NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
Josh Boyce has been finding space dating back to his days at Copperas Cove High School, where he amassed 42 receptions for 837 yards as a senior target for current Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III.
That penchant followed Boyce to nearby Texas Christian University, where the 5’11”, 205-pound wide receiver accumulated 161 catches for 2,535 yards and a school record 22 touchdowns on his way to becoming a New England Patriots fourth-round draft choice last April.
Yet as a rookie in Foxborough, Mass., this season, finding space of another sort has been a challenge for Boyce. No. 82 has been confined behind the likes of Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson, Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman on the wideout depth chart. In turn, his chances to carve a role have been limited.
Over the first 13 weeks of New England’s regular season, Boyce played in seven games and was inactive for five. He stood in the offensive huddle for a total of 74 plays, according to Pro Football Focus, recording two catches for 30 yards on five targets while also returning six kicks for 149 yards on special teams.
But against the Cleveland Browns in Week 14, injuries to fellow rookies Dobson and Thompkins thrust Boyce into an extended moment.
Boyce fielded two kicks for a 23-yard average, and he also fielded first-string reps in the Patriots offense. Filtering between the “X,” the “Z” and slot receiver spots, the 22-year-old tallied 72 offensive snaps in New England’s 27-26 comeback win.
And with those snaps, he was able to illustrate his strong suit.
15-Yard Dig Route
On a 2nd-and-10 at the 8:10 mark of the second quarter, the Patriots offense employed “11” personnel with running back Shane Vereen in the backfield and tight end Rob Gronkowski inline. In the outskirts, Edelman loomed near the right sideline; Amendola motioned into the seam, and Boyce stood at the opposite numbers over left.
The ensuing play call from offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was a play-action fake. If effective, the varying levels of Edelman’s curl, Amendola’s quick out or Boyce’s dig would divide Cleveland’s single-high zone approach.
Rookie cornerback Leon McFadden played an off-zone technique at the left boundary. Cornerback Jordan Poyer aligned as a centerfield safety. Free safety Tashaun Gipson played underneath zone across from Gronkowski. And weak-side linebacker D’Qwell Jackson played the middle.
All four would be in proximity to Boyce’s route through the midfield hashes.
As quarterback Tom Brady handled the snap and extended the handoff to Vereen, Edelman, Amendola and Boyce broke off on their respective patterns. Cleveland’s secondary didn’t bite on the run. With that being said, the subtle lure forced Gipson and Jackson to hesitate, allowing Boyce a second to slide around them.
And with McFadden and Poyer shadowing deep, that created a gap in the second level.
Boyce sprinted low and with lean up through the 40-yard line. At that juncture, he used his right foot to pivot and propel inward. It was a cut that caught McFadden off guard. The rookie third-round draft choice had overran deep with his back to the sideline, all while the seventh-round rookie, Poyer, had backpedaled past the 50.
Brady saw the void and fired the football in Boyce’s direction.
The pass hit Boyce angling back towards the line of scrimmage. The receiver cut his strides and bent down to inhale the ball just before McFadden closed in behind for the tackle.
With the run fake and Boyce’s deep speed creating deception, the play veered into the soft spot of Cleveland’s zone. It netted a 12-yard gain and a first down.
12-Yard Drag Route
On a 1st-and-10 in the waning minutes before halftime, New England’s offense incorporated the three-wide receiver set once again. Edelman stood on the line out left, Amendola stood in the slot, Gronkowski stood off the right tackle and Boyce stood inside the digits abutting him.
Patriots aimed to split the defense into four tiers by running four tiers of routes. Brady manned shotgun with Vereen prepped to run to the left flat. Outward, Edelman was gearing up to run a dig, Amendola was readying a skinny deep post, and Gronkowski was sugaring to block.
Boyce was waiting for the short field to alleviate on a drag.
On the other side of the ball, Cleveland was equipped with two down linemen and three linebackers. Strong safety T.J. Ward lingered down into the box to face Gronkowski, and five extra defensive backs blanketed behind him.
But if the Patriots could spread the field, the Browns’ predominantly zone look would have to cover more ground – a difficult task when playing help.
As Brady harnessed the snap, Cleveland’s back three defenders dispersed. McFadden cautiously stepped back at left cornerback. And safeties Poyer and Gipson shifted rightward to shield the vertical and deep dig routes of Amendola and Edelman,
Consequently, Boyce had a free release off the line and veered passed Cleveland’s four-man rush. He was met by the five-yard bump of Ward, but the interim linebacker retreated to his respective assignment once the contact departed.
Boyce, disheveled by the push, redirected parallel to the lines and snared a pass from Brady in the process. Boyce kept his feet churning despite a bobble of the ball, but secured it and began to bend diagonally towards the left edge.
As he did so, he met cornerback Buster Skrine. Boyce stepped his right foot into Skrine’s foreground, causing the 2011 fifth-rounder to dip towards the Horned Frog’s legs.
That reaction gave way to Boyce hopping around him. And from there, a block by Vereen expanded the ball-carrier’s runway.
Boyce’s broken tackle and Vereen’s block sent New England up to the 45. The catch and run was good for 12 yards and a first down.
22-Yard Bubble Screen
With less than five minutes to go in the third quarter, the Patriots offense orchestrated trips left for a 2nd-and-10 at the New England 16.
Backup tight end Matthew Mulligan hunched in a three-point stance over right, while 6’0”, 250-pound running back LeGarrette Blount hunched next to Brady in shotgun. The utilization of the big back insinuated a power run for Blount.
Nevertheless, Blount was not the designed recipient of the play.
In actuality, what exuded run would see Mulligan pass-blocking, and left guard Logan Mankins pulling right as if the strong-side power was truthful.
It was a bubble screen for the inside receiver, Boyce.
If the elongated blocks of Amendola and Edelman could keep the left side of Cleveland’s nickel defense at bay, then there would be real estate for Boyce to run through.
Brady took the snap and lowered for the misdirection transfer to Blount, while Mankins left his post to join the play side. Those ingredients attracted the Cleveland linebackers and cleared out New England’s true intentions.
Brady checked down to Boyce just after the coast of Skrine and 2010 first-round cornerback Joe Haden had been cleared by Amendola’s low block and Edelman’s detraction.
Boyce caught the ball above his head and tucked it in his outside arm as he maneuvered the clearing. He raced past the 20-yard line and bounced outside of Skrine. And as Ward zeroed in from deep-shell safety to bring him down, the compact route-runner embedded a stiff-arm.
He curved back into contact, shedding the lunging arm of 6’2”, 255-pound outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard.
After evading two stops, Boyce was finally taken down by the hands of four Browns at the 39-yard line. The screen acquired 22 yards and a first down.
Now Boyce’s three receptions for 49 yards did not reverberate in the box score, but he served as a catalyst in the absence of Dobson and Thompkins. Although he garnered only five pass attempts – including one drop and one interception – he was impactful.
Boyce tested the Cleveland secondary by drawing two defensive pass interference penalties and producing 38 yards after the catch. When accounting for both of those elements, he moved the sticks on five occasions.
The Texas native’s route tree reflected his adept qualities of quickness and vision. He was targeted in the short-to-intermediate passing game, in addition to downfield. He was diversified in his patterns as well, running 10 digs, seven streaks, five curls, four drags, four outs, three crossers, two quick screens, corners, fades, out-and-ups and comebacks, and also one post.
Now despite his display of efficiency, athletic ability and versatility, Boyce may soon be back as the fifth receiver in the Patriots offense. But he gained trust, experience and space in the Dec. 8 tilt.
And all three components are hard to come by.
“You can see him getting better on the practice field, which has eventually here led to some playing time in the kicking game first and then offensively,” head coach Bill Belichick said in his Dec. 11 press conference. “He’s been able to, to a certain degree, take the ball and run with it. Again, I think there’s a long way to go here, but certainly progress and he’s gotten positive results that have shown up now for a couple weeks.”