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The Empire Strikes Back: How Patriots Became AFC Contenders Again

  • The Draft Network
  • November 15, 2021
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Tom Brady, Wayne Brady, Brady Bunch. It doesn’t matter. The hoodie is inevitable.

Returning in Emperor Palpatine fashion after an uncharacteristic 7-9 season, Bill Belichick is back. And after a complete Week 10 drubbing of a solid Cleveland Browns team, we can confidently say the New England Patriots are contenders alongside him. 5-1 in their past 6 games, the Patriots are looking like a prime force in a wide-open AFC, which not only speaks to Belichick’s coaching ability with a rookie QB and a young defense but also the roster he has constructed in short order since Brady’s departure.

Building a team straight out of the early 2000s, Belichick saw the cutting edge, undersized, speed game of the modern NFL (ahem, Arizona Cardinals) and went in the exact opposite direction, gearing his offense toward fullbacks, his defense toward 260-pound linebackers, and his QB toward pure pocket passing in a league getting more and more mobile at the position. 'Yinning' when everyone is 'yanging' is certainly an interesting choice, but it’s clearly paying dividends so far.

Out-sizing, out-gapping, out-processing, and even out-fullbacking (shoutout Jakob Johnson) their opponents, New England looks every bit like the “exotic smashmouth” team the 2017 Mike Mularkey-led Tennessee Titans could never achieve, dominating on both sides of the line and earning a physical advantage in the majority of their games.

This identity did start to be woven into the fabric of the organization last year because Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels knew they couldn’t run a Brady-style team without Brady—changes had to be made. It was evident with their elite run game (fourth in total rush EPA) and strong offensive line play. Where things have changed drastically this year compared to 2020, however, has been with the return/additions of several key defensive players that have allowed New England to achieve perfect balance and harmony.

Getting star linebacker Dont’a Hightower back after missing all of last season, the Patriots’ defense has improved from the 29th-worst rush defense in EPA (expected points added) to 14th—and that number jumps all the way up to fifth after Week 5. Hightower himself is obviously a key reason for the drastic improvement, as is rookie defensive lineman Christian Barmore and the emergence of thumping linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley as Hightower’s partner in crime. They’ve still had issues during a few games with clogging cut-back lanes and avoiding long gains, but alleviating some of the pressure off of an elite secondary has provided the ultimate key to what Belichick wants to achieve: dominance on both sides of the line.

Yes, J.C. Jackson is one of the most underrated stars in the league, Kyle Dugger and Josh Uche are versatile monsters, and signing Matthew Judon to big money has helped by the tune of an incredible 9.5 sacks through 10 games, but the fact of the matter is that it’s that run defense that has turned a good defense back into an elite one. Only five teams currently have a better EPA per play on the defensive side of the field than the Patriots—that’s not possible without some of the key additions that have introduced a whole new dimension of physicality to the side of the football.

Speaking of physicality, New England’s offense has picked up where it left off last year in terms of running it down opponents' throats—and has gotten even bigger on the offensive line with the (re)addition of 380-pound right tackle Trent Brown. Where things have truly changed—just like with the defense—however, is with improved balance. That starts with the rookie at quarterback.

Cam Newton played much better last year in New England than most wanted to admit, especially given the circumstances, but 15th overall pick Mac Jones certainly fits what Belichick wants to do in a much better capacity. With added weapons like Kendrick Bourne, Jonnu Smith, and especially red-zone monster Hunter Henry, Jones has shown everything he did in college and then some, proving his pro-ready tag completely factual in the process. Don’t get me wrong, he’s not lighting the world on fire with his deep passes or shredding defenses with lasers in the middle of the field (and it’s worth mentioning he’s CLEARLY been given the easiest job of all the rookie passers), but—as mentioned at the beginning of this article—he fits the 2000s vibes this team is trying to achieve to perfection. He’s a sound processor, has a quick trigger, and is extremely efficient in key situations—there’s no need to scramble around for 10 seconds before throwing across his body when you have that at your disposal in this type of offense.

In fact, where Jones probably most varies from Newton is in makeable third and fourth-down situations. Newton was bottom five in the league in passer rating on 3rd-and-6 or less last season, while Jones is currently posting a top-10 mark in that regard. It’s little stats like this that have validated Jones’ polished nature and given this Patriots team the slight passing game boost they needed to make a big jump, even if Jones’ physical limitations might still pop up from time to time.

This sound and conservative approach also shows up on special teams, as Belichick is very risk-averse when it comes to fourth-down decisions. The safe nature has made the Patriots the second-worst team in EWP (expected win probability per fourth-down decision), but he trusts the team he’s built to execute his defensive-minded oriented vision, even if it isn't making much sense analytically. Just like with his roster construction, Belichick is ignoring the league trends in this regard and going all-in on his tone-setter, grind-it-out masterplan. The difference from last year, however, is he actually has the right quarterback and defensive personnel in place to execute that vision—a detail that truly makes all the difference.

There were signs of this type of identity starting to form in New England last year, but the hoodie has taken the balance and physicality he tried to get going in 2020 to a whole other level this year.

Ultimately, big, brutal football is back and getting rewarded and it’s great to see (just maybe not if you’re staring down the Patriots’ offensive line on a run play). In a wide-open year with no clear favorite, New England is a true throwback team playing like a contender in a post-Brady world and needs to start being taken seriously as a result.

After a brief one-year hiatus, the Empire is back.

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