Analytics Vs Eye Test: Evaluating the Patriots by the numbers and on film

01/08/2023
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For the final week of the regular season and through the playoffs, Cover 1 is proud to present Analytics Vs Eye Test. Each week, our video coordinator, Adam Pensel (@sharpndpensel) will be digging up three analytics-based insights on the Bills’ opponent for the week and share what they might indicate about how the game will play out. Anthony Prohaska (@Pro__Ant) will react to each one and share his interpretation based on what he’s seen in film study.

This week, we’ll also explain a bit about what each analytic measures and why it’s useful. Let’s dive into the New England Patriots, who are in a win-and-in situation on the road against the Bills. 

STAT NUMBER 1 – Mac Jones’ 2022 DVOA Rank by Pass Direction

  • Left – 32nd (-18.2%)
  • Middle – 27th (6.0%)
  • Right – 13th (24.4%)

Two quarterbacks throw for 300 yards each. Which one had a better game? DVOA, or Defense Adjusted Value over Average, is a metric developed by FootballOutsiders.com and attempts to address this question by measuring how much better a player or team performs than the historical NFL average in similar on-field scenarios while also adjusting for the quality of the opponent.

Assigning a higher value to a five-yard completion on 3rd-and-4 than a five-yard completion on 3rd-and-8 is one of the ways DVOA measures how well these two quarterbacks played. One of these plays results in a new set of downs. The other results in 4th down.

The Patriots’ passing game, statistically, has been nothing to write home about in 2022. As a unit, they rank 26th in DVOA and 22nd in EPA per dropback. But this stat about Mac Jones is a real eyebrow-raiser. 

Mac Jones has been successful at throwing anywhere to the right. And despite the low rank over the middle, he’s still above average there. But when the Patriots ask him to throw to the left, at a DVOA of -18.2%, they’re looking for trouble. In 2021 he ranked 3rd in DVOA (44.5%) throwing to the left – so he’s capable of making the throws. Is this a quirk of the offense? Is he reading right to left and protection isn’t holding up by the time he gets past his first read? Whatever the cause, this data suggests that the Bills should take away the middle and right side of the field. Turnovers and incompletions may be more readily available on the left side.

Film Analysis

This is a tremendously interesting data point that presents a lot of potential questions and potential answers. I don’t think it’s any one thing in particular. This is more likely circumstantial pieces that have added up together to form the metrics we’ve seen.

Mac Jones’ strengths as a passer lie in his ability to process and get through his reads. That hasn’t changed this year from last year. What has changed is the offensive coordinator and the style of the Patriots’ offense.

The disconnect between Mac Jones and Matt Patricia is real. As is the stagnant, disjointed, too-often-gimmick nature of the Patriots’ offense (like spamming screen passes for instance). Injuries to the offensive line, an inconsistent supporting cast, and Jones’ limitations are reflected in these numbers in year two.

There’s less insulation for Mac Jones this year. And his splits in passing left vs right seem to be an indicator of that lack of insulation. On tape, there isn’t a telling amount of mechanical difference or concept difference in right vs left. Early on vs Miami, he looked initially to his right post snap far more than he did left. But that can be due to a multitude of factors. 

Jones ran a heavy RPO offense at Alabama. His rookie NFL season was guided by a veteran and successful offensive coordinator in Josh McDaniels. Head coach Josh McDaniels is different than OC Josh McDaniels. Don’t use his struggles as a head coach to judge his abilities as an OC. 

Point being, he’s a point-and-shoot triggerman at QB that operates within the framework of the offensive design. He’s not going to create outside of structure. He’s not firing lasers all over the field and getting to his reads late. Instead, he looks to win with anticipation, get through his progressions quickly and efficiently, and manage what he’s given. He looks to win in structure. But in order for him to win, the structure has to be sound. And with that will come changes in his play and production based on the structure that he’s in. The changes we’ve seen in his game speak more to the change in structure than they do to him individually.

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STAT NUMBER 2 – Cumulative Receiving EPA (Minimum 10 Targets)

  • Jakobi Meyers – 30.42
  • Rest of Team – 30.32

EPA stands for Expected Points Added, and it attempts to measure the value of individual plays by measuring the difference between the calculated Expected Points at the start of a play versus the Expected Points at the end of a play. Expected points are calculated by using historical data to determine the probability of the possession team scoring on their current drive. The down, distance, and field position are all factored in.

Possessing the ball on 1st down at the 25-yard line has an expected value of roughly four points. The next play results in a 15-yard gain resulting in 1st-and-10 at the 10-yard line. The expected value of 1st-and-10 at the 10-yard line is five. To calculate expected points added, subtract five from four. This of course is equal to 1 EPA.

Among all receivers with 50 targets or more, Jakobi Meyers ranks eighth in the NFL in EPA per target. While Hunter Henry can also be a factor, this data suggests that New England’s passing offense goes as Jakobi Meyers goes. Two of the Patriots’ eight losses came with Meyers out of the lineup due to injury. Of the remaining six losses, defenses held Meyers to three receptions or less in four of them.

The Bills might want to consider having Tre’Davious White travel with Meyers to keep him locked down as much as possible. Or at least keep the strong side of the defense aligned with wherever Meyers is to force Mac Jones to throw to far less reliable targets.

Film Analysis

I’ve been a fan of Jakobi Meyers’ game for a couple of seasons as I’ve seen his progression year after year. He’s someone who, if given a less clunky offensive system, could flourish on a larger scale. Which is saying something considering the EPA per target he’s generated this year in a clunky offense that Adam spoke of above. Another fun stat that speaks to Meyer’s success this year is his rate of getting open vs single-man coverage. Per Arjun Menon of PFF, he’s seventh in the league in 2022 in that category, with an open percentage of 46.67%. Truly impressive for a WR with less-than-ideal timed stats in the 40-yard dash (4.64), 20-yard split (2.69), and 10-yard split (1.62)

The Patriots like putting Meyers in motion which plays to his alignment versatility (he’ll see snaps out wide, in the slot, and from the backfield), allows them to transition quickly into designed plays for him with the added bonus of potentially out-leveraging the defense, and can take advantage of his willingness as a blocker. From a technical standpoint he’s a clean route runner and possesses more suddenness in his route stems and releases than you normally find in longer or lankier WRs. His long arms and frame give him a solid catch radius and pair nicely with his toughness at the catch point. He’s not overly athletic (4.99 RAS) so he’s a player that wins with technique and nuance. His lack of athleticism also speaks to another reason why New England may like putting him in motion, in order to help create advantageous situations for him vs more athletic defenders. He’s a player that you appreciate the more you watch the tape because the subtleties of his game show up like easter eggs in a movie

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STAT NUMBER 3 – Patriots Pass Defense EPA/Play By Offensive Personnel 

  • 6 OL – 19th (.17)
  • 11 – 6th (-.15)
  • 12 – 5th (-.08)
  • 10 – 12th (-.41)
  • 11 – 6th (-.15)
  • 21 – 11th (-.08)

The Patriots’ defense is a well-coached unit. It operates with high effort and high intensity. Overall, New England’s defense is ranked third in DVOA and second in EPA per play. Statistically speaking, this is one of the best units in the entire NFL. So when game planning for success, it’s important to look closely at potential statistical weaknesses that match up well with your own organizational strengths.

The Bills have had tremendous success passing the ball out of 21 personnel (third in total EPA, first in EPA/play), and with a sixth offensive lineman on the field (first in EPA and EPA/play). And it just so happens that the Patriots’ defense, by offensive personnel grouping, is least successful against 21 personnel and six offensive linemen packages. Looking at personnel usage in the first matchup, it appears as though the Bills caught onto this.

In Week 13, the Bills used 21 personnel on 25% of their snaps. Their season average usage of 21 is 17%. And while they only used a sixth offensive lineman on two pass attempts, they generated positive cumulative EPA on those attempts, and rushed 12 times at a 50% success rate – well above the league-average rushing success rate.

The key to success on offense for the Bills should include a healthy dose of Bills legend Bobby Hart, and plenty of pass and rush attempts out of 21 personnel.

Film Analysis 

The strength of the Patriots’ defense lies in their defensive line and defensive backs. Both position groupings, especially their defensive backs, have a well-rounded combination of athleticism, physicality, versatility, speed, and technique. The same cannot be said for the Patriots’ linebackers. 

They’re a thumping, physical group that’s better suited coming forward and vs the run than they are in coverage. Running more 21 personnel (or 12 as well) has the potential to put the Pats’ defense into a bind. If they choose to stay in nickel (five DBs) or Dime (six DBs) vs heavier personnel packages like 21 or 12, they’re susceptible to the run because they’re going to have a defensive back fitting the run vs a fullback or tight end. If they choose to match heavier offensive personnel packages with heavier personnel groupings they’re potentially susceptible to the pass vs teams with versatile fullbacks or tight ends (like the Bills) that can function legitimately in the route distribution. 

Expect the Pats to mix and match with their defensive backs as much as they can. Per SIS, in 2022 the Pats’ defense has five DBs on the field 60% of the time, and six DBs on the field 22% of the time (most in the league). For reference, vs the Bills back in Week 13, they used six DBs on 46% of snaps, five DBs on 32% of snaps, and seven DBs on 7% of snaps. If the Bills lean into heavier personnel packages like 21 personnel, 12 personnel, or six offensive linemen, they have the ability to dictate to the Pats’ defense and put them into disadvantageous situations. Like they did in Week 13. Also, look for the Patriots to disguise coverages and pressure looks, in order to muddle Josh Allen’s reads pre to post-snap and lean into the versatility of a multitude of players on their defense.

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