QR Bonus: Keys To Beating New England
by Vincent Verhei
Every year at this time, we go back and look at the worst four games by each conference champion in search of common themes that could cost them the Lombardi Trophy. We covered the Atlanta Falcons last week, and today we'll look at New England. That's going to be tricky, though, because the Patriots had a very weird season.
Let's start with the surface-level information. By DVOA, New England's four worst games of the year were:
- A 23-21 win over Arizona in Week 1.
- A 31-24 win over Miami in Week 2.
- A 16-0 loss to Buffalo in Week 4.
- A 31-24 loss to Seattle in Week 10.
Three of these games came with Tom Brady suspended, and either Jimmy Garoppolo or Jacoby Brissett at quarterback. Neither Garoppolo nor Brissett are likely to see much time in the Super Bowl (at least, the Patriots had better hope they don't see much time in the Super Bowl), so throwing those three games out and picking three new ones would be a sound idea. The problem, though, is that while the offense was certainly worse without Brady than with him, it still wasn't bad, just average. The defense, meanwhile, was one of the worst in the league during Brady's suspension, then improved to a top-10 unit once Brady returned to the field. It's correlation, not causation, but it does make it hard to blame those early performances solely on the absence of Brady.
|New England DVOA With/Without Tom Brady, 2016|
|Status||Weeks||Offense DVOA||Rank||Defense DVOA||Rank|
Were we to wipe those first four games from the slate, we'd be dust-binning some valuable data about New England's defense, and what flaws they may have shown early in the season. At the same time, we already know that Brady is playing and that he makes the offense better and there's no point in evaluating the peaks and valleys of New England's backup quarterbacks. So rather than look at New England's worst four games overall, we're going to split this into two parts: the worst four games for New England's offense with Brady in the lineup, and the worst four games for New England's defense, whenever they may have occurred. This may yield some weird results, and they may not jibe with similar pieces we have run on Super Bowl teams of the past. But like we said: it was a weird season.
By DVOA, here are New England's worst four games with Brady taking snaps:
- Week 5: The Patriots beat the Browns 33-13 in Cleveland. While the Browns were alternating Charlie Whitehurst, Cody Kessler, and Terrelle Pryor at quarterback, Brady went 28-of-40 for 406 yards with three touchdowns, no interceptions, and just one sack. Chris Hogan and Rob Gronkowski both went over 100 yards receiving. Yes, this was one of New England's worst offensive games with Brady. That's partly because of an ineffective rushing attack (just 101 yards on 33 non-kneeldown carries, including three failures to convert with 1 or 2 yards to go), and partly due to opponent adjustments for playing Cleveland's defense, which finished next to last in DVOA.
- Week 13: The Patriots jumped out to a 17-0 lead in Los Angeles and went on to beat the Rams 26-10. Brady completed more than 70 percent of his passes, going 33-of-46, but only gained 269 yards and one touchdown. He was still able to avoid being sacked or intercepted. Julian Edelman was the leading receiver with 101 yards. LeGarrette Blount finished with 88 yards, but nearly half of that came on a 43-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. He averaged 2.6 yards on each of his other 17 carries.
- Week 15: The Patriots netted only 16 points in Denver, but that was more than enough to outscore a hapless Broncos offense and win 16-3. Brady completed only half of his passes, going 16-of-32 for 188 yards, with no touchdowns or interceptions and two sacks. Blount carried the ball 17 times and gained only 31 yards, with no carry gaining more than 5 yards. Dion Lewis, though, picked up the slack, with 18 carries for 95 yards. Edelman was the leading receiver, with six catches (in 12 targets) for 75 yards.
- Week 16: The Patriots destroyed the Jets 41-3 in a game that wasn't as close as the final score would indicate. Brady went 17-of-27 for 214 yards with three touchdowns, no interceptions, and one sack. Blount (50 yards on 20 carries) and Lewis (52 on 16) spent most of the day racking up short gains and killing clock. Edelman was again the leading receiver, with five catches for 89 yards.
First takeaway: the Brady offense, at its worst, was still awfully good. Their total DVOA in those four games was 12.8% -- over the course of the season, that would have ranked seventh in the league, right behind New Orleans and right ahead of Oakland. In those four games, Brady completed 65 percent of his passes for 7.4 yards per throw, with seven touchdowns, no interceptions, and only four sacks. He had 311 DYAR in these games, which was actually in the top five among all quarterbacks in those weeks.
The rushing offense, though, was largely ineffective, with 489 yards on 135 non-kneeldown carries. That's a 3.6-yard average, and remember that 43 of those yards came on one run -- take out that play and the average drops to 3.3 yards per carry. A lot of that, though, has to do with context and game situations. In these four games, the Patriots had 68 runs for 281 yards in the first half (a 4.1-yard average), but 67 runs for 208 yards in the second half (3.1 yards per carry). All 67 of those second-half runs came with New England ahead; 62 of them came with the Patriots up by at least two scores. Their rush offense DVOA in the first half of these games was -4.8%, a number that dropped to -17.2% in the second half. Clearly, this Patriots offense is very happy just to grind out clock with a big lead late in games, but is this information useful to Atlanta? As game plans go, "lure the opposition into a false sense of security by falling behind early" wins lots of points for originality, but little for actually leading a team to victory.
The only individual offensive player who really had bad numbers in these games was Julian Edelman. He dominated the Patriots with 42 targets -- nobody else had more than 23 -- but only caught 24 balls for 300 yards, with a -7.1% DVOA. Behind Edelman, the numbers are a big mish-mash. Two wide receivers (Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell), a tight end (Martellus Bennett) and a running back (James White) each had at least 17 targets, and gained 125 to 179 yards. Hogan had his one big day against Cleveland, but gained only 63 total yards in the other three games. Nobody else had more than nine targets, so the bulk of the passing action in the Patriots' worst games was definitely funneled through these five receivers.
[ad placeholder 3]
We can gain a little more insight by looking at Brady's DVOA when throwing to those players. This will help us uneven the playing field a bit by removing positional baselines, and just look which players gave Brady the best results, and which gave him the worst. And there we start to get some clarity. Brady's passing DVOA on throws to White was just 6.6%, and his DVOA on throws to Edelman was 23.7%. Meanwhile, Brady had a DVOA higher than 40.0% on throws to Hogan, Mitchell, and Bennett. If there's a glimmer of hope for Atlanta's defense here, it's that they can take away deep completions, and that New England will get over-conservative with short routes, dumpoffs, and runs. And even if all that happens, it will put pressure on an Atlanta defense that missed 122 tackles, one of nine defenses to miss at least 120 tackles this year according to Sports Info Solutions charting. (New England was another, suggesting again that this game will turn into a shootout.)
One more note of weirdness: In these four weeks when the Patriots offense was at its worst, the Patriots defense had a DVOA of -27.9%, best in the league by a wide margin. It sounds like a cliché, but even when Brady and the offense have struggled, the defense has shown a tendency to step up its game.
By DVOA, here are the worst four games for New England's defense this year:
- Week 1: The Patriots beat Arizona 23-21. New England sacked Carson Palmer three times, but otherwise he went 24-of-37 for 271 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. David Johnson gained 89 yards on just 16 carries, and another 43 yards on six catches. Larry Fitzgerald added eight catches for 81 yards and two scores.
- Week 2: New England took a 31-3 lead in the third quarter, then let Miami come back to make it 31-24. The Dolphins got the ball back with 1:09 to go and no timeouts, but the game ended on a fourth-down incompletion at the New England 29. Ryan Tannehill finished 32-of-45 for 387 yards with two touchdowns and two picks, though he wasn't sacked. He also ran six times for 35 yards. Jarvis Landry and DeVante Parker both went over 100 yards.
- Week 10: Seattle went into Foxborough and upended the Patriots 31-24. Russell Wilson completed 25-of-37 passes for 348 yards and three scores, with three sacks but no interceptions. The real star for Seattle, though, was rookie running back C.J. Prosise, who gained 66 yards on 17 carries, and also caught each of the seven passes thrown his way for 87 more yards.
- Week 12: The Patriots needed a Malcolm Mitchell touchdown inside of the two-minute warning to beat the Jets 22-17. Ryan Fitzpatrick went 22-of-32 for 269 yards and two scores, with no interceptions and just one sack. Quincy Enunwa caught each of the five passes thrown his way for 109 yards and a touchdown, while Brandon Marshall added six catches for 67 yards and another score.
[ad placeholder 4]
None of those quarterbacks ranked higher than 15th in DVOA, but the Patriots let them complete 68 percent of their passes for an 8.4-yard average, with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions. New England did register seven sacks in those games, but that hardly seems to have mattered.
More important than how well these quarterbacks threw against New England, though, is how frequently they threw. Accounting for spikes, penalties, and kneeldowns, these teams had 162 total dropbacks against the Patriots, but only 79 runs. New England's defense was much better against the run (-23.7% DVOA, fourth) than against the pass (13.9%, 23rd) this year, and the offenses that gave them the most trouble threw the ball more than twice as often as they ran it. Yes, that is partly because those teams were usually behind. But it's also because putting the ball in the air is the best way to beat New England. This is good news for Atlanta, a team that runs the ball a lot overall, but likes to pass early -- they were ninth in first-half pass plays this year, but 30th in second-half pass plays. To win the Super Bowl, they'll need to stay aggressive and pass late in the game too.
And when they pass, they'll have no shortage of targets to choose from. The Patriots often struggled to cover anyone, though they seemed to focus first on taking big plays away from opponents' top wide receivers.
|New England Defense vs. Receivers in Four Worst Games, 2016|
|Weeks 1, 2, 10, and 12.|
In their bad games, the New England defense gave up tons of catches to opposing No. 1 wide receivers, but those receptions were by and large on shorter routes. Meanwhile, all the other wide receivers were running low-percentage, high-reward deep routes through the Patriots secondary. There's a bit of a chicken-or-egg question to this -- is this the way opponents chose to attack the Patriots, or is this the way the Patriots defense forced offenses to play? -- but it's easy to visualize Julio Jones catching a lot of curls and crossers to draw coverage to himself, then Taylor Gabriel and Mohamed Sanu streaking by New England's lesser corners in one-on-one matchups for big plays. This is another reason Atlanta will need to go pass-wacky against the Patriots -- the more often they drop back to pass, the more chances they will have to hit on those low-percentage throws. This also jibes with what we wrote about Atlanta last week: the Super Bowl will likely decided by New England's ability to cover Taylor and Sanu.
The Falcons offense was the NFL's best in 2016 and should have a big edge over New England's defense, but the Patriots offense was second-best and should enjoy an even bigger edge against Atlanta's defense. In a game where the first team to punt likely loses, Atlanta will need to use all of its weapons to the best of their abilities to bring home the Lombardi Trophy.