FOXBORO, Mass. — In a major shift from previous years, the New England Patriots do not have a fullback on their roster this season.
But they found ways to simulate one last Sunday.
Coming out of their bye week, the Patriots deployed tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith in the backfield far more frequently than they had in any previous game. Henry did so on 10 of his 53 snaps in New England’s 10-3 win over the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium, per Pro Football Focus. Smith lined up back there on eight of 34 snaps. Before Sunday, neither player had positioned himself in the backfield on more than four snaps in any game since the duo arrived in New England last season.
This shift also featured the return of a throwback football formation: the full house.
On six snaps, the Patriots aligned both Henry and Smith between quarterback Mac Jones and one of their running backs, Damien Harris or Rhamondre Stevenson.
Four of their plays out of that look resulted in runs for minimal yardage, but the other two produced their longest gains of the day.
One was a well-designed play-action pass to Smith, who snuck past New York’s linebackers after faking a lead block. Jones hit him in space for 23 yards.
On the other, Harris took a handoff behind Smith and Henry and, after the Jets’ defense converged in the middle, bounced outside to pick up 30 yards down the right sideline.
The Patriots tailor their game plans to each opponent, so this new formation could have been a one-off aimed at exploiting a specific Jets weakness. But Jones sounded keen on keeping it in the rotation.
“It was a good little adjustment,” the Patriots QB said Tuesday. “They’re two really some of our best players right there. They provide, obviously, the ability to block but also to run and catch passes. So two really smart football players. Definitely great to have them on the field together. Definitely provides good stuff that we can do and then it makes the defense — it’s hard for them. It’s a challenge for them. So definitely enjoy those guys. We’ll just continue to do that.”
Jones also seemed to advocate for larger roles for his tight ends during his postgame news conference. He went 5-for-5 for 60 yards when targeting Smith or Henry, and the former might have scored on a jet-sweep handoff had he not lost control of the ball in the open field.
“Jonnu is a great player,” the QB said. “He’s a great teammate, does what he’s supposed to do on every play. Him and Hunter do a great job. I’m really happy to have those guys. I want to be able to give them the ball as much as possible. I like throwing to those guys, so any way we can. Jonnu has got unique speed for a tight end and also unique strength for run-blocking and things like that. I definitely want to use those guys as best we can, and he did a good job.”
Henry is on pace for the lowest reception, yardage and touchdown totals of his career, and he’s been targeted just five times in the red zone, producing one touchdown. At this point last season, he’d already amassed seven of his team-leading nine touchdown catches. Smith has seen a uptick in production from his forgettable debut campaign in New England, but only a slight one. He’s received three red-zone targets and has yet to find the end zone.
The Patriots, who have totaled just two offensive touchdowns over their last three games, will visit the Minnesota Vikings on Thanksgiving night.