After nearly 20 years of NFL dominance, we all should be paying close attention to precisely what the Patriots do, especially through the air as an offense led by six-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady.

During most NFL games today, you'll hear a commentator mention how motioning a receiver before the snap identifies the type of coverage -- man or zone -- for a quarterback. 

It seems like an overly simple way to decipher what a defense will do after the snap, and although disguises and mixed coverages exist, getting any semblance of an idea as to the opposition's coverage intentions is likely helpful.

Since Brady is the commander in chief of New England's pass game, I set out to study his performance when using motion and when not using motion.

In this study, every Brady pass from the 2018-2019 season, including playoffs, was tracked. Plays in which a penalty occurred were counted, except for those with offensive or defensive pass interference. I didn't want an illegal hands to the face call on an offensive lineman to skew the extensive pass-game film research, but those plays were counted. Also, any minimal movement behind the line and between the tackles from running backs and/or full backs did not count as motion. 

The pass attempts were broken into four groups: 

  • With Motion + Target To Motion Man 
  • With Motion + Target To Another Receiver On Same Side As Motion 
  • With Motion + Target To Another Receiver Away From Motion (on other side of the field) 
  • Without Motion

Instead of just tracking motion and no motion, I decided on the extra categories because I wanted to venture inside the Patriots use of motion and add layers to it for more context. Beyond just motion vs. no motion, I was out to see whether or not the Patriots were more effective throwing toward or away from the motion man. Turns out there was a large disparity of success between those two.

Tracking labels

Because this was a passing study, I didn't want to ding Brady for on-target drops of which he had no part, which is why I tracked adjusted completion percentage (completions + drops divided by attempts).

Also, in line with distilling Brady's efforts as a passer, I tracked "touchdown-worthy throws" instead of simply marking down his touchdowns. I didn't want a two-yard swing pass that turned into a 30-yard touchdown after James White made three defenders miss to count toward Brady's touchdown total. I also didn't want a dropped pass by one of Brady's targets that fell into the hands of an opposing corner to count as an interception. So I used "interception-worthy throws" instead of straight interceptions. Pro Football Focus has tracked INT-worthy throws for years. 

The results


Comps + DropsAttemptsAdj. Comp %Yards (YPA)TD-Worthy ThrowsINT-Worthy Throws

With Motion + Tgt To Motion Man

91

119

76.4%

864 (7.26)

1

1

The vast majority of these targets were part of New England's patented quick game, and a good chunk of these throws went to Julian Edelman or White. On a few occasions, Chris Hogan motioned then was found down the field by Brady. Rob Gronkowski, Phillip Dorsett, and especially Josh Gordon were rarely targeted after motioning, and the latter barely motioned at all.

Late in the regular season and particularly in the playoffs, Brady's efficiency was essentially off the charts throwing to the motion man. For most of the regular season, many of these throws were seemingly pre-planned, and Brady got the ball out incredibly fast. 

The 7.26 yards-per-attempt average here represents the second-highest of the four categories -- 0.01 yards behind the highest -- and Brady went 12/26 (46.1 percent) on third downs while throwing to the motion man. 

Altogether, of the 758 throws I watched, just 119 went to the motion man (15.6 percent). The motion man was targeted on 26 percent of the 457 plays that utilized motion. 


Comps + DropsAttemptsAdj. Comp %Yards (YPA)TD-Worthy ThrowsINT-Worthy Throws

With Motion + Tgt To Another Receiver On Same Side As Motion

87

160

54.3%

971 (6.06)

3

5

Brady struggled on these particular plays. In general, by throwing to a target on the same side as the motion man meant Brady was targeting a more crowded area because the motion added another defender to the side of the field of the eventual pass. 

He converted nine of 19 third-down attempts (47.3 percent) throwing to the same side but to a different receiver than the motion man. On a few occasions, the motion man helped create a natural pick for another receiver. Most of those particular plays were successful in this category. 

The 6.06 yards-per-attempt average here was the lowest of any category. Also the TD-worthy to INT-worthy throw ratio of 3 to 5 was bad but not the worst in this study. 


Comps + DropsAttemptsAdj. Comp %Yards (YPA)TD-Worthy ThrowsINT-Worthy Throws

With Motion + Tgt To Another Receiver Away From Motion

124

178

69.6% 

1,191 (6.69)

7

1

Despite the second-lowest yards-per-attempt average, a case can be made for this type of play as the most effective for Brady and the Patriots' passing game. He had the second-highest adjusted completion percentage (69.6 percent) while throwing away from the motion man and easily the best TD-worthy throw to INT-worthy throw ratio of any category (7 to 1).

Qualitatively, New England often used this tactic to get a one-on-one matchup in the slot or on the outside with plenty of room for the receiver to operate, and Brady spread the ball around on this type of play with large throwing windows. Edelman and White took full advantage of the space afforded by a teammate motioning away from them.

An assortment of deep crossers were featured on these type of plays too, and a good amount of Gordon and Dorsett's long-ball targets came after the Patriots motioned away from them to get a clear, one-on-one matchup on the perimeter. Gordon especially was used on go routes down the sideline and intermediate dig routes after another receiver motioned away from him. In most of those instances, Gordon was the only receiver on his side of the formation after the motion occurred. 


Comps + DropsAttemptsAdj. Comp %Yards (YPA)TD-Worthy ThrowsINT-Worthy Throws

Without Motion

198

301

65.7%

2,189 (7.27)

8

14

From completion percentage and yardage standpoints, this was the best category. It had a solid adjusted completion percentage (65.7 percent) and the highest yards-per-attempt average (7.27). 

Interestingly, early in the season, Brady was surgical without motion. A 55-yard touchdown against the Bears, a 42-yard score against the Chiefs, and a 44-yard pickup to Gordon against the Titans came without motion. As expected, when the Patriots were in their no-huddle offense -- which happened frequently before each half -- they didn't use much motion at all.

But for as efficient as Brady was without motion, his TD-worthy throws were heavily outweighed by his INT-worthy throws in this category. Also, in the late stages of the regular season and particularly in the playoffs -- when targets to the motion man were incredibly successful -- Brady and the Patriots' pass offense were mostly inept when motion was not featured before the snap. 

Takeaways

Altogether, the Patriots utilized some type of motion on 60.2 percent of the pass plays I tracked during the 2018 season. On those plays, Brady was a tick more accurate yet accumulated yards through the air less efficiently than when there was no motion before the snap. Also, with motion, Brady converted 41.5 percent of his third-down attempts compared to 57.8 percent without motion.  

A target to someone other than the motion man was the most frequent pass play (44.5 percent), followed by a play without motion (39.7 percent). A target to the motion man was the lowest percentage (15.6 percent). 

When looking at his passes with and without motion, the most striking difference in Brady's performance from a season ago came in the TD-worthy and INT-worthy throw departments. Collectively, Brady registered 11 TD-worthy passes after motion was utilized to seven INT-worthy throws. When motion did not occur before the snap, he had just eight TD-worthy passes and 14 INT-worthy throws. 

Therefore, the coverage identification powers of motion did not help Brady when it came to accumulating yardage efficiently, and he actually made TD-worthy throws at a higher rate without motion than with it. However, motion did benefit him significantly when trying to keep the ball out of harm's way.


TD-Worthy Throw %INT-Worthy Throw %

With Motion

2.40

1.53

Without Motion

2.65

4.65

This study also illuminated how critical yards after the catch are in New England's offense. And that's not intended to throw shade toward Brady whatsoever. Another prolific scoring team in the AFC relied on it heavily too: the Chiefs. 

Brady, robotically, found the open man in an array of situations against a variety of coverages to maximize the yards his targets could accumulate after the catch. 

Brady had 19 TD-worthy passes on the 758 attempts logged in this study. Before you think Brady's total of 19 TD-worthy throws seems unbelievably low, I also watched all 50 of Patrick Mahomes' regular-season touchdown passes in 2018 and deemed 31 as TD-worthy. That's 62 percent. Brady recorded 31 total touchdown passes last season, and 19 of those being TD-worthy equates to 61.2 percent.