little interest in throwing outside the numbers at all, and even less in throwing outside downfield. It's been going on long enough for me to wonder whether:

1. Brady throws very little deep outside because his receivers are TE's and Julian Edelman.
2. Brady has been surrounded by TE's and Julian Edelman because he can't throw deep outside.

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#5 by RickD // Oct 07, 2014 - 3:19pm

That's a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing. The Pats haven't had a really good deep outside threat since Moss left, though Brandon Lloyd did give the team a few of his patented circus catches in an otherwise unremarkable season.

FWIW, Edelman can run outside routes. It's just not his usual thing. Presumably the Pats want LaFell and Dobson running those routes.

I think it'd be fair to say that a good part of the issue is Brady.

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#4 by Aaron Schatz // Oct 07, 2014 - 2:53pm

Hi, everyone. Please refrain from hijacking the thread with other issues. We try to keep discussion threads on topic around here, and it is disrespectful to Andrew Healy to turn his first-ever column into a platform for your criticism of some completely unrelated part of our website. Thank you.

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#9 by Aaron Schatz // Oct 07, 2014 - 4:19pm

If you want a serious response, you are welcome to send e-mail to the FO mailbag and we will respond.

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#6 by turbohappy // Oct 07, 2014 - 3:21pm

Nice article, love the graphics!

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#7 by GianniKaralis // Oct 07, 2014 - 3:33pm

GREAT article! Glad to have an #animal onboard at FO!

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#10 by PaddyPat // Oct 07, 2014 - 5:59pm

First of all, nice piece, keep 'em coming.

Now, what can we say about Cincinnati after this game? Why the first-half offensive ineptitude? For much of the second quarter it appeared that Cincinnati had settled down and the defense was playing better. Then, just after Cincinnati got the big score in the third to close within 10, the defense completely collapsed again. Was that more Cincinnati's fault or due to the offensive execution/play-calling of New England?

I guess I came away from the game with the two conflicting cliched storylines in my head. First, what you have indicated here, that the Pats win big when they are most expected to lose. (Another example that comes to mind was the huge win over the Jets in 2011). The second storyline is that the Bengals flop in the bright lights. I wasn't really sure how true that was in this game, excepting perhaps the awful fumble on the kick return. It seemed to me that Dalton had a decent game and that the defense played well for stretches, but DYAR suggests great value for the Pats, as does DVOA, so what do you think? Was this also a fiasco for the Bengals coaching staff? Are the Bengals now reduced to mirage status, as I'm sure many of the talking heads will start telling us?

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#13 by Andrew Healy // Oct 08, 2014 - 1:55am

Thanks, PaddyPat. I wouldn't read too much into one game, particularly for the Bengals here. They faced a Patriots team that looked nothing like the one from the first four weeks. Most notably, they played one offensive line most of the game that was much better than the rotating unit from earlier weeks. The Bengals dropped a TD pass, a couple of other passes, and lost all the fumbles. It was a little odd how little pass rush they got, sometimes almost no push at all as on the pass diagrammed above. I guess that was one troubling thing. But I don't think this reduces the Bengals to mirage status. They're still 5th in DVOA and that seems pretty accurate for where they stand now.

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#14 by PaddyPat // Oct 08, 2014 - 11:32am

And I guess 0-for-7 on 3d down has to have a regression element to it. Good points, again I look forward to your contributions. The stills are a great way to diagram, especially with the player name labels. Muth didn't always used to label players in his stills, and it really helps! Good stuff.

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#15 by Noahrk // Oct 08, 2014 - 1:49pm

Dalton also seemed to miss every other that wasn't dropped in the first half and it was equally unusual for the Bengals to get pushed back in run plays.

But it's just one poor game, bright lights or whatever. It happens.

Who, me?

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#12 by UCLAlum // Oct 08, 2014 - 1:43am

Welcome to the dance, Andy!

Perhaps Iloka's aggressiveness is one factor that has the Bengals ranked #1 vs. the short pass, and #7 vs. the long pass. The Pats used this aggression against him with the pump fake to Edleman.

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#16 by BengalFaninIN // Oct 08, 2014 - 6:42pm

The Pats had two weeks to prepare, a hugely needed win for the Pats? Perhaps the Bengals got out coached, and outplayed, they managed to stay in the fight, but poor execution, timing and bad luck are enough to separate any NFL team from another. (Though the Jags might be an exception, they just suck, sorry.)

Winning on the road in the NFL is just plain hard, and as the big win after big loss analysis shows it's extremely hard against this team.
As for all those calling for us to dismiss the Bengals as a mirage, perhaps, but every team in the league now has at least one loss, how many of those losses are 'worse' than going into Foxborough and getting beat in a game the Pats clearly needed to win in the worst way?

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#17 by Alternator // Oct 08, 2014 - 7:24pm

Patriots had one week, unless you're implying they didn't bother preparing for the Chiefs.

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#19 by BJR // Oct 09, 2014 - 10:56am

On the contrary, the Pats had a short week having played on Monday night against the Chiefs. It was the Bengals who had two weeks to prepare. All that would have contributed towards the Bengals being favored - as well as the Bengals undoubtedly superior play over the first 4 weeks.

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