Rarely has the first pre-season game, normally a boring affair, held this much intrigue in New England. My first thought is that we'd probably have to go back to the 2007 pre-season, right after the acquisitions of Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and Donte Stallworth. As memorable (and ultimately horrific and psychologically damaging) the 2007 campaign was, it's probably the case that trying to compare any off-season to the one the Patriots and their fans just experienced is a pointless endeavor. In the wake of the defection by Welker, the "duping" by Aaron Hernandez, and the circus that is Rob Gronkowski, several large holes have been left in this offense.
This first live action game against the Philadelphia Eagles was the first chance to catch a glimpse of how Bill Belichick might try to fill some of these holes. I thought I'd take a deliberate and thorough look at how the skill position players were used in the the first team reps, and see if there are any conclusions or inferences we can draw from that information. I really don't want to write "but of course, it's one preseason game" over and over throughout this article, so try and keep that phrase in the back of your mind as you read because I certainly do understand that, of course, i's just one pre-season game.
With that in mind, we'll start off by taking a look at the running backs. with the running backs.
In addition to counting how many snaps each player took, I've categorized what role or position they lined up in during each play, and laid that information out in a simple table:
There was not much suspense about how the running backs would be used heading into this game, and indeed there were no surprises. Stevan Ridley was the early-down workhorse, and was relieved by LeGarrette Blount when he needed a breather, most notably after his 62-yard run on the first play of the game. Ridley looked very good, but seeing him get run down from behind on that play, reminded us that his lack of breakaway speed will likely prevent him from making the leap from "very good" to "great."
Shane Vereen got on the field in passing situations with the first team offense, and lined up as an outside receiver on two of his four snaps. The second time he did so resulted in a 13-yard touchdown reception that put his special receiving ability on full display. Later in the game after Brady exited, Vereen was used a more traditional fashion and got a few carries, but it's safe to say that his versatility is what is going to get him on the field when the real games begin.
Brandon Bolden only saw two snaps with the first team, and ran a passing route from the backfield on both them, though he was not targeted.
All of the running backs continued to play well after Brady left the game, which was consistent with almost all of the other offensive skill position players. It's reasonable to infer that the Patriots wanted to allow Ryan Mallet to play with a full and complete arsenal to give him every opportunity to succeed.
There's been no shortage of positive buzz out of camp surrounding Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, and Kenbrell Thompkins, and I was very much looking forward to seeing how these three receivers would look in a live action game, as well what kind of roles they would play in offensive packages.
(For our purposes here, I've lumped together the X and Z receiver spots into the "Outside" category)
The first thing that stands out to me when looking at the table above is the fact that Dobson is the only receiver of the three that was not experimented with in the slot. He played strictly on the outside, though he did rotate some between the X and Z spots. It seems likely, both from how he was used in this game and from the reports out of camp, that Dobson is viewed strictly as an outside player by the Patriots.
It may surprise many to learn that Amendola played most of his 12 snaps not lined up in the slot. As the presumptive "Welker replacement," many assumed that he would make his living in the same way that his predecessor did, but Amendola played both in the slot and on the outside in St. Louis, so it makes sense that the Patriots are experimenting with him in different roles early in the pre-season.
Similarly, Thompkins was moved around some, and played both out of the slot and on the outside. This trend continued for Thompkins after Brady handed the reigns over to Mallet late in the first quarter.
Another interesting angle of the snap distribution amongst the wide receivers was the fact that while Amendola had the highest number of snaps with Brady (12 total), he was also the only skill position player that came out of the game at the same time Brady did. All of the other receivers, tight ends, and running backs logged playing time with at least Mallet, but Amendola was essentially replaced by Julian Edelman as soon as Brady exited.
This indicates that while the Patriots want to continue to build chemistry between Brady and Amendola, they don't feel that they need to see Amendola getting reps just for the sake of watching him play. It's reasonable to infer that they feel confident in what they have in Amendola, and thus see no point in taking away reps from the younger players and, let's face it, unnecessarily expose Amendola to additional opportunities to get injured.
Like Thompkins and Amendola, Josh Boyce was moved around to different positions in the formation as well. Despite being on the field for almost 50% of the offensive snaps on the evening, Boyce was only targeted once (and targeted poorly) by Mallet, who overthrew him, missing out on an easy touchdown catch. Boyce didn't get as much opportunity to shine as Dobson and Thompkins did, but he's definitely a player I'm looking forward to seeing more of this pre-season.
The Patriots' tight end situation is nearly as intriguing as the wide receiver situation, with both positions seeing extraordinarily high impact off-season turnover, along with Gronkowski's absence due to injury. I was very interested to see how much the tight end position would be used, and in what way, and I think Belichick sent us some pretty clear signals along those lines. Whether or not the implications of those signals carry over into the regular season is another question, but for now, it's all we can go on.
|Total||In Line||Wing||Fullback||Out Wide|
First off, despite not having the top two tight ends from the 2012 Patriots available (for very different reasons, of course) the first team offensive game plan still heavily featured the tight end position. Of the 16 Brady-lead offensive plays, 12 of them included at least two tight ends, and on only two plays was there no tight end at all. This is certainly due in large part to the run-heavy approach that the first team offense had on the night.
A total of four tight ends played with the first team offense, and each of them lined up at different positions in the formation. Jake Ballard registered the highest number of first team snaps with 12, and played every single one of them as an in-line tight end. Ballard looked effective as a blocker during his time on the field, which was a good sign after all of the negative reports coming out of camp about Ballard's mobility still being hampered by his knee issues. We'll have to wait for Ballard to get some targets in the passing game to get a better idea of how much speed and dexterity he has retained.
Zach Sudfield had the second highest tight end snap count with the first team offense with nine, and was the only tight end to move around in the formation even a little bit. That said, seven of his nine snaps were played from the wing back position. For anyone who is not familiar with this term, the wing back is a player, usually a running back or tight end, who is positioned one yard behind and outside of the tight end.
illustration of typical alignment
It's a versatile role, as the wing back is in position to do pretty much anything: carry, block, or run a route. Sudfield did plenty of the latter two activities throughout the game, and continued lining up primarily in the wing back position after Mallet and Tim Tebow came in to run the offense. His lone reception came from a route that he ran from the wing back position, a 22-yard grab on a play action pass from Tebow. He also showed flashes of being a high-effort blocker, and even made the final downfield block that iced Blount's 52 yard touchdown run in the 2nd quarter.
Michael Hoomanawanui lined up exclusively in the backfield as a fullback, and was very effective as a lead blocker for both Ridley and Blount. I didn't tabulate the formations after Brady left the game, but I can tell you that Hoomanawanui pretty much stayed lined up in this position for the majority of the game. He did run some dump-off routes from the backfield as well, but did not register a reception.
Daniel Fells was more or less used as the second in-line TE behind Ballard. He got more playing time with the backups and ran some routes, but with the first team, he was used strictly as a run blocker in three different short-yardage situations.
It was almost as if Belichick took all of the things that Hernandez was versatile enough to do, and distributed each role to individual players to take on (although Hernandez lined up in the backfield as a ball carrier, not as a lead blocker as Hoomanawanui did). Overall, at least for this first pre-season game, despite the ignominious exit of Hernandez and the absence of Gronkowski, the tight end position and its role in the offense appears to be alive and well in New England.
Bonus: A Quick Look at Kenbrell Thompkins
More than any other player, I came away from this game feeling very good about Kenbrell Thompkins. There's a few things Thompkins did that contribute to this optimism, but the one that I found the most encouraging came with around nine minutes left in the first quarter with the Patriots facing a 3rd and 4. Brady hit Thompkins on a six yard comeback route that was good for a 1st down.
What stands out to me about this seemingly routine play is that it contains some evidence that there is some positive chemistry already existing between Brady and Thompkins. That word, chemistry, gets used sometimes as a vague and lazy term used to discuss the on-field relationship between a quarterback and his receivers, but I do think it's a real concept that can be identified and examined at times This play offers a simple, but significant example of what chemistry actually is.
In the snapshot below, Brady's arm has already started moving up to deliver the ball. Brady's eyes are locked in on Thompkins, who, at this point, had not begun his break back towards Brady. This is the nature of a comeback route; the goal is for the ball to be almost at the receiver as he changes direction and breaks back towards the quarterback, so the throw has to be made before that break has begun.
In the screenshot below, you can see Brady's arm coming up, in the early stages of his delivery, while Thompkins is still running straight ahead.
As Thompkins is coming out of his break, the ball is already well on its way to him.
Unsurprisingly, Brady's throw is perfectly placed on Thompkins' back shoulder, who manages to reel in the contested ball for the 1st down.
This play is a great example of Brady throwing the ball before his receiver is open, anticipating that the Thompkins would get to where he was supposed when he was supposed to. That trust was rewarded with a drive-sustaining catch, which I believe contributes to a confidence level, and represents a tangible example of what building "chemistry" is.
If this pass were completed to Welker, there wouldn't be anything here worth taking note of. But this season, with this almost entirely new surrounding cast, Brady establishing a rapport with his targets is going to be critical to the Patriots' success, so there's good reason to take solace in even small positive signs like this.
Image 01 - Brady sees WR ready to break
Image 02 - Brady throws to spot before the break
Image 03 - WR turns to find ball already in his hands at spot
Michael Reardon is a Fantasy Football writer and Patriots Insider columnist who has followed the New England Patriots for years. An amateur football player himself, Michael uses his knowledge and experience to illustrate the finer points of the game. You can follow him on twitter @mjreardon
[Disclaimer: Images courtesy screen shots of game replay and are copyright of their respective owners including (but not limited to) the NFL, Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots. Images used for illustration purposes only.]