By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Patriots offense throttled the Steelers in the 2019 season opener primarily with creative personnel packages and aggressive play-calling. Tom Brady often exploited the same familiar holes that Pittsburgh usually gives him, and this time he did it without Rob Gronkowski. In fact, he barely did it with tight ends at all.
Brady and Josh McDaniels heavily favored two-running back sets on Sunday night. They mixed up the rest of the personnel, formations, and play-calling within them, passing 56.8 percent of the time overall. The Steelers appeared completely geared up to stop Sony Michel and the running game, which they did. But they rarely had answers for Brady through the air, especially when they couldn't get pressure.
Read below for a breakdown of the Patriots' offensive personnel usage in their 33-3 win over the Steelers. This mostly doesn't account for resulting production, which can vary based on situations and the execution level of both the offense and the defense. These breakdowns illustrate how the Patriots deployed their players and indicate McDaniels' tendencies to run or pass out of certain packages.
The Patriots' tenuous tight end situation played a big role in their packages on Sunday night. If and when Matt LaCosse is ready to get back on the field in the next 2-3 games, you can expect to see more 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE) and perhaps even 22 personnel (2 RB, 2 TE). So these breakdowns will also show how much the Patriots could evolve their offense from week to week.
Personnel Package Distribution
21 personnel (2 RB, 1 TE): 30 snaps (42.9 percent)
20 personnel (2 RB, 3 WR): 21 snaps (30 percent)
11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE): 17 snaps (24.3 percent)
10 personnel (1 RB, 4 WR): 2 snaps (2.8 percent)
With only one healthy tight end, the Patriots didn't want to run Ryan Izzo into the ground. So they ran 32.9 percent of their plays with no tight ends, mixing up the running backs and using Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon as the primary two-receiver set. Phillip Dorsett was the primary third receiver. Their most diverse play-calling came in 21 personnel, which we'll expound upon below.
Run/Pass Percentages By Package
21 personnel: 56.7 percent run (17/30)
20 personnel: 76.2 percent pass (16/21)
11 personnel: 58.8 percent pass (10/17)
10 personnel: 100 percent pass (2/2)
The Patriots clearly want to be able to throw out of 21 personnel, which they accomplished at times by emptying the backfield with James Develin. But despite the balanced play-calling between runs and passes, the personnel itself remains a little predictable. Sony Michel played 23 snaps total, but never saw a target in the passing game. Meanwhile, the Patriots exclusively passed in 20 personnel with White and Burkhead.
Obviously, the predictability with their running backs didn't affect the Patriots on the scoreboard. But it'll be interesting to see if they can diversify how they use the running backs in their two-back sets moving forward. Michel got plenty of reps in the passing game during training camp, so you'd have to think he'll be ready for that at some point in the regular season.
Personnel Packages By Drive
This table illustrates how the Patriots switched up their personnel from drive-to-drive. Sometimes they kept Pittsburgh from substituting with no-huddle.
The Patriots' most impactful snaps came in three-receiver sets. All three touchdowns came in 11 personnel, with both of Dorsett's scores coming off of busted coverage by the Pittsburgh safeties. Brady faked the handoff then looked off the safety on the first, then simply hit Dorsett deep after he blew by Kameron Kelly down the middle. Josh Gordon's touchdown was one of Brady's easiest throws of the night, as the Steelers rushed five and dropped the rest into coverage, leaving Gordon wide open over the middle.
-- The team's most interesting formation of the game happened on an incompletion. Dorsett lined up in the backfield as a running back in the "Pony" formation, with White split out as a receiver. The wrinkle alone was enough to flummox the Steelers, as Brady had Dorsett wide open to the right. But he went to Burkhead instead, and missed on the throw. Dorsett would've had a shot at a three-touchdown game if Brady looked his way.
-- The Patriots' third-quarter field goal drive is where Josh McDaniels got most creative in 21 personnel. He put Burkhead, Develin, and Izzo into the game, then emptied the backfield. On the second snap this left the backs against corners and linebacker Vince Williams running downfield with Josh Gordon, allowing the receiver to get enough separation to reel in Brady's 44-yard pass.
What to look for next week
The Patriots still want to make opponents respect the run with Michel in 11 personnel. But going from Gronk to Izzo as an in-line blocker and Ted Karras starting at center looks like it could take an adjustment period. Brady may be able to shred opposing secondaries with his receivers, anyway, now that he has Antonio Brown at his disposal. We'll see if the two-back sets are as prevalent against the Dolphins, particularly in the passing game.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].