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Assessing the Patriots' biggest strengths and weaknesses ahead of Super Bowl LI

Are the Pats vulnerable when facing too many receivers?

Offence

Strength
TOM BRADY IS the obvious answer here but he can’t do it alone. If there is an offensive co-ordinator in the league to rival Atlanta’s Kyle Shanahan, it’s Josh McDaniels.

Football IQ, therefore, is probably New England’s greatest strength.

If you need evidence, you only have to look at the fact that Chris Hogan put up 180 yards and two touchdowns on nine catches against the Steelers.

Look how open he is on his first touchdown of that game:

Source: NFL Gamepass

Now, some of this is down to bad defence but it shows the strength of McDaniels’ playbook, combined with Brady’s awareness, in allowing his team take advantage of a soft-zone defence.

The quarterback holds onto the ball for 3.46 seconds, looking only at the left side of the field and holding five Pittsburgh defenders there despite Malcolm Mitchell being the only Patriots receiver on that side..

By the time he actually passes the football, 4.59 seconds have elapsed, an absolute eternity in NFL terms and yet Hogan is still  wide open.

Source: NFL Gamepass

Weakness
The interior of the offensive line did just fine against the Steelers but, again, this was mostly because the Steelers kept bringing just three or four defenders rather than blitzing like they had done in the second half of the season.

Indeed, in 44 designed passing plays, Brady was pressured just three times, a number so low it beggars belief.

However, in the Divisional Round, Houston proved the offensive line is a potential weakness for the Patriots with center David Andrews and left guard Joe Thuney particularly vulnerable.

Source: NFL Gamepass

Watch above as Whitney Mercilus (59) just breezes past Andrews. This flushes Brady from the pocket and straight into the arms of Brian Cushing (56) and the quarterback has no choice but to take the sack.

Per Pro Football Focus, the Texans put Brady under pressure on 15 of his 41 designed passing plays in that game and the result was a completion rate of 46.2%, one touchdown, one interception and two sacks.

Defence

Strength
Matt Patricia has done a great job this season in executing a simple but effective game-plan. Stop the run early, let the offence build a lead, and force teams to chase the game through the air.

This in turn allows the Patriots to create turnovers — during the regular season they forced 10 fumbles and had 13 interceptions — while finishing third against the run, giving up just 88.6 yards on the ground.

Against the Steelers, the Patriots double-teamed Antonio Brown for most of the night and limited him to just 77 yards on seven catches and his first game without a 20+ yard reception since week six.

Knowing that an offence has to throw allows defenders to be more aggressive, like the Pats’ were against the Jets:

Source: NFL Gamepass

The Patriots start in a Cover 2 shell until the Jets send a receiver in motion. Malcolm Butler (21) follows him across the field and Patrick Chung (23) drops down from safety, leaving Devin McCourty (32) as the single-high safety.

Eric Rowe (25) is stuck to Brandon Marshall (15) down the sideline, not allowing more than a few inches of separation, and spots that the ball from Ryan Fitzpatrick is under-thrown before high-pointing it and grabbing the pick.

Weakness
New England will go into the Super Bowl as the number one scoring defence in the league but it’s a very dubious honour.

First off, they’ve had the easiest schedule of any team in the league this year and, as pointed out before the Steelers game, the opposing quarterbacks they’ve faced are, for the most part, the very definition of mediocre.

For this reason, the Patriots defence only ranked 16th in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA which rates teams based on the quality of their opponents.

While New England are good at shutting down a team’s best guy, they do struggle when opposing quarterbacks move the ball around to different players.

Against Seattle, and perhaps the best quarterback they have come up against this year, Russell Wilson found seven receivers over the course of the game as he went 25 of 37 for 348 yards and three touchdowns.

Doug Baldwin grabbed all three but it was his second that was the most telling. The Patriots rushed just three defenders, allowing Russell Wilson 5.36 seconds to throw.

Source: NFL Gamepass

This allowed Baldwin to drift across the zone defence from left to right with Logan Ryan (26), Patrick Chung (23) both letting him waltz right by and leaving him in acres of space.

Source: NFL Gamepass

The Patriots have rotated their cornerbacks this season, in much the same way they rotated their defensive line last year, and it can sometimes result in confusion among the players as to who is covering who, especially when a quarterback shows a willingness to target a wide range of receivers.

And, it’s worth pointing out, Matt Ryan has thrown touchdowns to 13 different players this year — quite the feat considering they have just 15 receivers, backs and tight ends on their roster –so covering everyone is going to be quite the task.

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About the author:

Steve O'Rourke

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