Phil Perry

Muck it up: How the Pats offense can lean into what it does best

A five-point plan for how New England might be able to fix its offense on Sunday.

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FOXBORO -- Bill Belichick was asked on Wednesday if a greater reliance on his team's running game will be part of his plan to "start over" this week.

"Yeah, well, everything’s important," he said. "These guys have one of the best run defenses in the league, but we’ll see how it goes."

That answer may qualify as Belichick trying to throw this week's opponent off the scent of his upcoming game plan. Las Vegas, it turns out, is one of the worst teams in the NFL at stopping the run. They rank 24th in rush success rate allowed (43.4 percent) and 25th in expected points added per rush allowed (-0.017). The Raiders are 24th in defensive DVOA, and they give up the sixth-most yards after contact per rushing attempt (2.8). They also have the eighth-highest broken-and-missed-tackle rate in football (11.6 percent) on opposing rush attempts, per Sports Info Solutions.

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Josh McDaniels' club is slightly better in some of the more traditional run-defense metrics -- they're 21st in yards per carry allowed (4.3) and 23rd in rush yards per game allowed (129.4) -- but it's hard to find a statistic that would characterize their performance against the run as "one of the best."

That's good news for the Patriots, since based on their performance to this point in the season, a reliance on the run could prove beneficial. With help from data compiled by SIS as well as Arjun Menon's useful "The Scout" site, here's a quick five-point plan for how the Patriots might be able to fix their offense.

1. Run it inside

There's not much the Patriots do all that well in the running game. They're 29th in the NFL in yards per rush. They're last in EPA per rush. They're 29th in rushing success rate.

But something they do fairly well? Well-ish, at least? Run it inside.

According to SIS, in the last three weeks, the Patriots are 16th -- right in the middle of the pack of the league -- in positive play percentage (plays that generate positive EPA) on inside zone and "duo" runs.

While the Patriots have dealt with moving parts at guard thanks to injuries to Cole Strange and Mike Onwenu, it appears as though there's something there for them to work with when they ask for double-teams at the line of scrimmage and for blockers to move up to the second level to wall-off linebackers. 

Compared to their outside runs over the last three weeks -- the Patriots rank 30th in EPA per play on those and 27th in yards per attempt -- going up the gut seems to be what gives them the best chance to pick up yards on the ground. 

2. Lean on heavy personnel packages

The Patriots are at their best offensively when opposing defenses determine they have to go big in order to stop them. Per Menon, the Patriots are actually the ninth-best team in the league in EPA per play against base defenses (four defensive backs). Additionally, they're fifth-best in the NFL in EPA per pass when facing only four defensive backs.

They are worlds better when working against base defenses than they are against opposing sub packages. When the Patriots see nickel and dime defenses, they're 31st and 28th in EPA per play, respectively. 

How, then, do they get those heavier-and-slower defensive packages on the field? Use more tight ends. The Patriots have seen some success with their 12 (one back, two tight ends) and 13-personnel packages (one back, three tight ends) this season, compiling over 40 percent success rates with both. By comparison, they have just a 34 percent success rate with their 11-personnel package (three receivers) on the field. 

More "Pony" sets could help the Patriots encourage opposing defensive coordinators to deploy base personnel, as well. That package includes both big-bodied running backs Ezekiel Elliott and Rhamondre Stevenson, along with one tight end and two receivers. With that 21-personnel package, the Patriots have a 40 percent success rate and it's the 15th-best two-back package in the NFL based on EPA per play. On an EPA per play basis, the most efficient Patriots personnel package is actually their "21."

3. Get under center

This could be viewed as part and parcel of utilizing heavier personnel packages. For example, want to go with three tight ends on the field? You may not be spreading it out and operating out of the shotgun. 

But regardless of which personnel packages they lean on, it might behoove the Patriots to have Mac Jones crouched behind center. The Patriots are actually 18th in the NFL in success rate (41.4 percent) when operating from under center. Middle of the road. But they'd take middle of the road right now.

4. Mix it up under center

While the Patriots have a middle-tier success rate when under center -- success is determined by picking up 40 percent of the yards needed on first down, 60 percent on second down and 100 percent on third down -- their EPA per play under center is... underwhelming.

They're 23rd in EPA per pass when under center and 30th in EPA per run. But maybe a little less predictability under center would help them be a little more effective in those spots. According to Menon, the Patriots run the ball 72 percent of the time on first down when under center.

5. Throw to the middle of the field

What if I told you that when Mac Jones targets a specific section of the field, he produces like a top-12 quarterback?

According to Menon, when Jones throws between the numbers and 10-19 yards beyond the line of scrimmage -- the "intermediate" level -- he has an EPA per play figure of 0.78. That's 11th-best in the league. His success rate to that portion of the field is 76.5 percent, which is seventh-best. He has a quarterback rating of 100.1 when targeting that area of the field, in addition to a yards-per-attempt figure of 11.8 and a Pro Football Focus grade of 81.3. 

Yet, throws to that area of the field make up only 9.1 percent of Patriots offensive plays. For comparison's sake, throws outside the numbers to the "short" area of the field (from 0-9 yards beyond the line of scrimmage), make up 36.5 percent of Patriots plays even though they're 29th in EPA per play going short right and 27th going short left.

Perhaps, if the Patriots opt to muck it up with a running game that relies on heavy personnel packages, they can utilize more play action to take advantage of Jones' ability to attack the middle of the field. They'll need the scores to be closer for defenses to respect play-action fakes, but if they can keep things manageable in that regard, their passing game will be better off for it. Jones completes 69 percent of his passes for 7.6 yards per attempt and a rating of 99.6 when using play action this season. 

If the Patriots get down and are forced into obvious passing situations, they can turn to their empty-backfield sets since their success rate with those formations is strong: 47.8 percent. 

But it seems as though what might be the best course of action for them -- especially against a porous Raiders run defense -- would be running it up the gut, relying on bulkier personnel packages, and attacking through the air in the middle of the field when defenses start to over-play their grind-it-out rushing attempts.

That's at least what the numbers would suggest through five weeks.

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