QR Bonus: Keys To Beating New England
by Vincent Verhei
Each year at this time, we like to devote our Quick Reads columns to the two teams headed to the Super Bowl, looking not at when they played their best, but when they played their worst. The Patriots and Eagles are great teams, yes, but they are not perfect. What weaknesses were opponents able to exploit and make these championship clubs look beatable -- and in some cases, beaten? Since New England was the first team to officially clinch a berth in the Super Bowl, we'll start with them today, and cover the Eagles next week.
According to DVOA, these were the Patriots' worst four games this season:
- Week 1: Kansas City 42, New England 27. You remember this one. It was the season opener, when the Chiefs went into Foxboro and turned a close game into a blowout in the fourth quarter. Tom Brady completed less than half of his passes and failed to throw for a touchdown, while Alex Smith completed 80 percent of his throws and found the end zone four times. There had been talk about a perfect season for the Patriots in 2017, but instead things started with a shocking home loss that showed their era of dominance was at an end. Or, you know, not.
- Week 3: New England 36, Houston 33. New England's DVOA for this game is probably (ahem) deflated due to unavoidable blips in our opponent adjustments. Our system docks them for playing a Texans team that finished 4-12 with Tom Savage as its leading passer, but the Patriots actually played against Deshaun Watson, who dragged that same roster to a 3-3 record. Regardless, it's never a good thing when your 28-20 third-quarter lead turns into a 33-28 fourth-quarter deficit, but fortunately for the Patriots they have a quarterback who has gotten really, really good at these late-game comeback scenarios.
- Week 5: New England 19, Tampa Bay 14. An oddball game for New England, the only contest all year where the Patriots failed to score 20 points. Tampa Bay actually had the advantage in first downs (26 to 23), total yardage (409 to 402), and turnovers forced (two to zero), but New England was fortunate that Nick Folk was 0-for-3 on field goals, and that Jameis Winston's pass from the Patriots 19-yard line on the final play of the game fell incomplete.
- Week 14: Miami 27, New England 20. If you're not convinced that Nick Foles and the Eagles have a fighting chance in the Super Bowl, I'd like to remind you that New England's last loss came at the hands of Jay Cutler and the Dolphins. Cutler threw touchdowns to Jakeem Grant and Jarvis Landry to put Miami up 27-10 in the third quarter. The Patriots rallied and Stephen Gostkowski kicked a field goal in the game's final minute, but Miami recovered the ensuing onside kick to officially end things.
What were the common threads in these four games? Let's start with what went right for New England, and that list begins with the kicking game. The Patriots' average special teams rating in these, their worst four games of the year, was 6.0%. That's not significantly different from their full-season rating of 6.3%, which was fourth-best in the league.
The offense suffered a steeper decline, but this means falling from league-leading levels to the solid middle of the pack. In none of these games did New England's offense fall any lower than a -2.8% DVOA. That's not good, and certainly a far cry than what we would expect from Tom Brady and company, but it still would have finished in the top 20 over the full season (tied at 19th with, coincidentally, the 49ers and Brady's old backup, Jimmy Garoppolo). Brady completed 61.7 percent of his passes in these games, for 7.7 yards per pass, with seven touchdowns and three interceptions. He was also sacked 13 times, but all in all these are not terrible numbers. Even at their worst, Brady and the offense gave New England a chance to win games.
If it wasn't the special teams or offense that let New England down in these games, then process of elimination tells us it must have been the defense, and that couldn't be any more true. In these four games, the Patriots defense had an average DVOA of 29.1%, 44.0% against the pass and 11.9% against the run. All of those would have been worst in the league over the full season in 2017. The quartet of Smith, Watson, Winston, and Cutler completed 65.8 percent of their passes against New England, averaging 8.3 yards per pass with ten touchdowns and two interceptions. The four teams also combined for 520 yards on 109 carries (including kneeldowns), an average of 4.8 yards per rush. The Eagles have a very strong defense, but it's not realistic to expect them to shut the Patriots offense down. Instead, their best chance to win could be to overwhelm New England's defense and turn the game into a shootout.
That does not mean, however, that the Eagles should abandon the running game, but they do need to be selective about where they run. In these four games, the Patriots allowed 5-plus yards per carry on runs to the left, right, or middle of the field. However, while there were big plays to be had on the outside, runs to the middle of the defense were more reliable. New England's defense had a -5.2% DVOA against runs to the offense's left, allowing a success rate of just 35 percent; to the right, those numbers were a 0.0% DVOA (seriously) and a 42 percent success rate. Against runs up the middle, however, the Patriots defense had a 20.5% DVOA and allowed a 58 percent success rate.
Maybe coincidence, maybe not, but Patriots opponents found their most success attacking the middle of the field on passing plays too -- New England's defensive DVOA was a mammoth 73.5% on those throws. Mind you, their numbers against passes to the offense's left (51.3%) or right (66.2%) were also dreadful.
More important than where passes were thrown was which players were on the receiving end of those throws. The Patriots covered tight ends well enough, with a DVOA of 7.8% on throws to those players, despite facing talents like Travis Kelce, Cameron Brate, and O.J. Howard. Their DVOA against wide receivers was much worse at 24.1%, and it hardly mattered whether it was opponents' No. 1 receiver, their No. 2, or anyone else -- their numbers were pretty consistent across the board. The players who really scorched the Patriots, though, were running backs; New England had a 57.7% DVOA on passes to runners. Kareem Hunt caught each of five passes thrown his way for 98 yards. Kenyan Drake caught five of six balls for 79 yards. D'Onta Foreman? Only two receptions, but they gained 65 yards. Charles Sims? Five catches for 31 yards and three first downs, including a pair of third-down conversions.
It's important to note that these weren't just screens or checkdowns to backs behind the line of scrimmage, asking them to break tackles and make moves in space. The Patriots allowed 28 catches to running backs in their four worst games. Those catches averaged 7.4 yards after the catch, 3.6 yards in the air. For comparison's sake, the average reception by a running back this season gained just 0.5 yards through the air -- barely beyond the line of scrimmage. The Patriots, however, were more likely to get beaten on pass routes downfield than they were to miss tackles on screens.
How do the Eagles' weapons match up with New England's weaknesses? The running backs could be most important, obviously, in both the running and the passing game. In the playoffs, the Eagles have relied most heavily on Jay Ajayi (33 carries, eight targets), with LeGarrette Blount (15 carries, no targets) and Corey Clement (three carries, six targets) in more specialized roles. Clement, though, may deserve more carries in the Super Bowl if the Eagles want to exploit the Patriots' weakness against middle runs. On 28 carries up the middle this season, Clement averaged 4.1 yards per carry, with a 27.9% DVOA and 61 percent success rate. Those are much better numbers than those posted by Blount (98 carries, 4.6-yard average, -10.0% DVOA, 45 percent success rate) or Ajayi (23, 4.0, -22.9%, 39 percent) on runs up the middle. (Those are Ajayi's numbers with the Eagles -- with the Dolphins, he averaged 3.2 yards on 74 middle runs, with a -7.0% DVOA and 50 percent success rate.)
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On passing plays, though, none of the Eagles' backs seem like especially good options. None of their three top runners was used much as a downfield receiver this season. Blount only gained 3 yards through the air, total, on his eight catches in the regular season. Clement and Ajayi caught ten passes each, but the average reception for both was caught behind the line of scrimmage. One wild-card option: Kenjon Barner. He was used almost exclusively as a kick returner this year, with only five catches -- but those catches, on average, were caught 4.0 yards downfield. Only one time this season did Philadelphia line up a wide receiver or tight end in the backfield and throw him the ball: Nelson Agholor, who was the target on a flat route in the red zone against Seattle.
This is not the kind of game plan the Eagles have used very often this season. Philadelphia ranked 20th in number of runs up the middle in 2017, and 30th in total passes to running backs. Channeling their offense through Clement, Blount, and Ajayi would go against the trends they have shown all year -- but the teams that have used similar tactics against the Patriots are those who have had the most success.