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.
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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.
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.