The Patriots offense is back in familiar hands with former offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien returning to New England for a second stint.
O'Brien will be the Patriots offensive coordinator for the 2023 season. The former Texans and Alabama coach previously was the Pats offensive play-caller from 2009-2011, following Josh McDaniels's first departure. Although it took one year in between, passing the torch once again from McDaniels to O'Brien felt inevitable.
There are three reasons to love this hire as a Pats fan: experience, continuity, and what we're tabbing as Alabama-fying the offense. O'Brien, of course, spent the last two seasons running Nick Saban's offense at Mac Jones's alma mater and has familiarity with the Pats quarterback.
As an experienced offensive coordinator and quarterback's coach, O'Brien brings much-needed knowledge and sophistication to an offense that was disjointed a year ago. New England's offensive scheming, play-calling, and overall cleanliness in execution need to improve. Plus, O'Brien's attention to detail and intense personality will bring out the best in Jones.
O'Brien's play-calling experience shows up in how he sequences plays together as an in-game play-caller. Alabama's offense, through formations, motions, and other tricks of the trade, would build complementary plays into their sequencing.
Alabama uses the same pre-snap motion to set up three different play designs. Showing the defense the same motion by the tight end sets up the subsequent plays, with the defense trying to adjust to the previous scheme that they ran out of the same look. Running complementary plays out of the same formation to put defenses in binds is something experienced play-callers have a knack for, giving the offense continuity.
Last season, the Pats offense lacked a core identity that it could hang its hat on with play calls that often didn't marry up together. Individually, those schemes might've been sound. But they didn't follow a script where the last play was connected somehow to the previous play. Instead, it felt like each play was called in a vacuum where New England would be in a shotgun spread scheme and then put heavy personnel on the field to go under center on the next play.
The level of synchronization that an experienced offensive mind like O'Brien brings from a play-calling perspective should give the offense rhythm, improving execution and production.
Along with O'Brien bringing the professionalism of a coach with two-plus decades worth of experience, let's take a look at the different schemes the Pats new offensive coordinator will bring to Foxboro next season:
The Old Staples
Two tenets to a Bill O'Brien system are fundamental in understanding his offensive philosophy and how his offense is an excellent fit for the Pats third-year quarterback.
First, New England will thankfully get away from attacking the deep part of the field out of their shotgun formations as they did last year and return to winning in the middle of the field. For years, the Pats offense has dominated between the numbers. Under Patricia, they wanted to unlock more vertical elements in the passing game, but the results were inconsistent.
O'Brien unlocks his timing-based passing system by playing the matchups and attacking space he knows will present itself based on the defenses coverage, bringing us to the second tenet: tempo.
When O'Brien took over as the de facto offensive coordinator in 2009, the Patriots began using more one-word play calls in their tempo package to confuse defenses and create clear mismatches for their best playmakers, bringing us to our first example: HOSS Juke.
O'Brien loves to put the quarterback in empty formations where the quarterback is alone in the backfield. The beauty of HOSS Juke, which is hitch-seam on the outside and a juke route by number three, is that it gives the quarterback answers against any coverage.
Most of the time, the defense will match an empty formation with a two-high safety shell. If that's the defense's typical check to empty, O'Brien will put his quickest receiver on the juke series in the inside slot because he knows that the MIKE linebacker will need to match number three in that coverage. Whether it's a slot receiver or tight end, the Pats will take their quickest receiver against a linebacker in coverage all day (Bryce Young hits John Metchie above).
Another O'Brienism is how he coaches progression reads for quarterbacks. O'Brien will always design plays for the quarterback to start on the vertical read and then work their eyes back to the horizontal routes. For instance, if it's a right-to-left progression read, the vertical routes will be to the quarterback's right, and he'll work to the horizontal reads on his left.
Here's a staple concept called HOSS X Follow. This time, the vertical portion of the progression is HOSS Juke (hitch-seam with an option route from number three). But the horizontal read is X Follow, where the slot runs a return route, and the X receiver is on an in-cut to fill in the space vacated by the zone coverage defenders, leading to another middle-of-the-field completion.
The beauty of O'Brien's empty package is that it gives the quarterback all sorts of options, whether those are coverage-based (split-safety vs. post-safety), matchup-based (shifty slot on a linebacker), or even protection schemes where he'll have pre-snap answers to blitzes.
New England's offensive struggles from a schematic standpoint were often rooted in issues adjusting to defensive structure. The protections were watered down to the point where the quarterback didn't have the adjustments to pick up blitzes, while the receivers weren't made aware of how they were reading pressure to run "hot" routes or things of that nature.
The Patriots shouldn't have as many of those problems with O'Brien coordinating the offense, and the players will welcome his ability to teach the finer points of his system.
Switch Releases and Bunch Formations
After doing a deep dive into Alabama's film recently, the Crimson Tide had opposing defenses in a blender with O'Brien utilizing bunch formations and switch releases, but what does that mean?
Bunch formations are standard football terminology where the offense lines up with three receivers in a triangle formation. Defenses have different answers for covering bunches, such as lock-and-level or box rules. However, O'Brien is excellent at exposing those rules that defenses use to combat bunch formations.
Above, Alabama motions a third receiver into a two-receiver stack to form a bunch formation in a condensed split (tight to the O-Line). Georgia is matching the three receivers in man coverage using lock-and-level rules. To avoid running into each other, the defenders stagger themselves at different levels while remaining locked into their man coverage assignments. O'Brien knows Georgia is using lock-and-level rules, so the receivers switch release. The receiver who motions into the inside spot in the bunch runs an out while the outside receiver runs across the formation, and the Alabama wideouts instantly have favorable leverage.
Switch releases can be effective tools out of non-bunch formations as well. Here, Alabama spreads the field in a 3x1 formation and runs a levels concept (get used to seeing this). Typically, the inside receiver (no. 3) runs the short route while the outside slot (no. 2) runs the deeper crosser. But O'Brien has them switch release, putting the zone-dropping linebacker in conflict while stressing his read. Young decides to take the vertical shot to Jameson Williams, but the deeper crosser is wide open in the middle of the field.
The Patriots new offensive coordinators create easy wins for his receivers by exposing matchups, attacking leverage, and putting middle-of-the-field zone players in conflict. For the quarterback, it allows for quick decisions to the short and intermediate level while still allowing the quarterback to hunt matchups on the outside if he likes what he sees before the snap.
For those who have memories of O'Brien's first stint with the Patriots, New England's record-breaker two-tight end offense was the hallmark of those teams.
Although the Pats current tight end duo isn't as dynamic, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith can still take advantage of O'Brien's knack for scheming his tight ends open. One of the ways O'Brien would create space and mismatches for his bigger pass-catchers is by utilizing nub formations, where the tight end is the furthest player out on one side of the formation.
In this play, Alabama is in a two-tight end nub formation with the quarterback in empty. The tight ends to the quarterback's left switch release, there it is again, and Young has an open receiver in the flat that he unfortunately misses. Still, the tight end is open. The Pats also called verticals and crossers out of these formations back in the day.
Based on the core concepts in O'Brien's offense, it's easy to see how Patriots quarterback Mac Jones could excel in this system.
Alabama-Fying the Patriots Offense
Along with the vintage O'Brien staples all over Alabama's film, the Pats new OC also incorporated the Sarkisian staples.
During his time at Alabama, Mac's offensive coordinator was Steve Sarkisian, now the head coach at the University of Texas. With Lane Kiffin before him, Sarkisian modernized the Alabama offense to include new-age schemes such as run-pass options, spread elements, and more motion. Once upon a time, Alabama was an old-school, smash-mouth offense that lived under center. However, Saban realized that to keep up with the elite teams in college football, he had to out-score them rather than play ball control with a great defense. The Crimson Tide then built a spread system Jones piloted to a national championship.
It's great that O'Brien will bring his own elements that we broke down in the first two sections, but what makes the hire even more of a slam dunk is combining New England's core plays from the last decade with the Alabama offense Mac thrived in during the 2020 season.
For those that read my breakdowns all season long, I'm on the record as a big believer that RPOs should be a more significant part of the Pats playbook. New England dipped their toes in the RPO waters during the 2022 season, but the designs were rudimentary, and the results weren't there.
Jones attempted 19 passes off RPO actions that generated negative expected points added (-0.17 EPA/play). Their RPO package was ineffective because Jones's average air yards per RPO attempt was -1.3 yards since all they ran were RPO screens. In comparison, the Eagles generated the most EPA off RPOs this season (+21.85), with quarterback Jalen Hurts's average air distance on those throws being +2.4 yards.
Alabama's run-pass options sometimes have the pass option include downfield routes such as slants or seam routes. With the inside zone run action pulling the linebacker level out of the passing lane, the quarterback can hit the slant in-stride to create explosive plays.
Another element of Alabama's RPO package is motion. The hash marks are a major difference between the college and NFL games. The hash marks on the field are wider in college than in the pros, giving the offense more field to work with to stretch the defense horizontally.
Still, we see the Shanahan tree and other offensive coaches succeed with throwing to receivers already in motion at the snap to make it easier for their speedy ball carriers to turn the corner. As an early-down option off inside runs, these are very effective plays.
Lastly, it wouldn't be a true college-spread system without mesh. Mesh is when the offense runs two short crossing routes that intersect over the middle to create traffic. The QB can either throw the crosser versus man with his receivers out-running the defenders, or hit the dig/sit route over the ball against zone. Alabama spammed mesh, running mostly mesh-dig or mesh-wheel with the quarterback alerting to the running back wheel route against man-blitzes.
As with O'Brien's core concepts, a more expansive RPO package with downfield routes and motion will allow Jones to win with his best asset, his brain.
Run Game Adaptations
The passing game is fun to discuss, but the Patriots will also want to run the ball effectively as they have throughout Belichick's tenure as the head coach.
The biggest question for O'Brien is how he will adapt in the running game as he moves away from having a mobile quarterback to a stationary pocket passer. Obviously, he did it with Brady, but that was over a decade ago and with an elite passing attack.
Going back to O'Brien's first stint, the Patriots were mainly a gun-run team like Alabama, where they ran the ball from the shotgun, often out of two tight end sets. O'Brien isn't a big fullback guy, nor is he a big under-center schemer, but will he be nudged in that direction by Belichick?
Last season, the Patriots were a far better under-center rushing attack than a gun-run team, generating a rushing success rate of 41.9% from under-center compared to a 36.6% success rate from the gun. Furthermore, the Pats were 27th in short-yardage rushing success rate this past season, dropping from fourth in the 2021 season, and were a tremendous under-center play-action offense.
Many have theorized that their lack of short-yardage rushing success and struggles with gun runs would bring the Patriots back to old-school formations with a fullback. But O'Brien's system has always been more one-back runs with multiple tight ends. That could mean that O'Brien will utilize tight end Jonnu Smith as a flexible in-line or off-the-line blocker, making Smith a valuable piece to the puzzle.
Above, Alabama is running a wham scheme from the gun where the H-Back works across to the defensive tackle so that the guard can immediately climb to the second level.
O'Brien has built his most recent rush offenses around Deshaun Watson and Bryce Young, so it'll be interesting to see how it looks with Jones.
The Patriots offense now has a significantly higher floor with Bill O'Brien returning as the offensive coordinator, but with that comes real expectations.
After a turbulent second season, Patriots quarterback Mac Jones understandably deserves a longer leash than one rocky campaign surrounded by an inexperienced offensive coaching staff.
However, with O'Brien in the fold, Jones will be in a functional NFL offense. It's time for Jones to perform and for the organization to decide on their ceiling with the 2021 first-round pick at quarterback. Can Jones elevate his game to the point where the Pats are championship contenders? Now we'll get our answer.
The Patriots quarterback spoke openly about the offense's struggles, where he pointed to critical elements for him to succeed: one, Mac wants to know the "why" for the schematic decisions by the coaching staff, and two, Jones wanted to be coached harder.
"I think it's accountability," Jones said. "It starts with me. I want to be coached harder. I want to be a better player. The coaches have given us everything they've got. They've done everything to put us in a position to win. But I want to hold everybody accountable, including myself. I think it's tough, right? You get called out a little bit. You have to admit that you didn't do your job. That's part of the game. A lot of that blame falls on me."
Jones then later added, "we're all super competitive. Any time it doesn't look good on film, we want to be coached harder."
Along those lines, there was a report out of Las Vegas that quarterback Derek Carr had to adjust to McDaniels's harsh criticisms in front of the entire team. Jones, who was around Saban and Sarkisian before being drafted by New England, is used to that type of coaching and attention to detail. Well, he's going to get it.
There are still significant personnel upgrades the Patriots need offensively to truly set their quarterback up for a year-three leap. We all know the holes, a true number-one receiver, and multiple offensive tackles. But assuming the Pats stick to doing the obvious, there's enough here for the quarterback to succeed.
Although there's still work to be done, the Patriots checked the first and arguably biggest box by bringing Bill O'Brien back to coordinate the offense.