New England Patriots

L-R: Patriots tight ends Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith. (Brian Fluharty/USA TODAY Sports)

The Patriots’ new tight end duo had a solid, if unspectacular, debut. Eight combined catches for 73 yards. Good-but-not-perfect blocking. It’s a proverbial work-in-progress.

But if Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry were one thing against the Dolphins, they were unpredictable. And the Patriots hope to maintain that unpredictability throughout the season.

Smith and Henry had an almost perfectly even distribution of total snaps (55-54 in favor of Smith) against Miami. The Pats used them together as part of their base “12” personnel offense (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers) on 35 snaps, and had a run-pass distribution of 22-13 out of those groupings.

Of course, the Patriots hope that the “12” personnel engine will lead to better results than 16 points on the scoreboard. But what they want to do with Smith and Henry together is clear: move the ball on the ground, throw it with some play-action mixed in, and let the two set each other up as the games dictate. Oh, and keep the opponents guessing.

“Yeah, I think balance is what everybody wants to strive for, right? You never want to be predictable,” said tight ends coach Nick Caley on Tuesday. “I mean, that’s not what you ever want to do. So, I think balance is what you want. Fortunately for us, Hunter [Henry] and Jonnu [Smith], they can do both, they can block in the run game, they can run routes, they’re versatile, they can play off each other, and they’re both smart, and they work their tails off.

“So, that’s important for us. You never want to be pegged as a one-trick pony, that’s for sure. So you take a lot of pride in that, and that’s what we ask our guys to do, and they embrace it every single day.”

  • By the numbers...

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - SEPTEMBER 12: Jonnu Smith #81 of the New England Patriots carries the ball against the Miami Dolphins during the first half at Gillette Stadium on September 12, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – SEPTEMBER 12: Jonnu Smith #81 of the New England Patriots carries the ball against the Miami Dolphins during the first half at Gillette Stadium on September 12, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

    Some data from the Patriots’ 17-16 loss that illustrates Smith and Henry’s versatility, and the Patriots’ desire to utilize them in a variety of ways…

    On or Off the Line

    Henry lined up next to the tackle on 44 of 54 snaps (81.5 percent). Smith, meanwhile, was split wide off the line a tick more often (80 percent in-line, 44 of 55). Especially considering Smith took one carry for a jet sweep, this is a reflection of Smith’s versatility as a receiver and runner, compared to Henry’s usage as more of a traditional “Y” tight end.

    Blocking vs Route-Running

    Henry was used as a blocker on 29 snaps and ran up the field on 25. Similarly, Jonnu Smith blocked on 29 snaps and ran a route or took a handoff on 26.

    Motion

    Smith was sent in motion on seven snaps, compared to four for Henry. Smith started in the backfield on one of his snaps where he was sent in motion, with running back Brandon Bolden split out wide.

  • A Tough Choice

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - SEPTEMBER 12: Jonnu Smith #81 of the New England Patriots carries the ball against the Miami Dolphins during the first half at Gillette Stadium on September 12, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – SEPTEMBER 12: Jonnu Smith #81 of the New England Patriots carries the ball against the Miami Dolphins during the first half at Gillette Stadium on September 12, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

    Josh McDaniels still wants to run plenty of three-receiver sets in “11” personnel, which means only one tight end on the field. So one of the toughest choices McDaniels will have from game-to-game, play-to-play, is who to put out there in these groupings.

    Caley attributed the decision mainly to game flow, rather than something specific in their preparation, and prefers each of them to be able to do a lot of the same things.

    “You start getting out there, getting into a rhythm, you want to keep the guy out there in rhythm, you want to change them out,” Caley said Tuesday. “Sometimes we might leave a guy in there that was out on the field. It’s really, there’s a bunch of factors that really go into it, but most importantly, I mean, it’s the flow of the game. And it worked out. I mean, it was almost balanced, really.

    “So, either one of those two guys can do anything that we asked them to do in game plan. And so, again, we’ve got to be ready to do it all, anyway, and I’ve got nothing but confidence in both of those guys.”

  • In The Red

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - SEPTEMBER 12: Nelson Agholor #15 of the New England Patriots celebrates after a seven yard touchdown reception against the Miami Dolphins during the second quarter at Gillette Stadium on September 12, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – SEPTEMBER 12: Nelson Agholor #15 of the New England Patriots celebrates after a seven yard touchdown reception against the Miami Dolphins during the second quarter at Gillette Stadium on September 12, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

    Mac Jones was 2-of-4 for 14 yards and a touchdown in the red zone on Sunday, good for a 97.9 passer rating. Only one of those attempts was intended for a tight end, and only one attempt came in the fourth quarter (incomplete, intended for Jakobi Meyers). Even Jones’ touchdown pass to Nelson Agholor was a play design that didn’t throw the ball into the end zone and required two yards after the catch.

    Henry and Smith are both proven red zone weapons. So it’ll be interesting to see if Bill Belichick and McDaniels open it up more with Jones and the tight ends in the red area against the New York Jets on Sunday, and be more productive inside the 20 in general.

    “That’s kind of the game right there – 1-for-4 in the red zone, and [the Dolphins] were 2-for-2,” Smith said Monday. “That’s kind of the story right there. They scored points; we didn’t. That’s the only answer I can give, man. We’ve just got to be better. We’ll look ourselves in the mirror and see how we can improve and not feel sorry for ourselves and be honest.

    “I think honesty is the biggest element of it all — to be able to say, ‘I didn’t do this so good, and I need to be better.’ … I think that’s a good start.”

  • Stacking Weeks

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - SEPTEMBER 12: Hunter Henry #85 of the New England Patriots looks on during the game against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium on September 12, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – SEPTEMBER 12: Hunter Henry #85 of the New England Patriots looks on during the game against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium on September 12, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    Especially considering that Henry missed all three preseason games and most of training camp with a shoulder injury, the Patriots’ first game with their new two-tight end attack showed some promise. As the Patriots always say themselves, even after winning big, it’s always good to look for ways to improve. Smith and Henry have espoused that same message, despite being new to Foxborough, so we’ll see if it translates to Sundays – and if they can keep the guessing game going.

    “I’ve really enjoyed being in this offense,” Henry said. “Josh [McDaniels] does a tremendous job of, week-to-week, trying to put his guys in the best position to be successful, all of us, and we have to execute those things. It’s fun coming in every single week, seeing how you’re going to be used. I’ve always looked forward to that ever since I’ve been in the league, and taking advantage of those matchups and those opportunities for you to win, week in week out.”

    “I definitely fed off [Henry’s] energy, and I’m sure he’s feeding off mine, as well,” Smith said. “We’ve just got to continue to do that as a team — not just to us two, but as an entire team. Keep the momentum going and keep us rolling.”