Patriots

Belichick favored initial Vol call: Schiano is 'a tremendous coach'

Belichick favored initial Vol call: Schiano is 'a tremendous coach'

FOXBORO -- Greg Schiano is a polarizing figure in the world of college football. But ask Bill Belichick about the former Rutgers head coach, and he'll have nothing but good things to say. 

Schiano's name found its way into headlines across the country on Sunday as USA Today reported that he had emerged as the front-runner for Tennessee's head-coaching vacancy. But before anything became official, the Vols decided to back out of the deal due to fan backlash.

"Yeah, I think Greg’s a tremendous coach," Belichick said after his team beat the Dolphins, 35-17. "I’ve learned an awful lot from him and had an opportunity to spend a lot of time with him when he was at Rutgers and Stephen was at Rutgers and I’d go down there. The lacrosse and the football programs are in the same building."

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Belichick's son Stephen played football and lacrosse for the Scarlet Knights, and Stephen served as a long-snapper under Schiano as he got a taste for what it might be like to coach football after college. Stephen is now the Patriots safeties coach, where he works with former Schiano pupils Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon.

Schiano left Piscataway, New Jersey in 2012 to take the Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coaching job after bringing Rutgers to bowls in six of his final seven seasons there. He's currently in his second season as the defensive coordinator at Ohio State.

"At Tampa and the couple of years after Tampa was really even better for, I would say, my relationship with him because he had those last two years in the NFL and I’ve learned an awful lot from him," Belichick added. "He’s given me a lot of -- we talk about things that they did in their program, that he did in Tampa, that really had a lot of relevance to what we do. So did Rutgers, but it’s a little bit different in the NFL.

"He’s done a great job at Ohio State. He’s one of the very best coaches I think in our profession. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Greg and the way he runs his program and the job that he does."

It's not just lip service. Belichick has invested in Schiano's players many times over. Logan Ryan, Jonathan Freeny, Tim Wright and Tiquan Underwood were all Rutgers products. Lesser-known players like Steve Beauharnais, Quentin Gause, Alex Silvestro, Justin Francis, Kevin Snyder and others have spent varying amounts of time in the Patriots locker room.

"I would say the most impressive thing for me is the way that our players, which we’ve had a lot of Rutgers players come through here, the loyalty and the I would say love of the program, the college program that they were in at Rutgers when he was there, how they maintained that for years and years after they had left," Belichick said. "Not taking anything away from any other school, but I would just say that it’s extremely strong. I think the relationship that [Schiano] has with his kids, with his players and how well-prepared his players are to come into this league is exceptional.

"I didn’t know that [he was reportedly close to being named the head coach for Tennessee], but it’s good for him. He’s a great coach. I’m sure he’ll be a great head coach. Again, he’s done an awful lot. He’s helped me in a lot of different ways and I have a lot of respect for him."

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Signature Plays: Gronk presence felt on flat-corner combo

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NBC Sports Boston Illustration

Signature Plays: Gronk presence felt on flat-corner combo

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, the high-low crosser and the slip screen. Today, we'll focus on yet another key offensive play, one that works thanks to the physical gifts of their players. 

It's no secret: The Patriots offense benefits in a big way by being able to trot out arguably the greatest tight end in the history of the sport.

We illustrated Rob Gronkowski's importance to the operation when he attracted coverage in the Super Bowl, which helped to allow one of his teammates to score a touchdown. Yes, sometimes just having Gronkowski on one side of the field or another is enough to garner a defense's attention create a fatal opening.

Gronkowski's coaches know that. They know that even though he's a walking mismatch. If a defense overextends to stop him, they'll be opened up to damage elsewhere. 

That's exactly what happened in Week 11 last season, when the Patriots took on the Raiders in Mexico. The game was scoreless late in the first quarter until Josh McDaniels dialed up a route combination that used Oakland's respect for Gronkowski against them. 

WEEK 11 VS. RAIDERS, 4:19 FIRST QUARTER, SECOND-AND-6,
DION LEWIS 15-YARD TOUCHDOWN RECEPTION

THE CONCEPT: The flat-corner combination is one that works particularly well against certain types of zone coverages. In our example from the Raiders game, it appeared as though Oakland was in quarters coverage or Cover-4, with four defenders sharing the responsibilities of defending the deep portion of the field. But this would work against Cover-2 as well. The goal is to get a shifty running back into space, one-on-one with a slower linebacker underneath. When the talented inside receiver (in this case Gronkowski) runs his corner route, the cornerback goes with him, and the safety on his side of the field has to respect that Gronkowski's route could be a post. The result is oodles of open space on that side of the field for a back who thrives there.

THE PLAY: In the NFL's Mexico City showdown, the Patriots scored their first touchdown by goading the Raiders into paying attention to Gronkowski. Starting him in-line and sending him on a corner occupied both the middle safety and the outside corner. When Dion Lewis took off out of the backfield, he knew he had a juicy matchup. He darted into the flat, caught Tom Brady's pass, and cut back to the middle of the field. The linebacker chasing in pursuit was left hugging grass. Lewis finished the run hard, splitting two potential tackles to get into the end zone and open up the scoring in the game. On the opposite side of the field, the Patriots ran Brandin Cooks on a crossing route, Dwayne Allen on a corner to the opposite side of the field, and Danny Amendola ran a return route over the middle. 

THE PLAY IN 2018: This type of play is part of what makes Gronkowski so valuable. The fact that he's as good as he is earns him attention, and when the Patriots can use that attention to their advantage they do. Of course, they like Gronkowski for much more than his work as a decoy...but he's a good one. Especially when Gronkowski can open up space for a back with the agility to make the first tackler miss, this flat-corner combo is almost guaranteed to succeed against certain defenses. With Lewis gone, the Patriots might not have quite the same level of make-you-miss talent in their running back room, but James White, Rex Burkhead and Sony Michel could all potentially find themselves involved in this route combination, trying to embarrass a linebacker one-on-one. On the three-receiver side, the Patriots could use any combination of pass-catchers. Having Phillip Dorsett run the crosser, with Kenny Britt running the corner and Jordan Matthews on the return would give Brady some interesting options if things broke down on the flat-corner side.

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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. 

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