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Film Review: How Will the Patriots Offense Look Under New Offensive Coordinator Alex Van Pelt?

Will the former Browns offensive coordinator take the Patriots offense in a different direction under head coach Jerod Mayo?

Offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt.
Offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt.

Patriots head coach Jerod Mayo led an extensive search for an offensive coordinator with 11 known candidates, but a stealthy 12th interviewee got the job in New England.

For Mayo, a first-time head coach whose expertise is on the defensive side of the ball, naming an offensive coordinator was a significant hire. But when the team made their coordinators on Mayo's staff official late last week, it was surprising to see Alex Van Pelt tabbed as the director of the offense.

After parting ways with the Browns following a four-year stint in Cleveland, Van Pelt's interview with the Patriots began last Wednesday and continued into Thursday, when the Pats top brass made a deal official with the longtime offensive coach. Van Pelt landed the job while the team had other finalists, former Patriots assistant Nick Caley and former Bears OC Luke Getsy, in the building last week for a final round of interviews.

As a well-respected players coach known for being a positive culture, the case for Van Pelt is his extensive background working with quarterbacks and 18 seasons coaching in the NFL. After a nine-year playing career as a quarterback, Van Pelt has coached quarterbacks for five different organizations, including Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay and Baker Mayfield with the Browns.

When the Packers moved on from Van Pelt following the 2017 season, it was a move Rodgers didn't support. The future Hall of Famer credited the Pats new OC for the trust they had established, giving AVP props for drilling techniques such as play-action fakes and footwork.

Similarly, folks in Cleveland were surprised he was let go by the Browns after winning games with four different quarterbacks, including four-straight victories with Joe Flacco coming off his couch to lead the Browns to the playoffs in 2023. According to reports, head coach Kevin Stefanski didn't make the decision. Instead, upper management made the call because they felt the offense wasn't suited for starting quarterback Deshaun Watson. Cleveland is married to Watson for big money for the foreseeable future, so moves were made on Stefanski's staff to maximize Watson.

The question mark with Van Pelt is his lack of play-calling experience; Stefanski called plays for the Browns, while Van Pelt designed plays, had a heavy hand in game planning, and coached quarterbacks. The other sticking point is the perception that Van Pelt didn't innovate the offense enough to play to Watson's strengths.

With a dual-threat like Jayden Daniels potentially bound for New England with the third overall pick, can Van Pelt build an offense around the Heisman Trophy winner, or is a Flacco-esch, big-armed pocket passer more the mold he'll be looking for this offseason? Only time will tell in this respect, but it's worth noting that Van Pelt might not be married to the scheme he was running under Stefanski.

Ultimately, the ideal setup for a 37-year-old head coach specializing in defense was an experienced offensive coordinator who could run that side of the ball and consult on personnel. Mayo will have plenty on his plate as a rookie head coach, so Van Pelt's combined 27 years in a pro offense will help support the second-youngest head coach in the NFL.

Let's take a deep dive into the Browns offense to see what Van Pelt might bring to the Patriots next season:

Run Game+Play-Action Heavy System

People make a few assumptions about the Browns' offense: some are true, and some are not.

Although they started as an outside zone-based offense, Stefanski and Van Pelt recently took things in a different direction. Stefanski's offense mimics his mentor, Norv Turner, who was also a wide zone-bootleg action believer. With the top offenses around the league trending toward Shanahan/Turner schemes, defenses began adjusting to the outside zone system.

All the successful outside zone-play-action offenses are leading to more split-safety coverage structures, five-man fronts, and faster defenders at the second level who can fast-flow to the perimeter and recover to passing landmarks off play-action. As defenses have gotten lighter and better equipped to combat outside zone, offenses are adjusting, with even Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay majoring in more duo/gap schemes to run downhill into lighter boxes against stretched-out defenses.

Former head coach Bill Belichick had a hand in this shift in philosophy. In Super Bowl 53, Belichick shut down the Rams high-powered offense by unveiling a 6-1 tilt front to set the edge against McVay's outside zone schemes. With six defenders across the line of scrimmage, the Patriots defense funneled the ball back inside toward their big DTs and run-stuffing linebackers. In the secondary, the Pats played both quarters and cover-three buzz to limit big plays off play-action. Eventually, it put the game in a young Jared Goff's hands in obvious passing situations, and the Patriots won the duel.

McVay and others from the West Coast/outside zone family had to adjust to stay relevant. The answer was to call more gap schemes and add blockers to flip the formation's strength on the fly with motion. For Cleveland, they became a gap-based run scheme. Over the last two seasons, the Browns lead the league in how often they use man-blocking and heavily feature schemes with pulling linemen.

Although they don't major in motion like the Shanahan tree, Cleveland uses pullers and tight ends blocking across the formation to get hat-on-hat to the play side. The Browns do this with a league-high rate in six-plus offensive linemen usage (10.8%), playing 24.3% of their snaps with two-plus tight ends, and leading the NFL in I-formation plays. Cleveland still ranked second in the percentage of runs to the outside (64.1%), marrying those outside runs to play-action passes.

At its core, the Browns offensive system is all about generating explosive plays with their run game setting up play-action. Cleveland ranked second with 489 designed run plays and was seventh in play-action rate as a team (14.9%), with that percentage skyrocketing to 32.1% when Flacco took over as the starter in Week 13. With Flacco, they generated 12.0 yards per play-action pass attempt while producing 16 completions of 20-plus yards on play-action attempts in five regular-season starts. Flacco also targeted vertical routes at the fourth-highest rate in the NFL last season (13.8%).

To show how the Browns merge their runs with their play-action concepts, let's look at their staple run plays and how they create chunk plays off them in the passing game.

Outside Zone+Bootleg Play-Action

Although the Browns have pivoted to more gap schemes, Cleveland's primary run scheme is still outside zone, running outside zone on 23.1% of their rush attempts this past season.

The goal for most outside zone systems is to create an aimpoint for the running back off the outside hip of the play-side tackle. From there, the back has three reads: bounce the run outside, bang the run into the B-Gap, or cut back through the middle of the formation.

Cleveland uses a pre-snap shift and then a sift motion to create numbers to the play side here. The fear of the bootleg with the "slide" route coming across holds the backside, allowing the combination block to work upfield for the running back to "bang" through the inside gap.

The Browns will then use bootleg play-action while mimicking the outside zone play to generate explosives. In this play, they use the same pre-snap motion to sift the receiver across the formation, setting up a typical three-level bootleg concept to the quarterback's right. However, the running back leaks out of the backfield on the rail route, and the defense, which is flowing toward the blocking action, loses the back, who is wide-open for a touchdown.

This is a common play-action concept for outside zone teams, with the tight end (Y) or back sneaking out on the "leak" route. Either way, defenses struggle to find the backside receiver.

Pin-Pull Sweep+Pin-Pull RPO

Most considered the pin-pull sweep the zone-blocking version of a traditional sweep play, featuring pullers as lead blockers working around pin blocks. If there's a defender directly over you or inside your gap, you pin while uncovered defenders pull to the play side.

Last season, the Browns led the league using pin-pull schemes on 18.3% of their run plays via Pro Football Focus. Above, Cleveland runs pin-pull from the gun, which they did regularly. Having the tight end and right tackle pin defenders inside folds the Jags defense to get the running back on the perimeter. Then, the inside puller takes the MIKE, the receiver is supposed to crack block the safety, leaving the outside puller to take the play-side corner. In this case, the receiver whiffs on the crack block, so the right guard adjusts to the first color to take the safety. Regardless, the back gets down the sideline for a big gain.

Cleveland would then build run-pass options off the pin-pull action, producing 19.7 yards per RPO pass attempt. In this example, Flacco is reading the weakside linebacker. When the linebacker flows toward the run action, it opens a window to a quick slant for an explosive.

The Browns ran pin-pull schemes out of the gun or from under-center, setting up play-action and RPO plays by showing the defense the pulling actions to influence defenders out of passing lanes.

Counter Runs+Weak Side Bootleg-Action

The other prevalent run scheme in the Browns diverse rushing attack is counter, where they'll pull a guard to an unblocked edge rusher.

In counter, the play-side blockers work immediately to the second level, initially leaving the on-the-line defenders unblocked. Then, the backside guard pulls to kick out the edge defender while the running back sells misdirection by stepping to the left, in this case, before coming back right. The counter action by the quarterback and the running back's footwork will hopefully get the defense flowing in the wrong direction to set up the blocks.

Cleveland then marries their counter runs to bootleg action. Above, all the initial stages of the play look like a counter handoff: the quarterback's details, the running back's footwork, the backside guard and tight end working across the formation to block. However, Flacco keeps the ball on a bootleg action, with TE David Njoku sneaking out on a vertical route for a big play.

These hard-selling bootleg actions produced several big plays for the Browns last season, with Njoku as a featured part of their vertical concepts with the defense biting on the run fakes.

Crack Toss+Fake Toss Play-Actions

Another staple play for these zone-based offenses is crack toss, which is becoming very popular for the Shanahan tree as a way to get the ball on the perimeter quicker than outside zone.

Like pin-pull sweeps, crack tosses will have play-side blockers pin down the edge defender to get the corner, then toss the ball out to the running back to follow the pullers. Sometimes, you'll see the play-side receiver block down as well. But, this time, the wideout at the point of attack base blocks the corner as the tight end and left tackle execute their pull blocks.

Cleveland will then use the same crack-toss action by faking the pitch out the back with the blockers flowing like they will run a sweep/toss play, creating the horizontal stretch in the defense. Flacco bootlegs to his right off the run action and finds the crosser for a positive play.

Long Trap/Short Trap Schemes+PA Cross

Lastly, the Browns like running different variations of trap schemes, which hit similarly to counter runs but are faster to the point of attack rather than selling the misdirection.

Here, the Browns ran a short trap scheme called "crunch" for a touchdown. With the right guard putting himself through the second level, the left guard comes in a short pull to block the three technique, allowing the front-side blockers to make blocks on the second level.

By using the pullers as influencers to get defenders out of passing lanes, Cleveland will then pull their guards to show the same trap actions to the defense. With the defenders at the second level fooled by the run fake, the Browns hit crossing routes into the vacated areas.

The Browns run game and play-action sequencing has been their most stable offense in Van Pelt's time in Cleveland. Van Pelt's group has done a nice job making runs and play-actions look similar, leaving the defense guessing what is coming on each play.

Cleveland would also use max protection to set up deeper shots off play-action as well. The Browns liked running drive concepts (post-dig), dagger (seam/middle-read-dig), sail/flood concepts, and strike-blaze out concepts with extra blockers.

Until we see something different from Van Pelt in New England, it's safe to say this is his base offensive philosophy, saving a traditional drop-back pass game for third downs and obvious pass situations.

Drop-Back Pass Game

Although the run plus play-action sequencing from heavy personnel groupings is the core tenet of the Browns offense, Cleveland still had other elements to their passing game.

For example, the Browns played the fourth-most snaps out of 11 personnel in the NFL last season (809), were fourth in empty formations (11.5%), and ninth in spread formation usage (32.4%). Those splits were more geared toward Deshaun Watson than Flacco, with Watson more comfortable when the field is spread for him to pick on matchups and use his mobility.

Still, Flacco was put in these spread formations in passing situations on third and fourth downs, where Stefanski and Van Pelt would go to their core drop-back concepts to move the chains.

One of those core concepts is a West Coast staple called "arches," where they'll often use a switch release to have the outside receiver run an under route to clear out coverage for the "arches" runner on an angle route with favorable leverage. As you can see, it's easy pickings. 

Next, the Browns also like to get their receivers into favorable situations with bunch formations where they can play with defenses to get easy completions. The Browns used bunch formations at the eighth-highest rate in the NFL last season (14.1%) and were a big trips (three-receivers to one side) at 51.4%, also the eighth-highest mark in the league.

Here, the Browns are running a variation of what the Patriots would traditionally call a "bullet" concept, but they might call it arches from a bunch formation. This time, the switch release caused confusion in the defense, and the Jags busted the coverage with a wide-open receiver.

Cleveland also likes running different coverage beaters out of bunch formations. This time, the mesh crossers in the middle of the field are a good man-beater, while the high-low concept is a good place to start against zone. Flacco works the zone-beater with the defense in cover-two, finding the out route at the sticks for a first-down completion.

Lastly, the Browns also like to call a "shallow" concept with their breakaway runners after the catch on shallow crossers to beat man coverage. Here, Njoku runs away from the linebackers and moves the chains with an explosive thanks to his burst as a ball carrier.

Overall, you don't see the Browns attack downfield much in these spread formations. Instead, they got to work out of these formations on third downs as more chain-moving concepts, with their big plays mostly coming off play-action, as outlined in the section above.

As things materialize personnel-wise in New England, we'll see if Van Pelt takes the same approach or begins featuring more spread/empty as the Browns did with Watson.

What Personnel Fits AVP's Scheme?

The final piece to the puzzle for the Patriots is upgrading their personnel on the offensive side of the ball, which was a must regardless of who Mayo hired as the offensive coordinator.

New England has one of the most talent-depleted offenses in the NFL, with major needs at quarterback, offensive tackle, and wide receiver. Although you'd ideally have a coach who could adapt his scheme to any personnel, Van Pelt will reportedly have a hand in who the Patriots acquire to play quarterback and other offensive positions next season.

From this vantage point, Van Pelt's offense is at its best with a big-armed passer who is nimble enough to throw off bootleg actions. It's imperative that the quarterback can play in structure, make vertical throws, and operate comfortably from under-center. Van Pelt could adapt his scheme for a different skill set, but that's where the Browns have had the most success, which is why Flacco was remarkably more efficient than Watson in their offense.

Given the issues Cleveland had adapting the scheme for Watson, my guess is the Patriots would favor Drake Maye over Jayden Daniels in the draft. Maye fits the bill more as a good vertical thrower who can operate from moving pockets and under center, whereas Daniels is a spread quarterback who wants to impact the game with his mobility. Again, that doesn't mean they can't make it work with Daniels. Still, stylistically, this is more a Maye offensive system than a Daniels option-heavy while spreading the field offense.

The other key element is depth at the tight end since the Patriots will probably feature two tight end sets once again. In particular, an explosive big-play tight end in the Njoku mold would be great, such as Texas tight end Ja'tavion Sanders in the draft. Njoku was a major part of the Browns recent success with a breakout campaign one year ago (882 yards, six TDs).

As for wide receivers, the Browns have recently favored more technically savvy route-runners such as Amari Cooper and Elijah Moore. With so many heavy personnel groupings on early downs, the Browns wideouts don't necessarily need to be big-time blockers. Instead, they search for one-on-one winners on the outside to win those matchups when they need to on third downs.

Along the offensive line, outside zone teams traditionally favor more athletic linemen who can move laterally to block in a zone scheme. However, the Browns have run so much gap/man blocking recently that it's not a requirement for Van Pelt to have those types of linemen. In that sense, Michael Onwenu remains a fit, even if he's more of a power/gap scheme guard or tackle.

New England could also target some Browns free agents on offense to fill out a Van Pelt-led depth chart. Flacco and former Browns quarterback Jacoby Brissett are free agents, as is top swing tackle Geron Christian, who played most of the left tackle snaps for Cleveland in 2023, TE Harrison Bryant, and FB/OL Nick Harris, their tackle-eligible player. It also wouldn't be surprising to see the Patriots look into the availability of veteran right tackle Jack Conklin, who is currently blocking second-year OT Dawand Jones on the depth chart.

The fun aspect of diagnosing an entirely new offensive scheme is that we won't know how Van Pelt designs the offense away from Stefanski until the Patriots hit the practice field this spring. However, we have a pretty good idea of the core concepts based on Van Pelt's background.

New England's offense will likely feature a diverse rushing attack with a mix of gap and zone schemes, hunt big plays off play-action, and incorporate West Coast staples on third downs.

Although it's a sound schematic strategy, Van Pelt's tenure will be defined by his ability to develop quarterbacks and putting the talent around the quarterback to succeed. The Patriots should have the Xs and Os to have a productive offense. Now, it's about finding Jimmy's and Joe's.

DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer

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