Patriots

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.  

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Five non-Brady storylines to track as Patriots host Eagles in Week 2 of preseason

Five non-Brady storylines to track as Patriots host Eagles in Week 2 of preseason

Thursday night should be Tom Brady's night. That's the plan, at least, according to him. 

That's not to say he'll have the spotlight all to himself against the Eagles, or that that's what he wants. But if he plays at all, there will be boatloads of attention paid to every snap he receives. They'll be his first plays he gets against another opponent since Super Bowl LII, and they'll just so happen to come against the team that beat him back in February. 

We went over the various aspects of Brady's night we'll be watching closely here, if Bill Belichick decides he wants Brady to play at all. But we can't train our focus on No. 12 in blue all night, and we know you won't either. So here are five more storylines -- non-Brady storylines -- to track when the Patriots host the Eagles at Gillette Stadium. 

DECKER CATCHING ON?

Eric Decker had one of the worst starts to a practice of any Patriots receiver this summer just a few days ago. He pushed off in a one-on-one drill. He dropped a pass in a one-on-one drill. Soon thereafter, he dropped two more passes when there wasn't a defender in sight. Not what you're looking for. Decker did, however, bounce back. And for him that was encouraging. Thursday will give the newest Patriots receiver another opportunity to show that he's gaining in his understanding of the playbook. If that's coming along, the fundamentals -- like playing penalty-free and catching the football -- should follow. Given the state of the receiver position in Foxboro at the moment, the Patriots may need to lean on Decker more than they would like. They'll certainly give him some time to figure things out, but he'll have to continue to show progress, as he did during that up-and-down (or down-and-up) session earlier in the week. 

PATRIOTS HAVE THEIR (BIG) BACK?

There's an opportunity here. The Patriots have gone without both Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead for the last handful of practices, meaning there will be reps galore for the likes of Mike Gillislee, Jeremy Hill, Ralph Webb and Brandon Bolden. All four (plus James White) saw action offensively in the preseason opener against the Redskins. Of that group, I think the most fascinating battle is between Gillislee and Hill. It was Hill who looked the strongest last week (51 yards on 11 carries), but he looked limited at times in practice this week. Is he dealing with something that could drop his snap count Thursday? Will that leave the door open for Gillislee, who had a ho-hum night (43 yards on 14 carries) last week? Hill looks like the more capable pass-catcher and the more kicking-game friendly (three first-team special teams units against Washington) back at the moment. 

McCOURTY'S CHANCE TO SHINE?

The Patriots held Jason McCourty out of preseason game No. 1. He didn't have much of an answer as to why that was the case, but he didn't seem too concerned when he spoke to reporters on Sunday. On Monday and Tuesday, he was taking snaps with the first-team defense. Will that continue to be the case against the Eagles? McCourty could be in the running for the No. 2 corner role -- Eric Rowe has held that down for most of camp -- and might be able to use a strong performance against Philly as a springboard to greater consideration from the coaching staff to be a starter. In competitive periods Monday and Tuesday, McCourty looked good. He picked off a Brian Hoyer pass intended for Phillip Dorsett in one-on-ones and broke up another intended for Rob Gronkowski near the goal line. He said he's been doing his best to teach the young corners he's in competition with -- JC Jackson, Keion Crossen and Ryan Lewis have all stood out at different points this summer -- but Thursday could be his night. 

BENTLEY SPEEDING TO A ROSTER SPOT?

Inside the Patriots facilities, Ja'Whaun Bentley has an argument as the most pleasantly surprising player of training camp. As a fifth-round pick, he wasn't guaranteed a roster spot . . . but he now seems to have a jump on one. After a strong performance against Washington -- where he showcased good instincts, an ability to relay play-calls, confident pre-snap communication, and competency in coverage -- we landed him on our first 53-man roster projection and highlighted his skill set in our "Long Shot" series. A three-year captain at Purdue, Bentley isn't a next-level athlete, but he has the potential to be a middle-of-the-defense voice on a unit that could be enticed to deploy its best communicator, Dont'a Hightower, on the edge. "Eager to learn," Hightower said of Bentley this week. "He’s really become a sponge. First dude in the classroom, last one out, always asking questions. Nice-sized kid, good on his feet. He’s going to be a good ballplayer."

TIME TO TACKLE THE ISSUE AT HAND?

The Patriots had nine missed tackles against the Redskins last week, and two more were wiped out due to penalties. That kind of thing will drive a coaching staff nuts, but in some ways it's to be expected this time of year. In camp, the Patriots almost never have any periods where players are tackled to the ground. (Goal-line run periods are probably the closest thing to "live" for Belichick's club, and those 22-car pile-ups are rare.) The result is a team that's not accustomed to tackling, trying to tackle in a preseason game that (for some) doesn't really matter. It can get ugly out there, and Belichick knows it. "Running and tackling are two skills that you don’t work on from the end of the season until pretty much the first preseason game. You can do a little drill work, but it’s not quite the same. So, any player that’s involved in any of those, running or tackling, they might have done it before, but they haven’t done it recently, and they haven’t done it at the timing and speed that it occurs in the game. So, there’s an adjustment, a break-in period for all of us, and that’s part of what preseason games are for . . . We can improve our tackling. We can certainly improve our running and breaking tackles. So, that’s part of the process."

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

NBC Sports Boston Breakfast Pod: What to expect from Tom Brady in his first preseason action of the season

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NBC Sports Boston Photo

NBC Sports Boston Breakfast Pod: What to expect from Tom Brady in his first preseason action of the season

1:22 - Trenni, Chris Gasper, and Phil Perry preview the Patriots/Eagles game and discuss what they are most interested in seeing from Tom Brady in his first preseason action of the season.

6:04 - Tom Curran and Paul Perillo join Tom Giles on Boston Sports Tonight to break down Jaguars CB Jalen Ramsey’s comments about how Jacksonville should have trusted Blake Bortles more in the AFC Championship game against the Patriots. 

10:00 - Trenni, Gasper, and Perry talk about Lane Johnson continuing to bring up the Patriots and their fans as he prepares for the preseason game in Foxboro.

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NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE