Chris Hogan

Signature Plays: Gronkowski in the seam makes 'smash' a success

Signature Plays: Gronkowski in the seam makes 'smash' a success

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. 

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. 

SUPER BOWL LII VS. EAGLES, 3:29 THIRD QUARTER, FIRST-AND-10: CHRIS HOGAN 26-YARD TOUCHDOWN RECEPTION

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.

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Signature Plays: Who will be Patriots high-low crossers in ‘18?

Signature Plays: Who will be Patriots high-low crossers in ‘18?

This is the first in a series looking at favorite concepts in key situations that the Patriots rely on. Today: High-low crossers.

In 2013, Nicholas Dawidoff published a book called "Collision Low Crossers." The title was a play off the terminology thrown around inside the Jets facility, where Dawidoff received unfettered access in 2011. It also happened to be a key strategy for then-coach Rex Ryan's defenses: Drill the receivers you could legally drill within five yards of the line of scrimmage. 

Last season, long after Ryan's tenure had ended, that philosophy was at least temporarily forgotten by his old team. Instead of colliding with Patriots crossers, the Jets blasted each other to allow a touchdown. Within a couple of hours, their season was over. The Patriots, meanwhile, had clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

This marks the first entry in a retrospective series we'll put together this month that may help us identify some of the Patriots' favorite concepts in key situations, which may then help us project how the Pats will look in 2018.

Bill Belichick and his team have their staples - like their high-low crossers, offensively - that we'll see again this season. But the team's personnel has changed. So how might those plays look now? And will schematic staples necessarily transfer from last year to this year given the skill sets of the players available? 

For instance, that play against the Jets, the one Josh McDaniels drew up that had Morris Claiborne and Buster Skrine run into each other like two-thirds of the Three Stooges . . . the key Patriots on the play are no longer Patriots. 

WEEK 17 VS. JETS, 4:14 SECOND QUARTER, SECOND-AND-GOAL
BRANDIN COOKS FIVE-YARD TOUCHDOWN RECEPTION

THE STAPLE: For years, the Patriots have devised ways to create traffic for opposing defenses to sort through. Often it's near the line of scrimmage, and we'll take a look at some of those plays later in this series. But an offense like New England's can force communication problems and gunk up a small area down the field as well. Deploying crossers over the middle at different levels of the field against a man-to-man look can spell disaster for a defense when an offense executes. For the Patriots, who have had their share of intelligent route runners, running crossers tightly together without picking up an offensive pass interference penalty requires awareness and body control, both of which were on display against the Jets. 

THE PLAY: Danny Amendola begins the play by going in motion from left to right, which helps identify man-to-man coverage for Tom Brady and the rest of the Patriots offense because he's followed by Claiborne. At the snap, both Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen run out-breaking routes, but Gronkowski slows his release just enough to get in the way of Amendola's man (Claiborne) near the line of scrimmage. Smart. Claiborne has to go underneath Gronkowski, which means Claiborne finds himself in a trailing position. As Amendola gets to the goal line, he feels Claiborne on his hip and flattens to get as close as possible to Brandin Cooks' man (Skrine). Both receivers seem to take a slight stutter step to make sure they're aligned properly. It would stand to reason that at full-throttle there would be a greater likelihood of an inadvertent collision. But with both receivers under control, the spacing is perfect. The result is Skrine on the ground and Cooks all alone for an easy score. Tom Brady could've hit Amendola if he wanted. It was just a matter of deciding between open and ridiculously open. Neither receiver received any resistance from Jets defenders as they got upfield. Linebackers had cracks at both but didn't take them. 

STAPLE IN 2018: The Patriots can run this play again in 2018, but it's worth wondering who the available candidates would be to run it. Amendola and Cooks are in Miami and Los Angeles. The rest of the group returns. Julian Edelman could obviously fill Amendola's role, though he's scheduled to be serving a suspension in the season's first month. The Patriots have other slot options in Jordan Matthews, Riley McCarron and Braxton Berrios, but all three are still somewhat new to the offense. This is a route that appears to require reps and precision. The two wideouts who make the most sense to take on the "X" and slot roles here are Chris Hogan and Edelman. But if Edelman is out, having someone like Matthews, who's accustomed to navigating the middle of the field in the NFL, would make sense to play the slot. The other option is the Patriots could use Hogan in the Amendola role and have one of their many "X" receivers - Phillip Dorsett, Kenny Britt, Malcolm Mitchell - take on the Cooks role.  

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Tom E. Curran looks at Patriots' free agents-to-be

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Tom E. Curran looks at Patriots' free agents-to-be

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