Perry: Are Pats TEs set up to be game-changers vs. Jets? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
The unveiling of the new-look multi-tight end sets in New England started off with a bang.
On the first snap of the season for the Patriots, Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry aligned closely on the right side of the formation, Damien Harris ran to that side, and 35-yards later you couldn't be blamed for thinking Josh McDaniels might never take his two high-priced tight ends off the field.
It wasn't the sexiest way McDaniels could deploy his two new toys. But it was an explosive gain. Not a bad way for them to get their Patriots careers started.
"Josh does a tremendous job week to week of putting his guys in the best positions possible to be successful," Henry said this week. "All of us. We have to execute those things. It's fun every week, coming in, seeing how you're going to be used."
The Patriots clearly had a plan on Sunday. But they seemed to get away from it over the course of time. The unveiling, though loud to begin, ended as a relatively unremarkable day. Smith and Henry combined for eight catches for 73 yards.
The two played together for 12 of 16 snaps through Sunday's first 15 minutes. But as the day went on, the Patriots didn't stick with that 75 percent two-tight end rate. Out of the next 54 offensive snaps, the pair was featured in the team's 12-personnel package together 22 times (40 percent).
It wasn't as though fatigue was a factor, in all likelihood. Both Smith and Henry played over 50 snaps total by game's end. They just played together less often as the game wore on. Why?
Maybe it was matchups. Maybe it was the flow of the game. Maybe it was sheer production.
With Smith and Henry on the field together in 12-personnel sets Week 1 against the Dolphins, 34 plays in all, the Patriots averaged just 4.7 yards per attempt through the air, according to Sharp Football. Out of 12 personnel, quarterback Mac Jones completed 7 of his 12 attempts for 56 yards, with an average depth of target of 6.1 yards. Jones also fumbled out of "12" and had a 70.1 quarterback rating from those packages.
In today's NFL, those kinds of passing-game numbers aren't going to contribute to many wins.
By contrast, Jones averaged 9.3 yards per attempt with one of the two tight ends swapped out for a receiver in 11 personnel. Jones' rating checked in at 105.6 as he went 18-for-21 for 195 yards with three wideouts on the field.
In the running game, the Smith-and-Henry duo saw their offense achieve a higher level of production. The team racked up 99 yards on 21 carries out of 12 personnel, a clip of 4.7 yards per carry. However, the first snap of the 2021 season -- Harris' 35-yard run -- buoyed that figure quite a bit. The 12-personnel runs thereafter averaged 3.1 yards per carry.
Interestingly, the Dolphins began the game answering the combination of Smith and Henry with their nickel package. That's a relatively light unit -- five defensive backs -- to go against a heavier offensive attack. Miami watched Harris gallop 35 yards on its nickel package and still stuck with it for almost the entirety of the first quarter and gave up 28 more rushing yards on six additional carries.
After that, though? The Dolphins tried to adjust.
This is one of the advantages of having two tight ends who are capable blockers and quality receivers. You can dictate what the defense does. That's how 10-year NFL veteran tight end Logan Paulsen explained it on the Next Pats Podcast this week.
"You can dictate personnel to the defense in a really nice way," Paulsen said. "When you trot out your fullback, your two tight ends, the defense has to match in base, which usually means you're bringing [onto the field] run defenders as opposed to coverage players.
"If you can dictate that personnel matchup... and then you can get Rob Gronkowski on a second or third linebacker -- a guy who's not out there to be a coverage player, he's out there to fit the run -- that, I don't care about any other metric, is a mismatch.
"If you get the same type of response with these two players, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, I think that's tremendously advantageous. You're getting better athletes on poorer coverage players, while also being able to establish the run in a physical manner. I think that's the advantage of having two tight ends who have the skill sets that these two guys have. Hunter Henry's not an elite blocker, but he's OK. And Jonnu is, in my mind, maybe a top-seven blocker [at tight end] in the NFL. He's very, very skilled at it.
"You bring those guys onto the field and you can't match in nickel in the same way you can match other tight ends. When I was in Washington, I'd come on the field, Jordan Reed would come on, they'd treat Jordan like a wide receiver, they'd match in nickel. They'd match in dime. You can't do that with these guys because of how proficient they are in the run game. That's tremendously advantageous."
While Miami tried to match New England's two tight ends in nickel early in the game -- inviting the Patriots to run -- they almost completely flipped their approach by the last play of the first quarter. They instead tested Bill Belichick's 12 personnel with a heavier base defense, with just four defensive backs on the field. In the third quarter, with the Patriots trailing, Miami leaned on their nickel package again to defend against the pass. In the fourth quarter, they shifted their 12-personnel defensive approach on an almost snap-to-snap basis.
By game's end, the numbers suggested that the Patriots didn't do enough through the air with their two tight ends when the Dolphins challenged them to throw by running run-stuffers onto the field. Against Miami's base defense, the Patriots went just 4-for-6 for 38 yards passing. They also tried to run eight times against that base look, for an abysmal seven yards.
Against Miami's nickel package, the Patriots did what they should've done. Statistically, at least. They ran at will, racking up 91 yards on 13 carries. It was a tougher slog through the air, as Jones went 4-for-6 for 33 yards. His sack-fumble play also came out of 12 personnel against Miami's nickel defense.
But had the Patriots thrown more effectively against Miami's base packages -- or had they decided to throw more often rather than run into a run-oriented defense -- maybe things would have played out differently on Sunday.
The Patriots also may have gotten more out of their tight ends had Jones been a tad more aggressive in his pro debut.
On a short third-down conversion to Jakobi Meyers, it looked like he might've been able to hook up with Henry for about a 20-yard gain over the middle had he been willing to take the chance. Later in the game, Jones appeared to have Smith open on an outward-breaking route -- and with plenty of room to run -- but instead threw a checkdown incomplete to Harris.
Henry was asked this week whether there had been opportunities missed by his rookie quarterback against the Dolphins, masking what might've been a better tight-end performance than the numbers would indicate.
"It's always funny when people ask that kind of thing," he said. "It's just how the game goes sometimes. It's not always, 'He missed this. I missed this. He didn't see me.' Sometimes it's just kinda how the game goes. You gotta let it come to you. You can't press the issue. I'm never gonna tell Mac, 'Push the ball,' or anything like that. He did a tremendous job out there."
How the Jets choose to handle Patriots tight ends in Week 2 will be fascinating. Will they play nickel and dare the Patriots to run it, as the Dolphins did early in Week 1? Will they play base and see if Jones can carve them up with chunk plays down the field, something he didn't do against Miami?
Jets head coach Robert Saleh's Seattle-style Cover 3 defense has traditionally been very generous to the Patriots over the years. New England's pass-catching backs specifically -- Shane Vereen in Super Bowl XLIX, James White in Super Bowl LI, White in the 2018 Divisional Round -- have feasted on this style of defense. There should be openings there for the tight ends as well, particularly if Saleh calls for some Cover 4 (or "quarters") zone coverages that may ask linebackers to run with Smith and Henry.
But Saleh's defenses in San Francisco ranked third (2020), first (2019), 13th (2018) and first (2017) in terms of average yards per target allowed to tight ends while he was defensive coordinator.
Those numbers would suggest that it might be tough sledding for Jones' tight ends in Week 2, particularly since Smith popped up on the injury report Thursday with a hip issue. But the Patriots got a good feel for how teams might defend their 12-personnel packages in Week 1.
They ran all over nickel. They'll want to throw more effectively against base packages, or they'll keep seeing them until they do.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Jets 17
X-factor: Patriots offensive line
Bill Belichick's club simply can't allow its quarterback to take the type of beating he took in Week 1. The right side of the operation, in particular, will be worth watching closely. It looks like Yasir Durant, dealt to the Patriots via trade late in training camp, could start in place of Trent Brown if Brown (calf) can't play. Not ideal. Particularly since John Franklin-Myers (sack, hit, two hurries) looked like a force playing on that side last week against the Panthers.
Shaq Mason (three pressures allowed last week) will have to be on high-alert so the Jets don't dish out the kind of punishment Jones took from the Dolphins last weekend.
Number to know: 6
That's the round in which starting Jets corner Brandin Echols was drafted out of Kentucky back in the spring. We all know just how impactful sixth-round picks can be. Of course. But even the greatest player in league history wasn't asked to start as a rookie at one of the game's most challenging positions. Between Echols and fellow Jets corner Bryce Hall (a 2020 fifth-rounder) on the opposite side of the field, Patriots wideouts should be able to win their share of battles on the outside.
Somehow, the Echols-Hall pair was targeted by Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold just seven times combined in Week 1. They only allowed just four catches for 35 yards. That shouldn't scare off Mac Jones, whose Alabama squad beat up on Echols' Wildcats last year, 63-3. No, that's not a typo.