Dalton Keene, Dan Vitale and Kyle Juszczyk: Forecasting a Stidham-centric Offense
Juszcyk has made a living capitalizing off of misdirection concepts in the passing game. Kyle Terada/USA Today Sports
The retirement of Patriots stalwart James Develin yesterday brought the forgotten fullback position to Patriots fans collective consciousness, at least for a few minutes. Develin was a classic Patriot, an unheralded underdog who played his thankless but important role to perfection as a bruising lead blocker for LeGarrette Blount, Sony Michel, Jonas Gray and others over a career that spanned seven seasons and three championships. Develin's absence after his Week 2 career-ending neck injury was clearly felt by a 2019 Patriots offense that struggled to run the ball with the same authority that powered their 2018 championship run.
That news prompted yours truly to pull up the Patriots depth chart to check on their current in-house options at the position. I remembered Jakob Johnson, who flashed on a few thumping lead blocks in the preseason but was placed on season ending injured reserve after just four weeks of filling in for Develin last year. I had forgotten that the Patriots, who surely were aware Develin was likely to retire, actually signed a fullback in free agency: former Packer Dan Vitale.
The most hardcore of Patriots fans might remember Vitale as a oft-speculated late round Patriots target back in the 2016 draft. Dubbed the "Superback" after posting impressive highlights from Northwestern's tight end/fullback hybrid position, Vitale absolutely crushed his combine, testing like an elite athlete for his position. With natural pass catching chops displayed on his college film, many suspected that his unique skillset would appeal to Belichick.
Instead, Vitale was picked late in the sixth round by the Bucs, where he failed to make the team out of camp. After bouncing on and off their practice squad for a month and a half, he was picked up by the Browns, where he spent a relatively uneventful season and a half on the active roster. Vitale was placed on injured reserve as part of the Browns 2018 roster cut down, but he would resurface on the Packers later that season, first on the practice squad before a late season promotion to the active roster. Last season was the most productive of Vitale's career, as Matt LeFleur's new offense gave him the occasional chance to flash the pass catching ability that got him to the NFL in the first place. Vitale made the most of those scattered opportunities, turning his seven catches into 97 yards (13.8 yards per reception for a running back is extremely impressive).
Re-remembering Vitale's signing got me thinking about how the Patriots may plan to use him. While they have a history of using running backs in the passing game, they've always preferred having an old school Develin-style lead blocking bruiser at fullback. Asking Vitale to play in a role like Develin's is a complete misuse of his skillset, and it's doubtful to me that Belichick would sign him with such a misfitting role in mind.
This led me down the rabbit hole of possibilities of how the Patriots offense could evolve as the coaching staff caters to the strengths of their new quarterback. The quarterback-less Patriots draft reaffirmed that the Pats, regardless of the outside world's disbelief, fully planned all along for Jarrett Stidham to be their starting quarterback this year. While the Patriots won't be installing a new offense, there undoubtedly will be tweaks to tailor the offense towards Stidham's strengths.
While Stidham does has the ability to stand tall and distribute from the pocket like Brady, his athleticism and ability to throw on the run are a particular skill that wasn't in Tom's bag of tricks. Sending the famously slow Brady on designed roll outs and bootlegs would have made no sense, but incorporating some of those concepts would definitely be fitting for Stidham, whose ability to throw strikes on the move was regularly on display during his first round hype-generating 2017 season at Auburn.
The Shanahan connection
It's nearly impossible to talk about designed quarterback movement without mentioning the names Gary Kubiak and Mike Shanahan. Such movements (roll outs, boots) were combined with a heavy emphasis on stretch zone blocking concepts, misdirection and crossing routes as the building blocks of a distinctive offensive system that famously originated in the 90s with Denver Broncos. Designed by head coach Shanahan and offensive coordinator Kubiak, the system was essentially a modified version of the Bill Walsh West Coast scheme that Shanahan learned while coordinating under George Seifert with the 49ers in the early 90s. The Denver twist was building the entire offense around their running game, which centered around the stretch zone concept.
Stretch zone is a run blocking concept in which the entire offensive line fires out in the same direction, with each lineman essentially responsible for blocking the "next" defender in their path. It is the running backs job to follow the flow of the line, while looking for gaps to explode and cut back against the grain through. The phrase "one cut and go" became a staple to describe this running style, which famously produced 1,000 yard rusher after 1,000 yard rusher in Denver for Shanahan long after Hall of Famer's John Elway and Terrell Davis retired. Here's a modern example of a outside zone play, demonstrated by the 2018 Rams and Todd Gurley.
Note how the offensive line flows as unit to their right, with the defense forced to react accordingly. Gurley quickly recognizes a gap forming between his left tackle and guard and explodes through it, gaining a quick easy 8 yards in the process. Also note the receivers pre snap motion and how it moves opposite the flow of the play. Buying a split second of hesitation from a defender with that motion can be the difference between filling a gap and the back bursting through the line for a big gain. The occasional handoff on that motion will force the defense to honor it's threat and can create big plays if the defense doesn't remain disciplined. In a system like this predicated on creating defensive overloads, misdirection is a crucial weapon.
With defenses forced to flow accordingly to stop those zone runs, Shanahan and Kubiak built a passing game around the natural gravitational pull of their rushing attack. Using the running game to suck defenders onto one side of the field was a great trick to create open space on the backside to exploit in the passing game. The classic Kubiak play became a fake zone stretch in one direction, with the quarterback rolling out in the opposite direction, away from the defenders following the run fake. Normally the quarterback would have at least play side receiver, usually the inside one, running some kind of deeper pattern to drag defensive attention away from the intermediate zones, where he would have a shallow option in the flat and some kind of intermediate crosser breaking across the formation from the backside. Here's an example of such a concept from Denver's Super Bowl win over Green Bay, with tight end Shannon Sharpe (84) running the space clearing seam, running back Howard Griffith (29) being the shallow flat option and Ed McCaffrey (87) coming open across the field from the backside of the play for a completion.
The Broncos won back to back Super Bowls in 1997-98 and were consistently successful on offense running the Kubiak/Shanahan system, which produced a seemingly never ending list of 1,000 yard rushers and plenty of yards and points, even after Elway's retirement. Both of the systems forefathers spread variations of the offense to other teams and coaching staffs throughout the league after their respective departures from Denver, with the system currently enjoying a noteworthy reign of prominence throughout the league.
Kubiak became the Head Coach of the Texans in 2006 and presided over a ultimately successful eight year run that saw Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson and Arian Foster all thrive in the famed Denver system. After getting fired at the end of 2013 Kubiak brought his system to Baltimore as their new offensive coordinator, where he was tasked with turning around Joe Flacco. Flacco had thrown 19 touchdowns against 22 interceptions in 2013, but rebounded for arguably the best season of his career in 2014 with Kubiak, racking up 27 touchdowns and just 12 picks for an excellent Ravens team that was a Julian Edelman touchdown pass away from beating the eventual champs on the road in Gillette Stadium. Kubiak would parlay that success into the newly vacant Broncos job, where he won a championship in his first season, albeit with his motion based system being an unsurprisingly awkward fit for the painfully immobile 39 year old Peyton Manning. Kubiak resurfaced from a brief retirement last season to be an offensive consultant in Minnesota, which unsurprisingly resulted in a bit of a turnaround season for Kirk Cousins.
Shanahan had less success after getting fired from Denver in 2008 (Denver actually hired Josh McDaniels to replace him, which went...poorly). He quickly rebounded, spending just one year out of football before taking the Redskins job in 2010. However his four year tenure in Washington was largely unsuccessful, with RG3's spectacular rookie season representing his only winning season in DC. However, the coaching staff Shanahan assembled in Washington has created new branches of his coaching tree that has kept his offense a familiar sight on Sundays across the country. His son, current 49ers head coach Kyle, was his offensive coordinator, a position which Kyle previously served under Kubiak in Houston. His tight ends coach was Sean McVay, who would be promoted to offensive coordinator in Washington after both Shanahans were fired at the end of 2013. His quarterbacks coach was current Packers head coach Matt LaFleur, who was brought in by the younger Shanahan after the two worked closely together on Kubiak's staff, where LaFleur got his start as an offensive assistant.
Kyle Shanahan went on to bring the system to Atlanta, where the Falcons set all kinds of offensive records and nearly won a Super Bowl in his one year running the offense before leaving to take the head job in San Fran. McVay, of course, got the Rams job in 2017 and immediately became a darling of the league for his role in their quick turnaround. LaFleur was the QBs coach with Shanahan in Atlanta in 2016 before getting hired as offensive coordinator by McVay in LA, spending a year as a coordinator in LA and another in Tennessee before getting his chance as head coach of the Packers. At least one of the three of them has coached in three of the last four Super Bowls, with Shanahan beating LaFleur for the NFC championship this past season.
What does this have to do with fullbacks again? At all?
Ah, right. That aspect of the story starts with that 2014 season and Kubiak running the Ravens offense. That season saw a lot of Ravens benefit statistically from the Kubiak system, with Flacco and running back Justin Forsett particularly enjoying career years. One unexpected contributor unearthed that season was fullback Kyle Juszczyk, a fourth round pick from Harvard who rarely saw the field the previous season as a rookie. Juszczyk broke through to become a valuable role player that season, averaging 27 snaps a game (including playoffs) and impressively turning his 19 catches into 182 yards (9.5 yards per catch). He capped that breakthrough season off with a pesky four catches for 29 yards against the Patriots in that memorable playoff game.
This 11 yard completion to Juszczyk from that game is a perfect example of how his skillset lent itself naturally to Kubiak's offense. Look at how the defense flows in reaction the offensive line's zone blocking, an understandable reaction given their difficulty stopping Justin Forsett on the ground that night. Every defender follows Forsett and the run fake and no one picks up Juszczyk, who leaks out to the flat and is wide open in space. By the time most of the defenders realize they've been duped, Juszczyk already has the ball with a full head of steam on the opposite side of the field.
Kyle Shanahan applied similar concepts with his running backs in the passing game during his record setting season as Atlanta's offensive coordinator, memorably scheming the speedy Tevin Coleman into a one on one matchup against Rob Ninkovich in the flat that resulted in an easy Falcons touchdown in their Super Bowl loss to New England. When he was hired to takeover the Niners immediately following that game, he prioritized pass catching running backs in his roster construction, signing Juszczyk to a four year $21 million deal that remains the largest contract for a fullback in NFL history. Juszczyk might not get the amount of targets that some expected based on that deal, but he's been a critical role player for the Niners whose absence was felt when he missed time with injuries this season. He most recently showcased his value with a 3 catches, 39 yards and a touchdown for the Niners in the Super Bowl.
Juszczyk's touchdown from the Super Bowl was another example of classic Shanahan misdirection. The Niners fake a stretch zone left, and then boot Jimmy Garoppolo naked the opposite way. The entire Kansas City front gets sucked in on the play fake, including safety Daniel Sorensen (#49) who appears to be responsible for Juszczyk in coverage. Juszcyk briefly fakes as if he's blocking with the zone concept but quickly breaks back out to match Garoppolo's motion opposite the run fake. Sorensen reads run initially and starts to break inside, failing to see Juszczyk breaking back out until its already too late. Garoppolo makes the easy read and Juszcyk is able to break Sorensen's frantic sprinting tackle attempt before taking off for the end zone, flashing his uncommon-for-a-fullback athleticism by leaping over the goal line.
The important thing from this, with regards to Stidham, is the easy read for Garoppolo. Sending the quarterback on designed motion naturally cuts the amount of field the quarterback has to read in half. Once Garoppolo or Flacco reverse course and motion opposite the run fake on the examples above, they are only reading the side of the right side of the field as they run their bootleg that direction. On top of that, the misdirection from the play fake often creates mismatches and players coming wide open in space, which is not only a nice easy read for the quarterback but also a prime opportunity to give your playmakers opportunities to break a tackle and turn a normal play into a big one. San Francisco has clearly prioritized playmakers who can make the most of those YAC opportunities under Shanahan, as they traded up in the first round for explosive Arizona State reciever Brandon Aiyuk this year after striking gold with similar YAC savant Deebo Samuel in last years draft.
Could the Patriots be preparing to implement aspects of the Shanahan offense into Josh McDaniels' system? That would certainly make things far easier on Stidham than expecting him to run the PH D astrophysics-level offensive system that Tom Brady had personally developed and tweaked to perfection with McDaniels over the course of twenty years. Simplifying the reads is certainly one way to make things easier for Stidham, who will need all the support he can get with the pressure of replacing the GOAT squarely on his shoulders. Giving him the easy confidence boosting completions that this notoriously quarterback friendly system creates will only help him in facing that herculean task.
Simplifying the concepts will also make things much easier for the Pats much maligned receiver room. Instead of asking 22 year old N'Keal Harry, 23 year old Jakobi Meyers, 23 year old Gunner Olszewski or whoever the next youngster is to read the defense in telekinesis with the greatest mind the game has ever seen, these young players will be given opportunities to get simple assignments to execute. The ability to think less and just play could particularly benefit Harry, a player whose route running and separation limitations always made him feel misfit in a precision route running based Brady led attack. Getting some easy touches in space could do wonders for Harry's confidence, as his monstrous natural talent as a ball carrier will be unleashed far more in such an attack. Several of Harry's memorable plays last season came on end arounds (remember that motion on the earlier Todd Gurley example of stretch zone?), touches that the Niners fed the similarly physical Deebo Samuel all year to great effect.
The Patriots have always valued RAC ability from all of their skill positions, but they seemed to prioritize that particularly in the pair of tight ends they landed in the draft this past weekend. Devin Asiasi was tough to bring down last fall at UCLA, with his speed and power flashing on several highlight reel catch and runs. The same could be said for Dalton Keene, who rarely ran conventional routes in Virginia Tech's wonky offense but was tough, hard-nosed and explosive as a ball carrier when they schemed him touches. Both those players could really benefit from the implementation of a scheme that has notoriously created big plays for the tight end on backside posts, wide open crossers and seam routes. Owen Daniels notably made a 10 year career playing exclusively for Kubiak, following him from Houston to Baltimore to Denver in a career that far outlasted expectations as a former fourth round pick with average athleticism.
Threatening the seam with speed is another element of the Shanahan offense that some of the Patriots personnel moves are hinting at. They seem to particularly increase their speed from the slot, signing veteran free agent speedster Damiere Byrd. Byrd is a diminutive 5'9" slot receiver who ran a blazing 4.28 40 time as a prospect back in 2015. Stylistically, the Bills John Brown is a good comp for Byrd, who flashed occasionally but never parlayed that speed into a consistent role in Arizona. The Patriots also added several similar style players in their crop of undrafted rookies, a group headlined by Miami's Jeff Thomas. Thomas was an explosive college playmaker and likely would have been drafted in the middle rounds if not for maturity concerns stemming from multiple clashes with his coaches. If he can stay in line, he has the talent to be a seam threat from the inside as well. Asiasi's speed will also make him a good candidate for seam threatening work as well.
And finally, yes, the addition of Vitale to the roster could be a hint that the "Juszczyk role" will be a thing in New England this year, as he played a similar role for LaFleur last year in Green Bay. If anything, this theory gets additional support by the team's aggressive trade up to land Keene, a player who did some similar things to Juszczyk at times in a Virginia Tech offense that moved him all over the formation, including the backfield, in efforts to scheme him touches in space. Using Keene in more of a Juszczyk-type H back role could be away to implement him quickly despite his lack of developed route running chops, with a shift to more of a move tight end role being an ideal development down the line as the technical aspects of his game develop.
The missing link here would be how the Shanahan influence could seep into the halls of Gillette Stadium, where the Brady ran offense has felt like a part of the franchise's identity for years. The answer can be found in the hire of new quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch. Fisch fits the NFL's trend of wiz kid offensive coaches with ties to the Shanahan coaching tree to a T, as he comes fresh off a two year stint working closely with Sean McVay in overseeing the Rams prolific offense. McVay, of course, picked up the Shanahan system from his time in Washington and implemented it when he arrived in LA, using it to turn Jared Goff from a deer in the headlights to an MVP candidate seemingly overnight. Fisch was listed as "Senior offensive assistant" for the Rams in 2018, when they lost to your Patriots in the Super Bowl, and last year was listed as assistant offensive coordinator.
Fisch himself was once taught the Shanahan offense as a young coach, as his first position coaching job in the NFL came from Mike Shanahan himself. Jedd was hired as the receivers coach for the 2008 Broncos in what would become Shanahan's final season there. Fisch's long winding coaching career (the Patriots are the 12th team he's coached for in pro or DI college football since 2006) has also included exposure to John Harbaugh, spending two seasons at Michigan as the passing game coordinator (2015-2016). Harbaugh isn't a member of the Shanahan tree per-say, but he used similar West Coast concepts to turn around Alex Smith's then floundering career during his time in San Francisco. He also used those concepts to make things easier for Colin Kaepernick, who took the league by storm in 2012 as a raw athlete with the ability to riffle the ball downfield and turn those naked bootlegs into 80 yard touchdown runs.
Fisch's arrival was initially given a shroud of vagueness, as the Globe's Jim McBride initially reported that Fisch would be joining the offensive staff in a yet to be determined role back on January 24th. That suggests that Belichick wanted to get Fisch in the building badly enough to get it done without even ironed out what his official position would be. Nearly two month's later, SI's Albert Breer reported that Fisch was hired to coach quarterbacks, a detail that matters a great deal now that we know that means working with Jarrett Stidham rather than Tom Brady. Perhaps the Patriots landed this hire back in January with Stidham specifically in mind, with internal knowledge that Brady was almost certain to leave in free agency at that point.
Does Fisch's arrival mean they'll be scrapping the old system entirely? Of course not. McDaniels is still the offensive coordinator and this is still his offense. However, it doesn't take much dot connecting to figure out Belichick brought in Fisch to help with the process of adjusting aspects of the offense to better fit Stidham's strengths. Implementing some of those Shanahan concepts makes all the sense in the world for the Patriots right now as they attempt to not just break in an inexperienced quarterback but also rebuild the confidence of last years first round investment at receiver.
And, of course, having an extra pass catching fullback or two on hand never hurt anyone.