Amendola figures to see an uptick in targets with Edelman sidlined. Stew Milne/USA Today Sports
After each Patriots game, I'll be going back over the game film and posting my observations. This week, a Patriots offense that was already compromised by injury going in was forced to adjust on the fly to the loss of top receiver Julian Edelman. It wasn't always pretty, but the Pats still managed to eke out 27 points, just enough to escape the hostile confines of MetLife Stadium with a win. With proper context (the Giants season average of 27.3 points per game ranks fourth in the NFL), it was an impressive performance, especially given that the team was down to it's fourth and fifth string tackles and missing two of it's top three offensive playmakers. Here's a closer look at how the Patriots adjusted to the injuries.
Edelman may be the biggest name of the Patriots have lost this season, but his loss after the first quarter didn't appear to affect the game plan all that much. After rushing eight times against five passes on a successful opening drive (albeit one of the those runs being a Tom Brady scramble on a designed passing play), the Patriots passed on eight of the remaining nine offensive snaps with Edelman on the field. That's just about a 40-60 run-pass split with Edelman in the game. They would continue their pass happy ways to close out the first half, throwing nine times with just four runs sprinkled in during the second quarter. They would open the second half by running 5 times against only 2 passes over their first two possessions, with three of those runs coming in the goal line situation set up by Danny Amendola's long punt return. After LeGarrette Blount dove in for that score, the Patriots threw 22 times and ran just 5 for the remainder of the game. You'd think that losing Tom Brady's top receiver would create a greater need to establish the run, but the run/pass ratio decreased to about 30-70 without Edelman.
Make no mistake, the inability to establish a consistent rushing game hurt the Patriots offense on Sunday. With Cameron Fleming, one of the league's worst starting tackles in pass protection, and Bryan Stork, an interior lineman forced into tackle duty out of desperate necessity, serving as the starting tackles, pass protection was going to be an issue. I wrote last week about how establishing the run combined with a heavy diet of quick hitting screens and other pass plays to minimize the damage Washington could do against that mismatch. It seemed like a good approach to replicate this week: the Giants came into Week 10 having given up an average of 150.8 yards and 4.89 yards per carry on the ground over their previous five games. They were also playing their first game without stud run stuffing defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, who was lost for the season to a torn pectoral muscle.
It wasn't always pretty, but the Patriots ability to churn out modest gains on the ground helped them stay out of unfavorable long yardage situations on their opening drive. Blount muscled his way for 28 hard-fought yards on the drive, and Brady was able to get the drive going by converting a very managable 3rd-and-2 and 3rd-and-4. The only poor yardage situation the Pats faced, a third-and-seven, was converted by a successful Brady scramble after feeling some pressure coming from both edges.
Despite that modest success, the Pats lost patience with their running game quickly. After that first drive, Blount received sporadic touches throughout the rest of the game. Despite a few highlight-worthy individual efforts from Blount, the rushing game failed to generate any sort of consistent yardage, managing just 39 yards on the ground after that opening drive (2.78 yards per carry). A lot of credit for that should go to the Giants linebackers, particularly Jasper Brinkley, who was a downhill force all afternoon.
However, there were times when New England's play calling got a little predictable, which aided the Giants efforts to stop the run and make the Pats one-dimensional. The Patriots played the majority of the game in 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 WR, 2 TE), including 24 of 36 second half snaps leading up to the final two minute drill. The combination of Gronkowski and blocking specialist Michael Williams out-snapped the Gronk/Scott Chandler duo 19-5 in the second half. When Gronkowski and Williams were on the field together, there was nearly an even run/pass split of 9/10; with Gronk and Chandler, they ran just once and passed four times.
The Pats particularly got predictable when they lined their two best blocking tight ends alongside each other in an unbalanced line. That became a dead giveaway that they were running to that side, a cue the Giants picked up on rather quickly. For an example, check the final play of the third quarter, a four yard LeGarrette Blount run. The Pats line up with Williams and Gronkowski on the end of the right side of the line and pull left guard Shaq Mason that way. Both the tight end alignment and Mason's pulling are dead giveaways of a run towards the right side, and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie does a good job of making the read, flying up and sacrificing his body to turn what could have been a big play (Blount had the edge otherwise) into a 4 yard gain.
While teams generally use two tight end packages to try to create blocking advantages in the run game, the Pats as currently constructed will also use their multiple tight end packages to assist their overmatched tackles on the edge. They were in 12 personnel on Gronk's 76 yard touchdown catch, with Williams staying in on the right side to help Stork in protection before releasing into a checkdown pattern late. Stork had more than his fair share of issues in protection this game, but Brady had plenty of time on this play to wait for Gronk to break open down the seam (it certainly helped that Giants only rushed three on the play).
Another big play on which Williams stayed in to aid in pass protection was Brady's 53 yard completion to Brandon LaFell. This play came out of their 1 RB, 1 WR, 3 TE package and was set up by it's first quarter usage (five plays, four of them runs). Three of those plays came on the opening drive, when the Pats were really trying to get Blount going and set the tone with their running game.
Take a look at how the offense set this up. They start with lining up all three tight ends on the right in an extremely unbalanced line, a formation that screams run. Prior to the snap, Gronk motions from the far right end to the left end, creating less predictability from the formation. Upon the snap, Williams stays in and blocks the edge, giving extra protection to Stork in the process, while Gronk and Chandler both run post routes from opposite sides of the formation.
The play works beautifully. The Giants, who had matched up with the Patriots run formation with their base defense, have all three of their linebackers sucked in by the run fake, opening up the middle of the field behind them. With Gronk and Chandler both attacking that area of the field, both safeties are occupied, leaving cornerback Jayron Hosley in one-on-one coverage without help against LaFell, the Pats best vertical receiver. LaFell does his job and gets a step on Hosley, and Brady hits him with an absolute dime for the big play. With better red zone execution in the plays that followed, this goes down as the play that broke the game open in New England's favor.
I'd expect multiple tight end sets to remain a staple of this offense, particularly while the offensive line is so depleted with injuries. A big part of what made the Pats offense so difficult to defend during their early season surge was how multiple they were: in other words, they had the personnel versatility to attack in multiple ways from any formation. Continuing to utilize the tight ends is really they're best chance of preserving that, even if some of those passing game weapons have been downgraded due to injuries.
Gronkowski's dual threat as a run blocking monster and pass catching mismatch makes him the catalyst for the Patriots multiplicity on offense, and big Gronk somehow takes on an even greater importance in the offense with Edelman out of the picture. While the Patriots spent the majority of the game with two receivers and two tight ends, that often included Gronkowski lined up split out wide as a receiver, giving the Pats an extra threat outside the numbers. Gronkowski's tough to match up with no matter where he lines up, but splitting him out wide makes it tougher to pull extra attention his way. Take this third down play: here Gronkowski is the Pats lone receiver split out left, with Chandler in-line, Amendola in the slot and LaFell split out on the right side of the formation.
The Giants send two extra rushers to try to generate pressure on the third down play, but that leaves them with just five players in coverage to contend with five eligible receivers (James White stays in protection before releasing late into the flat). By stacking overloading the opposite side of the field with receivers and sending Chandler up the seam, they force the Giants lone deep safety, Brandon Meriweather, to hesitate rather than immediately help fellow safety Craig Dahl, whose locked up with Gronkowski one-on-one in a major mismatch. Gronk exploits the cushion Dahl is forced to give him to make the catch for an easy 12 yard gain and a first down, although Dahl deserves credit for a strong open field tackle that prevents the play from turning into more.
The Pats may be down two of their top playmakers, but they still have their most dynamic mismatch in Gronkowski. The above play is just one example of the stress Gronk puts on a defense. Leave him in one-on-one coverage, and you expose yourself to the possibility of a big, momentum-changing play. Devote extra resources to him and you allow the Patriots other receivers, which still includes the capable LaFell and Amendola, one-on-one opportunities. In the above play, Brady takes the guaranteed first, but he might have had the opportunity for a big play had he looked the safety off and tried to hit Chandler down the seam.
Another example of Gronk's presence opening up opportunities for his teammates came on Scott Chandler's first quarter touchdown. The Pats line up in their go-to goal line personnel, with all three tight ends, a fullback (Shaq Mason) and LeGarrette Blount in the I formation. As you can see, the combination of an effective play action fake and Gronk's shallow route across the formation opens up options for the other two tight ends. Linebacker Jonathan Casillas is sucked in by the play action, and is late to pick up Williams who comes wide open across the middle of the end zone. Meanwhile, three Giants stick with Gronk in coverage, leaving Chandler with an enticing one-on-one matchup against the Giants worst coverage safety (rookie Landon Collins). With plenty of space to exploit, Chandler wins that matchup and Brady, despite shaky protection, is able to hit him for the touchdown.
Using so many multiple TE sets (12 personnel in particular) also helped to limit the impact of losing Edelman. While Brady certainly missed Edelman's unique ability to gain separation, he still had two trustworthy receivers out there on most plays in Brandon LaFell and Danny Amendola. The return of LaFell from his foot injury had pushed Amendola back into more of a third receiver role, with LaFell and Edelman playing most two receiver sets and DA generally coming into a slot role when the Pats went three wide. With Edelman out of the picture and Keshawn Martin still out of the picture with a hamstring injury, the Pats turned to an Amendola/LaFell in two wide.
While Amendola played outside the numbers plenty in two receiver packages, he generally bumped inside to his familiar slot role when the Pats went three wide. Keshawn Martin will likely re-assume the third receiver role when he's available, but this week it was Aaron Dobson who came in for those situations on the outside. That 11 personnel group (1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE) was used only 12 times in the game until the Pats final two minute drive, when they stayed with the personnel grouping of James White, Gronkowski, LaFell, Amendola and Dobson for all 10 snaps.
Speaking of White, his performance in the first game AD (After Dion) merits a closer look as well. Some may look at White's pedestrian stat-line (1 carry for 5 yards, 1 catch on his lone target for 6 yards) as evidence of a massive drop-off from Lewis. To be sure, anyone who assumed White would immediately get the kind of workload Lewis was receiving prior to his injury is a fool. The Patriots hardly planned for a running back to gobble up seven targets a game this year, but Lewis forced his way into more touches by seemingly juking three guys out of their cleats every time they touched the ball. White has displayed shiftiness in the past, but Lewis was leading all running backs in missed tackles at the time of his injury. There's a dynamic element missing from the offense without Lewis that White can't replicate.
However, it's tough to judge White just based on offensive production right now, as the offensive line situation made pass protection the highest priority of his responsibilities on Sunday. That was an area that Lewis stood out in, and the Pats should be relatively pleased with how White held up on Sunday. He's been praised by the likes of Brady and Belichick in the past for his intelligence, which showed up with several heady plays in blitz pickup. This third down play is a good example, as White patiently waits for the Giants blitz to develop. Bryan Stork and Josh Kline are able to pickup their proper assignments and White is there to stonewall old teammate Jonathan Casillas. Brady's rushed attempt still falls incomplete, but that appears to be because he knows there's a very finite amount of time Fleming can keep Jason Pierre-Paul at bay.
In fact, there isn't a better example of how the offensive line situation influenced White's role than his usage on that final two minute drive. On eight of the 10 plays (I'm excluding Brady's clock killing spike) on that drive, White lines up shaded to Fleming's side and gives his man a good, hard chip before releasing into an outlet route. The only two exceptions to that pattern were a play were he motioned into the backfield from being split out right, releasing immediately into the flat, and Danny Amendola's critical 9 yard catch-and-run to set up Gostkowski's winning kick. On that play, White recognizes and picks up a corner blitz from Trevin Wade, giving Brady the split second he needed to hit Amendola. White didn't have a target or a catch on that drive, but he did his job to ensure that Fleming, amongst the worst pass protectors in football since becoming a starter, wasn't the weak-link that killed the Patriots chances. It's certainly not as flashy as the highlights Lewis was producing, but plays like that corner blitz pickup are what the Patriots need from their passing down back now. There's no reason to be down on his performance.
In fact, that simply goes to show that any adjustments for the absence of Edelman will be tied in to how the Pats are compensating for the situation at offensive line. Until they return to having NFL caliber tackles protecting Brady, they will be somewhat limited in what they can do in the passing game. The empty backfield sets that seemed unstoppable early in the season are, at least for now, largely a thing of the past, but that's a by-product of the offensive line situation far more than the losses of Edelman and Lewis.
While the passing playbook will remain limited as long as they have tackles who can't be trusted in protection, Amendola's season high 11 targets are certainly an indication that he'll be the "next man up" in Brady's mind when looking for a quick outlet for positive yards. Edelman was a target monster, averaging just under 10 looks a game, and was clearly Brady's first read on most critical (i.e. third down) situations. Amendola's similar skill-set enables the Pats to keep rolling without changing their approach. Given the offensive line situation, those checkdowns could mean a lot of bailout plays without much room to run after the catch: Amendola gained just 79 yards (7.9 per catch) on his 10 catches. However, his reliability becomes even more important with Brady often needing to get rid of the ball in a hurry. Per ProFootballFocus, Amendola remains the only receiver in the league to catch every catchable ball thrown his way this season. He won't make as many big plays as "Jules", nor will he create separation as consistently, but Amendola is certainly playing well enough to keep the passing game from going under even without Brady's best buddy and go-to guy. If anything, it will be the offensive line situation, not the loss of Edelman, that holds the offense at least somewhat back going forward.