After watching Phillip Dorsett torch the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Patriots’ season-opening win Sunday night, it’s not difficult to see how Antonio Brown will fit into New England’s offense. The answer is: quite well.
Dorsett, like Brown, is an undersized receiver with the versatility to play all over the Patriots’ offense. Both receivers are 5-foot-10 and right around 190 pounds. They have the speed to go deep and the agility to work out of the slot. Of course, Brown is also one of the greatest wide receivers in the history of the NFL.
But Dorsett caught four passes on four targets for 95 yards with two touchdowns Sunday in the Patriots’ 33-3 win over the Steelers. On passing plays, he lined up at Z receiver for 13 snaps, in the slot for 11 snaps, at X receiver on six snaps and in the backfield for one. All four of Dorsett’s catches came out of the slot. Both of his touchdowns came on deep throws. Something tells us Brady will find similar success with Brown on big plays.
Dorsett’s first touchdown grab came out of the slot on a 9 route. He beat Mike Hilton despite some cushion from the undersized cornerback as quarterback Tom Brady looked off safety Terrell Edmunds to deliver the dagger.
Dorsett’s next touchdown catch came out of the slot (Josh Gordon is hidden at the bottom of the screen in this vertigo-inducing camera angle) on a post route. A blown coverage left Dorsett flying down the field wide open for six.
Brown, like Dorsett, also can play the X, Z and slot roles. Brown, Gordon and Julian Edelman all will play all over the field, but for the most part, Brown will handle Z responsibilities, Gordon will be the X receiver, and Edelman will play in the slot. All three players essentially are prototypes for those positions.
Gordon is the big, strong, fast X receiver who can beat press coverage. Brown is small, shifty and speedy and can fly down the field from the flanker position to make big plays. He also can work in the middle of the field. Edelman is the tough, undersized slot who can get open in a phone booth.
Speaking of Gordon, NBC’s Cris Collinsworth referred to Gordon as being 240 pounds on the game broadcast. Gordon is listed at 225 pounds but looks like he’s bulked up this season. The Patriots only used a tight end on 45 of 70 total plays and 23 of 40 total passing plays. Gordon’s weight and the Patriots’ lack of tight end utilization could be related.
Gordon lined up in the slot on 35.3 percent of snaps. He lined up inside on just 10.1 percent of his snaps last season, with his max percentile coming Week 12 when he was in the slot on 32 percent of snaps.
With tight end Rob Gronkowski retired and out of the offense (for now), we could see Gordon doing some Gronk-like things this season. Gordon lined up in the slot and ran a seam route, one of Gronkowski’s staples, on this big catch. He also absorbed a massive hit while hauling in the reception.
This run after catch was also Gronk-esque from Gordon:
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick regularly calls athletic tight ends “big receivers.” Gordon’s role reminded us of this quote from Belichick in 2014:
“There are some receivers out there that look like tight ends, really,” Belichick said. “They might play whatever position you want to call them, but whatever they are, they’re big receivers, big guys that can catch the ball, so matching up on them can be challenging.
“Call them whatever you want to call them, the guy is a big receiver. If you want to call him a tight end, call him a tight end. If you want to call him a receiver, you can call him a receiver too because that’s what he is. Vincent Jackson, Jimmy Graham, those guys are just big guys that can catch the ball wherever position you want to put them in.”
Gordon is a wide receiver. But if he’s 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, is there really a significant difference between him and Graham, Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz or any other tight end not known for their blocking prowess?
It’s worth noting Gordon did deliver some impressive blocks Sunday night.
If the Patriots continue to regularly play without a tight end in either two-running back or four-receiver sets, then the opposing defense will probably match those formations with a dime defense, which is, in turn, easier to run against.
The Patriots averaged 3.1 yards per carry without a tight end and 2.6 yards per carry with one Sunday night. They averaged 7.2 yards per pass without a tight end and 13.2 yards per pass with one.
The Patriots are loaded at running back with Sony Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead, Damien Harris and Brandon Bolden. They’re even more loaded at wide receiver with Brown, Gordon, Edelman, Dorsett, Demaryius Thomas, Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski. They have one of the best fullbacks in football with James Develin. They only have tight ends Ryan Izzo and Matt LaCosse on their current roster. Ben Watson returns in Week 5.
Call us crazy, but regardless of position, the Patriots are better off using two running backs or four wide receivers rather than forcing a tight end onto the field.