FOXBORO — How's it going to look? Tom Brady said that Mohamed Sanu gives the Patriots offense some "juice." Sanu said he'll bring "the juice and the squeeze."
OK. But how's it going to look?
This will be the first time that the Patriots have had a true slot receiver to pair with Julian Edelman since Super Bowl LI. Back then, both Edelman and Danny Amendola were healthy. Amendola's availability in key spots allowed the Patriots to have a capable slot inside and bump Edelman outside.
Not only does getting Edelman to play outside more often help keep him from running into bigger linebackers and hard-hitting safeties in the middle of the field, it also just so happens to be where the Patriots believe he's more valuable to them.
"Julian plays a lot outside the formation," Josh McDaniels said last spring. "Does Julian do some of those things inside the formation? Absolutely he does. But he does a lot more on the outside in the running game and passing game. It's what he's become. There's a little bit of a difference based on the way we've used him than those other guys."
The Patriots were in hot pursuit of true slots to get Edelman outside in the offseason. They chased Adam Humphries and Cole Beasley. They landed neither. That kept Edelman on the interior.
Until now, with the addition of Sanu.
To get an idea of what the Patriots offense looks like with a true slot receiver working in conjunction with Edelman — to get an idea of how things might look like with Sanu — we went back to a time when Amendola and Edelman worked side-by-side. Sanu and Amendola are very different types of slot receivers, but they're both slots, and so while Sanu's execution of certain responsibilities will look different than how it looked when Amendola was in town, those responsibilities should be similar.
FINDING SOFT SPOTS IN ZONES
The Patriots are accustomed to seeing changing coverages as teams try to solve Tom Brady and his offense. They'll see zone. They'll see man. What's important from a slot receiver in New England is that the player sees things the way Brady sees them.
Amendola was adept at finding soft spots in opposing zones and throttling down to make Brady's throw simpler. Sanu has done the same in Atlanta and Cincinnati. That's part of the job description when you work over the middle as much as Sanu has over the course of his career.
In the video below, Edelman travels vertically, helping to space the defense, and Amendola works the deep middle of the field — something Sanu has done many times.
Sanu has done a lot of the same things in Atlanta. Understands the defense. Finds the soft spot. Throttles down. First down. pic.twitter.com/nqBKPHGGYQ— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) October 25, 2019
Against man or zone, the Patriots like to force communication between opposing defensive backs. They'll run rub routes (more on those in a bit). They'll motion pre-snap. They'll alter their releases off the line of scrimmage.
One of the things they'll do quite a bit is stack their receivers — meaning align two players very tightly together, one on the line and one off — to mess with a defense's plan. The Falcons do the same.
While the Patriots don't have a wideout approaching the physical talent Julio Jones possesses, Sanu will be accustomed to some of the timing and spacing required off the line with those stack releases.
Below you can see Amendola and Edelman working together out of that look. Picture Sanu in Amendola's role, attacking the defense vertically while Edelman works underneath. Even with Edelman freed up to play outside more often, he'll still work the middle of the field where he's provided Brady an incredible amount of value over the years. He just might do it more sparingly.
Sanu might be asked to do something similar in New England. He’s on the line of scrimmage here stacked with Julio Jones. Jones works the middle while Sanu runs a curl. His physicality after the catch gives the Patriots a little different element from the slot... pic.twitter.com/vcUUMWjQi0— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) October 25, 2019
WINNING THE LEVERAGE GAME
Part of the reason Amendola was as productive in the red zone for the Patriots was that he understood how to create separation in tight spaces. He's obviously not a big body. But given his footwork at the line and his posture off the line of scrimmage, he was able to sell to defenders that he could run inward-breaking or outward-breaking routes from his position in the slot.
Sanu has spent much of his career doing the same. In the video below, Sanu has to get to the outside shoulder of his defender in order to get the leverage he wants going to the sideline. Against press coverage, his route looks much different than Amendola's, but the result is the same: touchdown. Notice how both receivers run their routes flat to the goal line. That's something that Brady should appreciate; the last thing he wants is a pass-catcher to float away from the football and potentially allow a defender to undercut the route.
Sanu's size and strength at the line might make him a more difficult target to press from the slot than smaller players the Patriots have had there in the past. Since 2016, Sanu has been the fourth-best receiver in the league at getting separation from press coverage, per Next Gen Stats.
Much different release here from Sanu working against tighter coverage, but he wins the battle for leverage. Like Amendola, he keeps his route very flat headed to the sideline. Touchdown. pic.twitter.com/h03gf8gC9l— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) October 25, 2019
Amendola caught 18 touchdown passes in his Patriots career, including six in the postseason. While we showed above an example of his route-running getting him open by the goal line, he also understood how to get to open space and let his quarterback find him.
His late touchdown in Super Bowl XLIX against the Seahawks put that knack for finding open space on display on the game's biggest stage. Seattle safety Earl Thomas hesitated every so slightly in watching Edelman — busting off the line from an alignment right next to Amendola — and that gave Amendola all the room he needed.
Sanu, who's accustomed to seeing attention go to Jones, could end up having a similar kind of instinct for being in the right place at the right time. In Atlanta, he understood coverage, understood what he was looking at post-snap, and he understood how to make life easy on his quarterback by running to open space.
Whether he can develop the kind of chemistry that Amendola had with Brady remains to be seen, but clearly Sanu knows how to work in conjunction with others to punish defenses. That should help him fit in.
Safe to say Sanu is accustomed to working with a receiver who might get a little extra attention in the red zone...
Out of a bunch here, two defenders go with Julio Jones. Sanu just has all kinds of space to work the middle. Easy. pic.twitter.com/DRjJdFqBVy— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) October 25, 2019
While the Patriots love to run slip screens to their backs on a regular basis, McDaniels will get his wideouts involved in the screen game as well. The tunnel screen was for a time a go-to short-yardage option for the Patriots through the air. Amendola scored a two-point conversion in Super Bowl LI on that type of play. It'd come as little surprise if the Patriots ran that kind of play with physical wideouts like Edelman, Sanu and N'Keal Harry on the field together later this year.
But even in longer down-and-distance scenarios, the occasional screen can be a game-breaking type of play. In the video below, Amendola converted on a third-and-17 play by weaving through traffic and following his blocks. Sanu did the same in Atlanta. He's more likely to finish a play with his shoulder lowered than by trying to out-maneuver defenders, but Sanu understands how to use his blocks in space and he has the size that makes him a tough tackle.
In New England, the blocking charge leading the way for Sanu could be led by Edelman — as was the case in the Amendola screen here.
Would make sense for the Patriots to use Sanu in similar spots. He was involved on screens in Atlanta.— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) October 25, 2019
Not the same slippery runner Amendola was with the ball in his hands, but a threat for yards after the catch nonetheless. Large man. Hard to get down in the open field. pic.twitter.com/xmF3cNlIJe
Running pick plays, or rub routes, is a bit of an art form. If you botch it, it looks like you're playing chicken and never knew when to bail. If you execute it flawlessly, there might not even be any contact. If there is contact, if you execute it, you make sure that it occurs within one yard of the line of scrimmage.
You have to understand the rules. You have to understand the coverage in front of you and the spacing between you and your teammate. You have to understanding the timing of the play. There's a lot going on.
Amendola executed it time and again while in New England — including on one catch that went for a fourth-down conversion in the 2017 AFC title game — because he understood what he needed to. It looks like Sanu got it while in Atlanta. Expect to see something similar, especially against press-man coverage, with Sanu in New England.
Sanu is in the slot at the top. Patient. Sets up the pick. Doesn’t force the issue. Defender loses a step circumventing contact. Touchdown.
This play obviously came down by the goal line, but the Pats will use these all over the field. Just one more way for Sanu to be deployed. pic.twitter.com/qEJFaMtyrT— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) October 25, 2019
Sanu and Amendola are very different players. But Sanu will find himself aligned as Amendola was when he was in New England. That should have a positive trickle-down effect on Edelman, and it should provide Brady with another intelligent and experienced inside-the-numbers presence.
A quick look at Sanu's tape would seem to suggest that he'll be comfortable performing many of the same duties that were asked of New England's last full-time slot not named Edelman.
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