The Patriots, Two-Back Sets and Hunt Matchups

by Oliver Connolly

Few teams in the NFL are better at hunting matchups than the New England Patriots.

Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, Tom Brady and co. are the masters of pre-snap manipulation. They run a variety of diverse formations, pre-snap motions and shifts and a do it all from a bunch of different personnel groupings. Catching an opposing defense in a vulnerable matchup is the name of the game. 

The sheer volume of options (pre- and post-snap) is a nightmare for any opposing defensive coordinator. 

It’s that kind of offensive flexibility that allows Brady to get rid of the ball so quickly. Through formations and movements, he can reveal coverages, keying in on where he wants to go with the ball before its snapped.

Once the team has found its matchup – catching a specific defender on the field, or the defense in the wrong personnel grouping – Brady jumps into the no-huddle, orchestrating things from the line of scrimmage and forcing the defense to keep the same batch of guys on the field. We’ve seen a bunch of iterations of the Belichick-McDaniels-Brady matchup-based system. 

We had their first run with the spread: more up-tempo, less diverse, and focused on limiting substitutions. We had the two tight end system, which was damn near unstoppable in an age where DC’s were resolute on sticking in with their base defense. In the past couple of seasons, we’ve seen a shift back to two-back sets: sticking two running backs, or a back and a fullback, on the field together. 

In the era of pace-and-space, two-backs sets feel a little counter-intuitive. But once you begin to understand the Patriots mindset, it makes all the sense in the world. Belichick doesn’t concern himself with such silly notions as positional designations. He cares more about skill-sets and body types and how those fit within specific concepts. 

Players align anywhere and everywhere. Their role shifts on a week-to-week, concept-to-concept basis. Tight ends are used as isolated receivers and lead blockers. Wide receivers become ball-carriers and shift between inside and perimeter positions. Running backs are used as the deep threat in the passing game. 

So what if Dion Lewis is a so-called running back, they say. Why can’t he spend a season being the guy who makes our clearout concepts sing? (that’s a thing that actually happened.)

The Patriots have always relied on condensed formations (receivers inside the numbers). Belichick always carries a fullback – a hybrid BF/TE at the very least. Now, though, they’re blending the two as much as they did early in the Brady run, before the notions of no-huddle, up-tempo or spread-to-run were on the team’s radar.

New England used 21 personnel (two-backs, one-tight end) on 29% of its plays in 2017, per Sharp Football. That was second only to the 49ers, who were up at 38%. No team in the NFL used 23 personnel more (two-backs, three tight ends) last year than New England. And the team finished last season slotted seventh in 22 personnel (two backs, two tight ends).

11 personnel serves as the foundation of the modern “pro-style” offense, whatever that vapid term means. And yet the most consistent offense in the modern era finished 28th in the league’s dominant package in 2017. 

What gives?

The trend has continued into 2018. Against Houston in Week 1, each of the Patriots top three “backs” played a minimum of 47% of the team’s offensive snaps: Rex Burkhead 51% (25% in Week 2); James White 47% (56% in Week 2); James Develin 47% (33% in Week 2). Develin is a big part of the system. He moves right across the formation: from the backfield, as a fullback or running back; to a traditional tight end alignment; as a wing; or as a receiver in plus-split outside the numbers.  

Adding a fullback diversifies the run game by building in an extra gap for the offense. Develin is at home thumping between the tackles. But he more than a decoy when shifted outside.

True, moving Develin is all about revealing coverages so that Brady get the ball to his top targets further downfield. But if the defense backs up and gifts easy yards, Brady is happy to flick the ball to the former full-time fullback whenever he’s split out-wide. New England was at its mismatching, schematic best on Sunday. The trio of backs aligned all over. 

Related: Peeking into the Playbook: The Newest Wrinkle in the Spread Offense

The Patriots, of course, are intimately familiar with the Texans defensive staff. Belichick and Houston DC Romeo Crennel go waaaay back. Belichick knows that Crennel wants to get an extra pair of DBs on the field – an additional corner and a dime-linebacker: a third safety who rotates down into the low-hole. 

The Patriots came out in heavy, condensed formations, showing a willingness to run the ball:

Alternating between 21 and 22 personnel, the extra blockers paid off. The Patriots churned out yardage against a talented Houston front:

Above, the Patriots ran the most basic of gap-scheme plays: power. A frontside double-team sealed the first level. The backside tackle wrapped around. The fullback hits the first thing he saw through the hole, scraping a linebacker before climbing up to a safety. The running back followed in behind.

When your fullback can climb and seal a safety, you’re in business.

Crennel knew what was coming. He couldn’t stop it. The Patriots early success running the ball forced the Texans to match personnel. They had to stick in base defense, keeping an extra linebacker on the field.  

Brady and company isolated and attacked those linebackers in space:

That’s classic New England stuff. After the barrage of run plays and quick-timing drops from the same personnel grouping and congested looks, McDaniels spread the field. 

The Patriots went empty. Burkhead and Develin split out: Develin in a plus split, outside the numbers; Burkhead in a max split, pushed a tad closer to the sideline into the boundary. The Texans, who had matched the two-back set with their base defense, were forced to send a pair of linebackers out of the box. In doing so, they revealed the coverage to Brady. 

The Texan’s were in off-man. Both ‘backers were isolated in space, 1-on-1: Benardrick McKinney covering Develin; Zach Cunningham covering Burkhead. 

McDaniels drew up a beauty. It’s a mirror concept – the same play design mirrored on each side of the field – with a little sprinkling of Gronk to help distract and hold the single-high safety in the middle of the field.

Gronkowski ran a seam route, occupying a trio of middle of the field defenders. The safety kept his on Gronkowski and Brady throughout the play. A linebacker-safety double-team mauled Gronkowski at the LOS, effectively running punt-coverage on the tight end.

Everyone else had 1-on-1 matchups. The Patriots faked a double-under concept – a hi-low concept with a pair of receivers dragging underneath the second-level:

One side of the field is diagramed above, but the team ran it on both sides. The inside receivers ran underneath routes: Chris Hogan, to the field side, ran a slant; Phillip Dorsett, towards the boundary, ran a twirl, initially selling a drag route.

The real magic took place outside. Both backs ran a move-and-go double-move. It’s essentially the same as a stop-and-go, albeit the receiver drifts a little further infield to sell the under route. 

Brady held his eyes in the middle of the field. He wanted to hold the deep safety in place before he could read the play and help one of his linebacker buddies. 

Brady got what he wanted. On one side, McKinney read the play well and defended it. Develin isn’t all that explosive; he doesn’t have slippery hips. He couldn’t quite sell the route.

Burkhead did. He got Cunningham to bite on the underneath, before shifting his body weight and exploding upfield. Cunningham was left flat-footed and had no chance to recover. Burkhead was wide-open.

Somehow, Brady missed the throw. He left a walk-in touchdown on the field. 

(Remember: we’re focusing on the process here. The Patriots’ results speak for themselves.)

Part of the schematic brilliance is how New England is consistently able to craft these matchups, even when the defense knows it’s coming. The Patriots do as much with their formations as any team in the league. 

Having the same personnel that can play push the pile and run over over a team, or spread wide and create 1-on-1 matchups, is close to unstoppable. It’s extra tough to defend when one of their “ones” just happens to be the greatest tight end of all time, and the fella chucking them all the ball might be the top quarterback. 

They don’t simply spring from an obvious run formation to a passing one. They’ll pass from heavy looks; they’ll run from spread ones – new toy Cordarrelle Patterson is a constant threat to receive the ball as the motion-man in empty sets.

Aside from Gronkowski, the Patriots top mismatch threats are their backs. Sticking two of them on the field together is the best use of the team’s resources. They sow formational confusion and are legitimately among the team’s top receiving options. 

Backs in the passing game have been a feature of Belichick’s attack since he became a head coach. He knows the value of using all five eligible guys whenever possible: 

That’s a classic clearout concept. The Patriots’ receivers/tight ends stretched the field, while the backs both ran option-routes underneath. 

New England’s battery of option-routes is legendary. The team wants to be as unpredictable post-snap as they are before it. 

On the example above, the backs ran leverage options – the "you go here, I’ll go there" kind. They read a defender. If he goes outside they go inside. If the defender crams the middle of the field, the back hunts for space closer to the sideline.

Related: How "Football Experts" Gamble on Sports

Once again, they isolated linebackers in space. Brady and White have an excellent wink-wink connection on option plays. 

Sticking a pair of quality backs in the backfield opens up the world to Brady. He can read everything: the box count, coverage keys, the leverage of a specific defender, and flip to whichever play in the playbook he thinks is most advantageous.

It’s tough enough for the defense to deal with all the pre-snap possibilities. Imagine how hard it gets when routes can morph post-snap? How about continuous pre-snap morphing before the post-snap option? Yes, there is a test at the end of this. We know the Patriots motion and shift as much as anyone. That’s the beauty of having flexible pieces who can play multiple positions. 

McDaniels’ new-wrinkle: Double-motions. One motion-man displacing the other.

It’s utterly brilliant. McDaniels ran a couple of other similar designs on Sunday. He doesn’t just want to dictate matchup’s; he wants to force communication, the quickest way to miscommunication. 

The Patriots opened up in a single-back set out of 21 personnel. White and Burkhead were both on the field: Burkhead out wide; White in the backfield. Then they motioned to empty. 

White flexed into the slot. Houston’s linebacker followed.

The Patriots then motioned Burkhead from his spot as the boundary receiver at the back of a two-man stack, into the backfield. 

The effect is small but crucial. The box count is the same, but rather than having a linebacker in the box and a cornerback cover one of its split-out running backs. Now, Houston has its cornerback in the box and linebacker covering a running back in space.


On paper, things were the same for the Patriots: it’s the same personnel grouping; one back is split out, one in the backfield; the box count was the same. But the on-field matchups were much different. 

Brady had a couple of options: he could check to a pass play and target the isolated linebacker. Or he could run the ball directly at the cornerback who’s found himself in the box. 

That’s exactly what he did. 

This sort of schematic sorcery is next-level even by the Belichick-McDaniels-Brady standard. Houston had difficulty reacting to it all game. Future opponents best be prepared. Again, focus on the process, not the result. 

Of course, the Patriots aren’t the only team to utilize bigger personnel groupings then shapeshift out of them prior to the snap. The aforementioned 49ers, under Kyle Shanahan, lead the league in twin-tight end usage. Shanahan ran 13 personnel more than anyone in the league back in his Atlanta days.

(Charting data suggests Shanahan barely used “13” personnel in his lone year in San Fran. Part of that is evolution — more crack-back and receiver blocks — part is the data: how the three are charted, given they each line-up in the backfield and in traditional tight end spots. Often Juszczyk is charted exclusively as a fullback, hence an uptick in “21” personnel groupings.)

All three of Shanahan’s matchup guys – George Kittle, Garrett Celek, Juszczyk – align all over the shop. The Niners made Juszczyk the highest paid “fullback” a year ago. In reality, he’s better to suited to the moniker “offensive weapon” than any of the satellite backs/receivers that have come through the league and received such a lofty designation (sarcasm intended): Percy Harvin, Tavon Austin et al.

As defenses across the league get smaller, more agile. It’s only right that opposing offenses will re-invent: use bigger, more powerful looks – whether they eventually lineup with one of those hybrid guys out-wide or in the backfield is a matter of schematic difference. 

The Patriots, for what it’s worth, adjusted course after their playoff loss a couple of years ago in Denver. They dropped back to pass too many times against a lethal pass-rush. They committed the cardinal sin of being predictable. They didn’t fashion as many mismatches as usual. That goes for their run-game as well as throwing the ball.

(They also didn’t have Dante Scarnecchia’s wizardry that year. It showed.)

Dictating matchups is the lifeblood of the modern NFL. The Patriots do it as good as, if not better, than anyone. A lack of receiver depth makes that all the more important this year. 

The Patriots carried just three active receivers on their depth chart following cut-down day. Rookie Braxton Berrios headed to IR with an undisclosed injury. He won’t return this season. Julian Edelman will miss the first four games of the year after getting popped for PEDs. 

Gronkowski will help mask some of the holes. And Brady typically makes all receivers look, at worst, league average. But it’s these two-back sets that are now at the heart of the team’s carefully calibrated ecosystem. 

Related: Changing of the Guard: A Quarterback Revolution is Starting in the AFC

Being able to manipulate matchups on the ground and through the air from the same package is a decided advantage. Opposing defenses eventually cave and make a mistake. Brady has a chance to get the Patriots out of a bad play into a good one on every play. Having him turbo-charge the engine once he’s caught the defense in the wrong look is borderline unfair. 

The Patriots never rest on their laurels. They tweak, re-invent, and introduce new wrinkles each and every year. Good luck trying to stop them.