Josh McDaniels had it all planned out.
With No. 3 receiver Phillip Dorsett and versatile running back Rex Burkhead both sidelined with injuries, the New England Patriots were going to give the New York Giants a steady diet of heavy personnel during their Thursday night matchup at Gillette Stadium.
Fullback Jakob Johnson would feature prominently, as would tight ends Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo. All three played key roles in the Patriots’ second-half explosion last week in Washington, helping guide running back Sony Michel to his most productive performance of the season (16 carries for 91 yards and a touchdown in a 33-7 Patriots win).
The Giants had struggled against beefier personnel this season, anyway. It was a smart game-planning.
On the Patriots’ opening drive in what proved to be a 35-14 victory, they utilized “22” personnel (two running backs, two tight ends, one wide receiver) on six plays and “21” personnel (2RB, 1TE, 2WR) on another. Over the first quarter-and-a-half, they had either two tight ends, a running back and a fullback, or both on the field for 19 of their first 30 offensive plays, including penalties.
Then, everything changed.
After running back Brandon Bolden scored to put the Patriots ahead 14-0 with 7:11 remaining in the first half, Johnson and LaCosse both exited the game with injuries. (Johnson’s likely will be season-ending, as he reportedly is being placed on injured reserve.)
Less than three minutes later, starting wide receiver Josh Gordon suffered a nasty knee injury while attempting to tackle linebacker Markus Golden, who was in the process of returning a Tom Brady fumble 42 yards for a touchdown. Gordon, Johnson and LaCosse all remained on the sideline after receiving medical attention, but none of the three played a meaningful snap the rest of the way.
That forced McDaniels to toss his original plan straight into the garbage.
“You go into a game plan with an idea of what you want to do with the personnel that’s available to you,” the Patriots’ offensive coordinator said in a conference call Friday morning. “Usually, that includes and encompasses multiple personnel groupings. As you saw at the beginning of the game, we used all of the ones that we had available to us last night early. There’s always plenty in the game plan from different personnel groupings because you just want to use the strengths of the players you have and put them in positions to try to do some things to help you move the ball and score points.
“So when we ended up with Matt and Jak and Josh all going out kind of right in a row there, it took out of a good chunk of what we had worked on in terms of our preparation. All you can do at that point is focus on what you have left.”
Gone were the varied packages and constant substituting that New England typically employs to confuse opposing defenses and create mismatches. By necessity, the Patriots utilized the same personnel grouping on 48 of their final 51 offensive snaps, including penalties: “11” personnel with Julian Edelman and undrafted rookies Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski at receiver, Izzo at tight end and one running back.
“I don’t think that’s ever happened in (my) 20 years,” Brady said after the game.
Michel, Bolden and James White rotated in the backfield, but Edelman and Olszewski played every snap from the time Gordon went down until the Patriots trotted out their victory formation in the final seconds. Meyers’ only play off during that span came when McDaniels inserted offensive lineman Jermaine Eluemunor as an extra blocker on the first of Brady’s two QB-sneak touchdowns. Izzo was a borderline ironman: He played each of those final 51 snaps and 80 of 82 overall.
Olszewski (50 snaps), Meyers (57) and Izzo all set career highs for offensive snaps played in the win.
“We had a lot of confidence in that group,” McDaniels said. “We just didn’t have a lot of volume. So we kind of scrambled on the sideline, scrambled at halftime, scrambled on the sideline in the second half, and the credit really goes to the guys that were out there.
“I mean, we had, I believe, 10 players that played about the last 50 plays of the game with no rest because we didn’t have a substitute. They deserve a tremendous amount of credit for that, and they really did a good job of playing a lot of roles and doing a lot of things in the game that they hadn’t necessarily walked through last week or practiced — with very few mental errors.”
This unusually streamlined Patriots offense had a few wasted opportunities (one missed field goal, one turnover on downs) but was able to move the ball successfully. New England picked up 18 first downs over the four possessions that followed Gordon’s injury, including an 11-play, 75-yard march that produced a touchdown just before halftime and a 16-play, 60-yard drive that drained more than nine minutes off the clock in the third quarter.
“It’s one of the most rewarding parts of coaching is just trying to handle the adversities with your guys,” McDaniels said, “and I thought our players had a great attitude and resolve about themselves last night. It certainly wasn’t perfect, but they grinded it out, and the guys that were in those positions really stepped up and made a lot of plays that helped us.”