FOXBORO — It wasn’t too long ago Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith were expected to form the foundation of the Patriots’ new offense.
The NFL’s best tight end duo allowing the Pats to run and pass at will last season, players who would unlock a world of possibility and unpredictability. Then, rather quickly, the Pats discovered they played best with one of them on the sideline.
That trend has continued this year, with the Patriots playing more than four times the number of snaps from 11 personnel groupings (with three wide receivers and one tight end) compared to 12 personnel groupings (two wide receivers and two tight ends). Henry is tracking for the worst statistical season of his career. Smith is cutting it close.
And yet that all could change Sunday.
Start with the Pats’ surrounding health.
Running back Damien Harris and wide receiver DeVante Parker have missed two straight practices. When Parker is on the field, Mac Jones has made a habit of feeding and often forcing passes to him, targets that must now be distributed elsewhere. The Pats’ vulnerable offensive line should steer them into a short passing game plan, especially with center David Andrews heading toward a second straight missed game and right tackle Marcus Cannon suffering a concussion.
That should boost Henry and Smith, who primarily run short, higher-percentage routes. On the opposite side of the line of scrimmage, Indianapolis is begging for them to break out.
Colts opponents have posted the NFL’s fifth-highest passer rating (124.1) when targeting tight ends this season, per Sports Info. Solutions. That rating shoots to the league’s best when opposing quarterbacks have targeted tight ends over the middle. Likewise, opponents have produced the No. 1 highest passer rating when throwing against the Colts from 12 personnel.
The advanced metrics tell a similar story.
On a per-play basis, Indy’s pass defense ranks third-worst by Expected Points Added (EPA) versus two-tight end packages (EPA is a one-number value measure of a play or player that essentially quantifies how it helps or hurts a team’s odds of scoring). According to EPA, Indianapolis’ run defense is middling versus that personnel, but elite against opponents in three-receiver sets. By Football Outsiders’ opponent-and-situation-adjusted metric DVOA, Indy also sits in the bottom 10 for pass defense against tight ends overall.
Get the picture?
And here’s the ultimate kicker: the Colts’ scheme is friendly to both Henry and Smith.
From 2017-20, Henry played for the Chargers, who then employed new Indianapolis defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. Bradley’s commitment to his Cover 3 system is undying, even as his old boss and the scheme’s author, Pete Carroll, has adapted successfully in Seattle. The Patriots expect a ton of Cover 3 Sunday.
“What they run, that’s what they run all the time,” said Pats running back Rhamondre Stevenson. “So all the players, all the coaches, they’re very used to that. They’re confident running what they run.”
Last season, Henry and Smith finished among the NFL’s top 10 most productive tight ends versus Cover 3. Henry ranked sixth in average yards gained per route and Smith ranked ninth. Henry’s experience practicing against Bradley’s defenses in Los Angeles figures to pay dividends Sunday.
“Obviously through training camps and the practices throughout the years, I’ve seen that defense a million times,” Henry said Thursday. “It’s a tough defense to go against, a tough scheme, so I’m looking forward to getting some game action going against Gus.”
Any secrets he can spill?
“I’m excited,” Henry said with a smile. “They make you earn everything, and especially with their front.”
That front has thrived particularly against the run, ranking second in stuff rate this season. All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner could give longtime backup James Ferentz fits inside versus run and pass, and one-time Pro Bowl edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue should pin his ears back versus Cannon’s replacement, be it the much-maligned Isaiah Wynn or Yodny Cajuste.
Jones will need release valves at some point, and that’s where Henry and Smith should emerge: settling into soft spots over the middle, up the seam and in the end zone, where Henry scored twice last year versus the Colts and should have a fair shot at repeating the feat Sunday.