This is the second piece in a series looking at concepts Patriots may rely on in key situations in 2018. On Wednesday we looked at their high-low crossers. Today we look at a league-wide favorite the Patriots like to employ: the "smash" concept.
One of the reasons the Patriots offense has been as effective as it has with Tom Brady behind center is the sheer volume of their offense. It's difficult for opposing defenses to understand what they're looking at from down to down when they're trying to cycle through a library of information consumed in the week leading up to their matchup.
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When that volume of concepts and styles is executed at high speeds, then it gets even more difficult for defenses to keep up.
Add uber-talents like Brady and Rob Gronkowski to the mix - a quarterback who can manipulate coverage with his eyes and a tight end who can manipulate coverage with his presence alone - the task for defenses is downright daunting.
In the second entry of our "Signature Plays" series, a series that may help us identify some of the Patriots' favorite concepts in key situations moving forward, we'll take a look at a play that allows the Patriots to play fast and takes advantage of the skills of their two best players: the "smash" concept.
THE STAPLE: The smash concept is one the Patriots will at some point rely upon in 2018 to stress opposing defensive backs. Stress them how? By forcing them to make a choice. Here's how it typically breaks down.
On the outside, the wide receiver runs a hitch to try to occupy the outside corner in zone coverage. On the inside, the slot (or tight end) typically runs a flag route to go over the top of the outside corner. If the targeted corner stays with the hitch, the flag is open. If the corner drops to the flag, the hitch is open.
The Patriots will at times run a smash concept against zone teams (Cover-3) with a seam route instead of a flag. If the outside receiver's hitch occupies the outside corner, then that means that corner can't help the deep-middle safety on the seam route.
If the Patriots use a second seam route on the opposite side of the formation, then the free safety has to make a choice of which seam to defend. If that free safety is manipulated to one side of the field or the other by Brady's eyes, then he's in trouble. One of those receivers running seam routes should be in single coverage.
This is a fine concept to run even against man-to-man single-high safety looks. (Meaning that, in theory, as long as Brady sees the middle of the field is closed, he can get to the line and go and feel good about it.) The reason is because the defense is stretched to its limits horizontally, and the dual seam routes force the free safety to make a choice. If the safety leans to one side of the field, then the opposite seam has one-on-one coverage with plenty of space to operate...
THE PLAY: ...That's exactly what happened in Super Bowl LII, late in the third quarter when Brady hit Chris Hogan for a 26-yard touchdown.
Phillip Dorsett aligned wide to the right side of the formation with Hogan in the slot. On the other side of the formation, James Develin aligned wide with Rob Gronkowski in the slot.
Having Develin out wide created some confusion among Eagles linebackers, but when Mychal Kendricks chased Develin out wide, it told Brady that the Eagles -- a heavy Cover-1 and Cover-3 team -- were in man-to-man.
At the snap, both Dorsett and Develin ran quick hitches. Gronkowski fought his way up the field to run his seam route, but he ran into some resistance. Two Eagles defenders had their eyes locked on the All-Pro, and free safety Malcolm Jenkins started leaning that way when Brady turned toward his big tight end.
That gave Hogan plenty of room to work the middle of the field. He started his route wide, getting defensive back Rodney McCleod on his outside shoulder. When Hogan broke inside, because Jenkins vacated the middle to creep toward Gronkowski, Brady had a wide open throwing lane for an easy score.
STAPLE IN 2018: The primary figures from that Super Bowl touchdown are scheduled to be back again this season. Hogan, Brady and Gronkowski are all still under contract. Develin out wide will continue to provide Brady with an immediate man-or-zone indicator if the fullback is healthy. Dorsett could be back, though he may be in competition with other "X" receivers like Malcolm Mitchell and Kenny Britt for playing time. And when Julian Edelman is back on the field, he could end up outside with Hogan stressing the deep middle.
One aspect of the play that's yet to be discussed it what New England's fifth receiver -- Dion Lewis -- did against the Eagles. He had an option route in the short-middle area of the field on linebacker Dannell Ellerbe. That's a mismatch that Brady probably would have been happy to exploit had Hogan not been so open.
Against zone or man, running a quick receiver like Edelman or James White over the middle while the smash-seam plays out on the outside could yield nice results. With the defense so spread out, getting a slot receiver or a back on a linebacker could turn a short pitch and catch into a big gain.