Patriots

Patriots-Saints notes: Gronkowski OK after scary moment

brady_saints_camp.jpg

Patriots-Saints notes: Gronkowski OK after scary moment

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- The Patriots and the Saints competed in the first of two joint practices on Wednesday morning at the Greenbrier resort.

Here are a few notes from the fully-padded session, for which Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was present:

* Scary moment early in team drills. Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was lined up outside the numbers and blocking a defensive back when running back Jonas Gray tumbled into the back of Gronk’s legs. The Patriots most dangerous offensive weapon popped up fairly quickly and ambled back to the huddle. After the session, he said it was no big deal and that there was no need for him to check inventory.

* Know what else was scary? The day Patriots corner Malcolm Butler had. Arguably the team's best player in camp to this point was scorched too many times to count, be it in one-on-one situations, seven-on-seven and 11-on-11. Saints receiver Josh Morgan got him for a pair of scores by my count, and there was one drive that saw Butler targeted repeatedly by quarterback Drew Brees, surrendering a catch to receiver Brandon Coleman. There was then a blatant jersey grab that led to a pass interference call, followed by two more catches, a bomb to receiver Joseph Morgan down the sideline and a touchdown pass in the back of the end zone to Morgan. Safety Jordan Richards was also a little late getting over to help Butler along the back line on the Morgan score, but the Patriots appeared to be in man coverage.

* Defensively, coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia continue to play games with their secondary. Lining up in a 3-3-5 set, they had Butler and Devin McCourty playing outside the numbers with a rotation of safeties that including Pat Chung, Tavon Wilson, Duron Harmon and Richards. Chung had one of those hit-or-miss days. He nicely disguised a safety blitz and would have buried Brees during 11-on-11, but he also couldn’t stay with either of the Saints two tight ends, Ben Watson or Josh Hill. Watson, a former member of the Patriots, just returned from the birth of his fifth child (holy mackeral) and was incredibly productive, prompting Brees to call him one of the Saints unsung heroes. Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo can attest. He had nice coverage on Watson down the seam but was beaten by a back shoulder throw that Watson contorted his body to corral.

* Second-year defensive lineman Dominique Easley flashed as a pass rusher on a couple of snaps, and on one of those occasions, he put interior lineman Senio Kalemete on his hindquarters. But, by and large, the Patriots didn’t seem to get any consistent push when given the opportunity, which was a carryover from how one-on-one rushes went, with the Saints winning six of the nine battles. Only Chandler Jones really dominated his matchup, slapping aside the impressive Terron Amstead.

* Meanwhile, the Saints were able to get to the feet of both Brady and second-year quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, exploiting the interior offensive line that once again featured three rookies, left guard Shaq Mason, undrafted center David Andrews and right guard Tre’ Jackson. I counted three sacks, two coming in red-zone work. Brady also threw a ball across his body while rolling to his right. That too was in the face of pressure and I’m guessing he would have taken the sack as opposed to making such a high risk throw around the 50-yard line. There was also a touchdown pass to receiver Danny Amendola in the red zone wiped out by a pick and an offensive pass interference call. Couldn’t tell whether it was receiver Josh Boyce or Brandon Gibson but suffice to say, the coaching staff wasn’t pleased. Both Brady and Garoppolo did throw red-zone touchdowns to . . . guess who? Yep. Gronkowski.

* Brady also capped off a semi-impressive 11-on-11 drive by floating a pretty touch pass over two defenders into Amendola’s arms in the corner of the end zone. The only issue with that was Boyce was also in that exact corner, running what appeared to be the same route. Brady smiled and gently head-butted Amendola after the play but clearly someone screwed up the route.

* Garoppolo’s work early was marked by the same hesitation that has highlighted much of his camp. He went 2-for-6 in the red area and sort of meandered in the pocket on one of those attempts. The product of Eastern Illinois -- Saints coach Sean Payton's alma mater -- did close the practice with a couple of nice two-minute drives, on one of which he went 4-for-5, hitting running back Dion Lewis in the flat twice, then undrafted rookie tight end Jimmay Mundine on an out-cut a nd then a post that resulted in a score.

Signature Plays: Hoping the defense falls for the slip screen

Signature Plays: Hoping the defense falls for the slip screen

We've already taken a look at a handful of go-to offensive concepts for the Patriots. There was the two-back stretch, the smash route, the post-wheel and the high-low crosser. Today, we'll focus on yet another key offensive play for the Patriots, one they broke out in the Super Bowl when they needed to spark a drive: the slip screen. 

There were points last year when the Patriots weren't thrilled with their production in the screen game. The assignments weren't executed perfectly. The timing was off. The production simply wasn't there. 

"Our screen game hasn't been as productive as we need it to be," Bill Belichick said on a conference call in November. "We need to, obviously, coach it better and execute it better. We're not getting enough out of it. It's disappointing."

But they stuck with it. Their offensive linemen are required to be athletes. (Just ask Dante Scarnecchia.) Their backfield was loaded with backs who can catch and make defenders miss in the open field. The screen game still has a chance, the thinking went. 

And in the biggest game of the season, when the Patriots needed to get a drive kick-started after going down 15-3 in the second quarter of Super Bowl LII, they turned to their screen game again.

In the fifth entry of our "Signature Plays" series, one that identifies some of the Patriots' favorite concepts in key situations, we'll take a look at how many elements are involved in one of New England's slip screens - and why, with the personnel the Patriots have in 2018, it should be a staple for their offense again.  

SUPER BOWL LII VS. EAGLES, 8:48 SECOND QUARTER, FIRST-AND-10,
REX BURKHEAD 46-YARD RECEPTION

THE CONCEPT: If an offense can get a defense flowing in the wrong direction, there's going to be an opportunity for a chunk play. If an offense can get a defense flowing in the wrong direction twice? That's gold. 

That's what a slip screen can do. By countering a defense's aggressiveness - the Eagles had an aggressive, relentless front that helped make them Super Bowl champions - the benefit of a play such as a slip screen can actually be twofold: First, if a big play is created, there's some immediate offensive gratification there; but second, a big play on one screen might help temper an opposing pass rush for the remainder of the game. 

The Patriots got the Eagles to pursue upfield hard on the first play of their drive midway through the second quarter. But they also got Philly's defense to pursue horizontally on a fake that ended up taking multiple defenders out of the play. 

THE PLAY: The Patriots aligned in a two-by-two formation with Tom Brady under center and Rex Burkhead in the backfield. On the opposite side of the line, the Eagles went with their standard single-high safety coverage on first down. They appeared to be in Cover-3 zone. 

Phillip Dorsett aligned wide to the right side of the formation with Danny Amendola in the slot. When Dorsett went in motion, the slot defender over Amendola took off to mirror the motion and help balance out Philly's defense. 

When Brady snapped the ball, he faked a handoff to Burkhead and then faked an end-around run to Dorsett. The Patriots have run so many of those jet-sweep types of runs in recent seasons, that the Eagles respected it. Not only did one defensive back mirror Dorsett's motion, but the fake to Dorsett appeared to help hold a pair of Eagles defenders on the offensive left side of the field. 

That's exactly what the Patriots were looking for since Burkhead was about to slip out to the right, into a wide open area of the field. 

One key to this play is the block of the right tackle -- in this case Cam Fleming. He needs to be a little soft here. Why? Because if he stonewalls his man at the line of scrimmage, that clogs things up for Burkhead. Again, he's slipping out to the right. So the right tackle has to bait his man into getting up the field, which Fleming does here. With the Eagles shading to Dorsett's motion, and with the left defensive end climbing up the field, the seas are about to part for Burkhead.

Not only does Burkhead have space to run, but he has a wall of bodyguards to escort up up the field. Shaq Mason, David Andrews and Joe Thuney have all freed themselves of the clutter at the line as Brady makes his throw. Because the motion did its job, it'll be a while before any of the big bodies have to throw themselves around.

The first block made is by Shaq Mason on safety Malcolm Jenkins, who read the dummy motion and flowed to the ball correctly. Still, Jenkins has no shot against Mason and is smothered. 

Then it's up to Andrews and Thuney. Backside linebacker Nigel Bradham flows to the ball, but Thuney gets in Bradham's way just enough to eliminate him. Andrews, meanwhile, has no problem blocking boundary corner Jalen Mills. 

But Burkhead wasn't done even as his first layer of protection was strewn about. He had another line of defense further down the field. Chris Hogan, who began the play aligned wide left, made sure the corner assigned to his side of the field was walled off. Then Amendola, who feigned a deep crossing route but was really focused on safety Rodney McLeod all along, made sure the deep-middle man would be a non-factor. 

The result was a huge gain that eventually ended in a Stephen Gostkowski field goal. 

THE PLAY IN 2018: Burkhead is back in 2018, though several Patriots backs could find themselves on the field in screen situations. James White and Sony Michel could both be in the mix for this play moving forward. Other key players return as well. Brady, obviously. Plus the three-man interior that moves well enough to make these types of plays possible. The Patriots should begin the season with Marcus Cannon as the bait-and-screen right tackle on these calls, which is an upgrade. And if the Patriots can swap in Julian Edelman for Amendola -- Edelman is as feisty a blocker as his teammate-turned-division-foe -- they should have the right mix to continue to rip off the occasional big gain with their slip screens. 

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Perry's Patriots Signature Plays series

Perry's Patriots Signature Plays series

What's made the Patriots so successful for so long? Continuity. As part of that, we take a look at a handful of go-to offensive concepts that they'll likely turn to again this season with old and new personnel. Click here for the full series.