The Patriots offense ran the ball well in 2020 but that was about all they did well. I’m not sure if Cam Newton will be able to revive his career, but the deck was stacked against him in his first year with the Patriots. He lacked a go-to weapon in the passing game and got Covid early in the year. He made some nice throws, as he has throughout his career, but threw way too many balls in the dirt or to the defense, leading to a 24th-ranked finish for the Patriots offense.
The Patriots employed an excellent running scheme. Newton was at his best running various read option plays or taking the ball on designed runs. He created a blocking mismatch in the running game by having the extra player involved (as opposed to a traditional handoff where the QB leaves the play). Both Sony Michel and Damien Harris benefitted from the divided defensive attention and averaged over 5.0 yard per carry. And when you factor out kneel-downs and goal line carries, Newton himself was close to that as well. Only the Ravens had better rushing performances by multiple players.
But you need to pass successfully in the NFL. Teams that were particularly good defending the pass just shut down the Patriots, who became completely one-dimensional in those games.
*Omitted Week 4 v. KC (Hoyer/Stidham played with Cam on Covid list) and Week 10 v. BAL (torrential downpour skewed production)
This chart tracks the Patriots’ offensive Adjusted Rating in each game by their opponent’s net yards per pass play allowed on the season. Their better performances came against teams who were vulnerable in the passing game, such as LV (+0.09), MIA (+0.56 avg.), and NYJ (+0.35 avg.), who all came in bottom-10 against the pass. But they played poorly against every team that was top-10 against the pass: LAR (-1.03), SF (-0.88), ARI (-1.25), and BUF (-0.55 avg.). They ran consistently against most opponents so the deciding factor in their success was often how well they passed.
The Patriots turned the ball over too much for such a conservative offense. The above plot shows each NFL team’s ADOT in 2020 (which typically correlates to aggressiveness in the passing game) compared to how frequently they threw interceptions. Generally, aggressive downfield passing creates a higher risk-higher reward scenario where more turnovers are likely but also more big plays. But the Patriots had the NFL’s 3rd-highest interception rate and the 5th-lowest ADOT. In other words, they suffered the consequences of an aggressive passing game without the benefits. Only Washington and San Francisco had a comparably bad ratio.
They will need better weapons in the passing game but they’ll also need a better quarterback to be truly successful. I’ve heard the theory that Cam Newton played through lingering Covid symptoms in 2020, and he definitely did not have a full offseason to learn the playbook. There is a chance he improves in his second year. Otherwise, Patriots fans need to hope that Mac Jones can succeed in the NFL. They’ll need one of the two to play better than Newton did in 2020 if they want to return to the playoffs in 2021.
The Patriots 25th-ranked defense was just as bad in 2020 but at least they had some valid excuses. Two of their best defensive players – Patrick Chung and D’Onta Hightower – opted out of the season due to Covid. They also lost several key free agents. On top of the personnel hits, they played an absolutely blistering schedule of opposing quarterbacks, including Mahomes, Wilson, Josh Allen twice, Watson, Lamar Jackson, Murray, Herbert, and Carr. It would have been a tough season regardless.
But due to the underperformance in 2020, everyone has forgotten what made them great in 2019. They were exceptional at getting pressure and converting that pressure to turnovers. They actually continued doing some of that in 2020 despite the obstacles they faced because they implemented an effective scheme.
Patriots Pressure & Turnovers
As a result of their ability to generate pressure and turnovers, they stacked up well against some of the most effective passing games. When they confronted teams that did not turn the ball over frequently, they either forced turnovers or made them extremely uncomfortable. Belichick has always excelled coaching against passing-focused teams. He famously confuses and capitalizes against inexperienced quarterbacks, who typically must implement a vanilla game plan to minimize risk. But he also performs well against the very smartest opponents, who typically take advantage of any lapses in coverage, because his coverage schemes are usually effective and the players are disciplined. These trends continued in 2020.
*Omitted Week 10 v. BAL (torrential downpour)
This chart tracks the Patriots’ defensive Adjusted Rating by each opponent’s turnover rate. They played lights-out defensive football against the Herbert-led Chargers (+1.53) and the Mahomes-led Chiefs (+0.72), two teams that routinely abused any lapses in coverage and did not give up many turnovers. The Patriots’ scheme was too tight and the players played mistake-free football in those games. They really stymied the inexperienced Herbert and pitched a rare shutout against them. Meanwhile, their worst performance came against SF (-2.11), a team that did not rely on strong quarterback play or exploiting coverage gaps.
The Patriots defense is in a good bounce-back spot in 2021 based on (1) returning players, (2) formidable coaching, and (3) a much more favorable schedule of opposing quarterbacks. I doubt they return to 2019 form, but I would anticipate somewhere between the 2020 showing and the 2019 showing.
Putting it All Together
- The Patriots are underrated heading into the offseason. Their awful 2020 season combined with Brady’s success in Tampa Bay has everyone thinking the only reason the Patriots have been good was because of Brady. This is incorrect.
- With Newton at quarterback, expect the Patriots to outperform against teams that are bad against the pass because they are much stronger when both aspects of their offense are functioning.
- They had very little passing success in 2020 but the receiving corps played a big role in that. If Mac Jones is more of a pocket passer, that makes the offense more reliant on weapons as compared to the Newton-led offense. Do not anticipate a strong rookie season unless the Patriots improve their receiving corps.
- Anticipate a bounce-back on defense in 2020 if the Covid opt-outs return and they can stay healthy.
- Expect the Patriots to outperform on defense against inexperienced quarterbacks, as Belichick has consistently outsmarted them with his defensive schemes.
- Due to their defensive discipline and ability to get pressure and turnovers, expect the Patriots to outperform defensively against teams that rely on strong quarterback play, as opposed to short area and/or rushing-focused offenses.
Fantasy and Player Prop Takeaways
- I am not interested in this passing offense from a fantasy perspective.
- I am also not interested in the running backs here. They are productive, but their usage is far too unpredictable on a week-to-week basis. Although many teams have unpredictable season-long usage, you can typically predict whether you can start a player in a given week. That has not been the case for Patriots running backs for years, and that is too high-risk of a situation for fantasy purposes.
- Don’t bank on success against the Patriots in DFS because their scheme is flexible and can show up even against good quarterbacks.
Application: SharpClarke Bet of the Year
In Week 14, the Rams played host to the Patriots on Thursday night and were shockingly only 4.5-point favorites. The Rams were a team that did not rely on their quarterback reading defenses, but rather preferred to establish the run game and use creative pre-snap motion to offset any defensive pressure. It’s tough to game plan against this type of offense so I anticipated a fairly good showing by the Rams offense. But the main angle here was that the Rams defense would absolutely suffocate the Patriots’ passing game and that the result would be a potential shutout. I happily laid the 4.5 points and the Rams crushed the Patriots 24-3, as they had a very difficult time moving the ball at all.