BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- It’s a sight not too many Patriot fans will ever forget. Ravens coach John Harbaugh absolutely melting down on the sidelines in the 2014-15 Divisional Round playoff game at Gillette. Harbaugh’s anger was rooted in a rarely-used formation that saw the Patriots send out just four offensive linemen and a half-dozen players who normally would be eligible receivers.
As Tom Brady surveys the defense, all he sees is confusion. The Ravens decide to defend Shane Vereen out of the slot even though he’s covered up by Julian Edelman, meaning he’s ineligible and can’t go downfield (and he doesn’t). On the opposite side of the formation, Baltimore doesn’t cover Michael Hoomanawanui, who lined up as a left tackle but was uncovered and therefore eligible. Completion to Hooman. A penalty on Harbaugh for losing his mind. And just one more example of why your coaches are smarter than their coaches.
Granted, it was a desperate ploy by the Pats, down two touchdowns. But at the time, it was perfectly legal. And it helped them erase the deficit, win the game and eventually the fourth of fifth Super Bowls in the Belichick/Brady era.
“I know that’s the extreme,” said current Pats backup QB Brian Hoyer, “but as long as I’ve been here, the idea has always been to find a way to stress a defense and find the weakness or weaknesses. Bill [Belichick], Josh [McDaniels], Tom [Brady], the entire staff works hard every day to see that and certainly formations and different personnel and late motion help accomplish that.”
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The Eagles noticed that the moment they started scouting this year’s edition of the Pats. One defensive player after another has remarked on how this McDaniels offense will stress you with a variety of formations and by using unorthodox personnel for those formations. For instance, it’s not uncommon to see the Patriots come out in their base package but then take fullback James Develin, no toe-tapper, and split him wide, outside the numbers.
“Sometimes I like to see the looks I get when I run out there,” smiled Develin. “It’s like they’re saying, ‘where is that guy going?’”
He laughed before turning serious - this is the Patriots after all.
“Our coaches obviously do a great job of putting us in position to make plays. If that’s what they think can create the look or matchup we need, I’m all for it.”
Eagles safety Corey Graham has watched so much tape he joked that his eyes were about ready to pop out of his head. He was one of those Philly defenders who thinks the Patriots’ formational variance and different personnel groupings within those looks can have a lasting impact on the game.
“Oh man, can it ever,” he remarked. “It can totally stress you out. I mean you’ve seen the games. How many times does the other defense look lost? Or are scrambling around trying to get lined up? All the time, right?”
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It helps the Patriots quite a bit to have the quarterback who claims to know all the answers to the test. Brady’s computer-like brain analyzes, dissects and disseminates information faster than just about anyone who’s ever played the position.
“You know Tom Brady,” said Graham. “He’s going to get one guy out of place and he’s going to snap that ball and get it to him quick. It’s stressful. Communication has got to be amazing this week. He puts a lot of stress on the defensive backs, to be honest with you. We gotta make sure we get everybody lined as fast as possible. it’ll be a tough week, a big challenge.”
“You gotta cover the whole field,” said cornerback Jalen Millis. “Brady’s going to attack every inch on the field regardless of where it is and where he has guys lined up. He doesn’t have one single target that he just goes to over and over again.”
To gain a better perspective of the Pats’ utilization of formations and what it does to opposing teams, I went outside the current combatants to talk to a pair of excellent resources: former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky, who spent seven seasons in the league, finally retiring after the 2015 season, and current ESPN writer Matt Bowen, himself a former safety for the Rams, Redskins, Packers and Bills over seven years.
“Formation variety, and pre-snap movement, give the QB more defined reads at the line of scrimmage,” Bowen told me. “By aligning players out of position, such as (Rob) Gronkowski flexing-out wide, Brady can see who walks out with him. Is it a linebacker? A safety? Or, does the cornerback stay home, telling Brady that the defense is in a zone shell? That goes back to creating matchups and also dictating from an offensive perspective.”
“Forcing defenses to constantly communicate to what and who they see in a constricted amount of time will always allow the offense to be in control because they know where they are going while the defense doesn’t,” said Orlovsky. “Think about it like this, every single play there are 11 guys on offense, putting five of those in a different spot every play forces all 11 guys on the defense to be where they are supposed to be, and do what they are supposed to do. It's almost a statistics game, where it’s hard for the ‘D’ to do it right every play.”
Bowen says take a closer look at what the Pats did on Danny Amendola’s first touchdown in the AFC Championship game. The Jaguars are a big cover-3 team and chose that route in the red zone. So how did the Pats counter? By running three-deep beaters utilizing a ton of real estate courtesy of their formation. They broke the huddle in trips right, Chris Hogan well outside the numbers, Danny Amendola in the slot and tight end Dwayne Allen flexed two yards behind the line of scrimmage and two yards wide of the right tackle. On the opposite side, Brandin Cooks lined up outside the numbers and James White was offset in the backfield as Brady operated out of the shotgun. Not an uncommon look but here’s what unfolded.
White shot into the flat, dragging the strong safety with him. Cooks took an outside release and worked the sideline. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey has to run with him. As for Allen, his movement is key. He runs a vertical route, angling toward the post. With linebacker Myles Jack playing over top of him, Jack has to surrender ground. That also forced the other linebacker, Telvin Smith, to get some depth on his drop. That creates critical space underneath. Amendola slides by Allen, running a crossing route and essentially using Allen’s big body as interference. Brady recognizes it right away and by the time both linebackers try and recover, it’s too late Touchdown.
“If you line up in a static coverage versus the Patriots, McDaniels is going to flip the script in the game plan to dial up specific coverage beaters and Brady is going to carve you up,” said Bowen.
That wasn’t the first time the Pats ran that play, but it was the first time they used it out of that specific formation. Again, advantage offense.
“They [the defense] cannot get you pegged, then [the offense] have you constantly off balance,” Orlovsky said admiringly. “I reference it to this: it’s like a batter facing Greg Maddux back in the day. You never knew what was coming, from where, how fast, and where it was going to end up. As a batter, you felt defensive, guarded. Formation variance allows for the offense to have the same impact.”
In one of the greatest upsets in NFL history, the 2007-08 Patriots and their quest for perfection were denied by the New York Giants. You know all too well how well the G-Men’s front four played, moving Brady off his spot, hitting him and generally frustrating the quarterback with lots of traffic in and around his feet. Perhaps what you didn’t recognize was how late the Giants made their defensive adjustment play after play. They knew Brady would use the full play clock and they tried to do the same on their side of the ball. Might that be something the Eagles have in their bag of tricks?
“Sounds good in theory,” Brandon Graham told me, “but they [the Patriots] get the right of way almost all the time. I think the whole point of all the changes and different guys is to get us out of whack, get somebody not communicating and then throw a big play over somebody’s head. Are you willing to take that chance?”
A hell of a question and one that may very well determine if the Eagles can slow down Brady and the Pats enough to win Super Bowl LII.
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