FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Imagine the reaction among players when New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels began detailing the team’s offensive plan for the AFC Championship Game.
“OK, men. We’ve run 1,187 offensive snaps this season and played a lot of good football. So in the most important game of the year, with our season on the line, we’re going to rely heavily on a personnel grouping we’ve utilized for a grand total of 12 times all year.”
It makes little sense, and it likely wouldn’t happen in most locker rooms. But in New England, this script has played out similarly in past years, and it speaks volumes about how ambitious, diverse, ever-evolving and confident the Patriots are with their offensive approach.
In turn, it creates a dilemma for opposing defenses -- with the Atlanta Falcons up next in Super Bowl LI -- because they never quite know what the Patriots will do.
What the Patriots sprung on the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game was their four-receiver package, pairing it with a turbo-like tempo. They had run it just 12 times all year, unveiling it for the first time against the Los Angeles Rams on Dec. 4 (for 10 snaps) and then using it twice against the New York Jets on Dec. 24. In all, they threw a total of six passes with four receivers on the field during the regular season, while the Green Bay Packers threw a league-high 291 passes out of the grouping.
So Sunday’s AFC Championship Game was, in many ways, a calculated sneak attack. The Patriots unleashed it on the Steelers on the second play, forcing them out of their nickel package and into dime, and pushed the foot down on the accelerator with an aggressive pass-first approach.
How could Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler have known it was coming with such force?
In all, the Patriots played with four receivers on the field for 13 first-half snaps in opening a 17-9 lead -- one more play than they had used the package over the first 17 games of the year.
“We knew we wanted to do a few things out of some different groupings that we felt like could help us move the ball, make first downs and score points. I think they went out there and did some things, were able to convert on a few third downs and help us move the ball,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said.
How the Patriots ultimately decide to attack the Falcons in Super Bowl LI is what McDaniels and his staff are currently in the process of determining, as Tuesday marked their initial plunge into preparations. Those decisions can also be impacted by injury-related factors as well.
“I think each week we go into it and we try to look at a group of players that we’ve got a lot of guys that can help us be productive on offense in a lot of different ways and in different roles,” McDaniels explained. “You look at what you have available to you and you look at how the other team plays you or you think that they’re going to play you in those groupings and then try to make the best decisions you can to gain the most advantage.
“That’s why sometimes maybe it’s more of a fullback and two tight ends, and another week maybe it’s three receivers, a fullback and a tailback. There are a lot of different things that you can use and hopefully there’s a rhyme and a reason for all of it because the most important thing is you’re trying to put your guys in a position to have some success doing things that they do well. The defense and their matchups, that’s always a critical component of making those choices.”
The Falcons’ overall speed has stood out to Belichick, as Atlanta’s scheme has some carryover to the Seattle Seahawks under second-year head coach Dan Quinn, the former Seahawks defensive coordinator.
So will it be four receivers again? Or something altogether different?
Unpredictable and ever-evolving, the Patriots are happy to keep everyone guessing.