Signature Plays: Gronk presence felt on flat-corner combo

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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Signature Plays: Patriots can go slant-flat or post-wheel in tight spots

Signature Plays: Patriots can go slant-flat or post-wheel in tight spots

This is the fourth piece in a series looking at plays the Patriots could rely on in key situations in 2018. Over the weekend, we looked at their their two-back stretch run. On Friday, we focused on the "smash." Before that we studied the high-low crossers concept, which helps create space for receivers in man coverage. Today's play is another that can help Tom Brady's targets free themselves from defenders lurking at the line of scrimmage.

As we went through some of the research to put this series together -- going through many of the most critical situations in the most important Patriots games of 2017 -- a theme emerged on several of the pass plays called by Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. 

If there was a concept that could serve as an aid in helping Patriots receivers create separation, there was no fear in making that kind of call in a big spot. When we say "aid," we mean some kind of natural rub or pick action that can cause communication problems or traffic issues for defenders to navigate. 

Those can be dangerous for an offense depending on who's trying to execute them. If a receiver doesn't understand the spacing on a certain route, if he doesn't fully grasp the nuances of trying to help a teammate get free, or if the timing of the play is thrown off, the result could be a penalty. That might mean the difference between three points and seven, or between keeping a drive alive and killing it.

For example, last week we looked at a relatively simple but effective crossing route that the Patriots used against the Jets to clear space for both Danny Amendola and Brandin Cooks in the red zone. On that play, the Patriots found a way to force two opponents to collide in an area of the field that measured 7,200 square feet. 

But the Patriots recognize coverages and then set up routes that put defenders in those split-second time-and-space conundrums regardless of where they are on the field. Could be in the red zone. Could be at midfield. 

That's exactly what they did when faced with a fourth-down situation against one of the best defenses in football back in January. To convert, they actually married together a couple of different concepts that popped up time and again on last season's film.  

AFC CHAMPIONSHIP, 12:15 FIRST QUARTER, FOURTH-AND-TWO
DANNY AMENDOLA 20-YARD RECEPTION

THE STAPLE: One concept you'll see the Patriots lean on relatively frequently against man-to-man defenses is the slant-flat combination. With two receivers to one side of the formation, the inside player will head out toward the boundary while the outside player runs a quick slant. When run properly against tight man-to-man, one defender has to figure out whether to go over the top or fight through contact to avoid being bumped off his assignment. The Patriots will make full use of the rule where offensive players can block within one yard of the line of scrimmage before the ball is released, which means if defenders are tight enough, Brady's receivers can be pretty obvious with their intentions to pick for a teammate. Another concept the Patriots may use as a Cover-3 zone-beater is the post-wheel combination. With the outside receiver occupying the outside corner (whose responsibility is a deep third of the field) with a post route, the inside receiver runs an out-and-up (or wheel) to get into the space vacated by the outside corner. Now think back to the AFC title game. Against the Jaguars, the Patriots seemed to use both of these concepts to their advantage against a defense that played a lot of single-high safety coverages. Cover-3 was among Jacksonville's go-to looks, but they incorporated plenty of man-to-man concepts, making this fourth-down call by McDaniels a wise one. 

THE PLAY: The Patriots aligned in an empty set with three receivers to Brady's left (Cooks, James White and Amendola from outside in) and two to his right (Rob Gronkowski and Chris Hogan from outside in). The Jaguars had a single safety deep and showed press coverage on the outside at the line of scrimmage. Though the routes described above were two-man combinations, Brady went to the three-man side here. At the snap, White picked the slot corner across from Amendola as Amendola headed to the flat. There was the natural rub of the slant-flat combination. That gave Amendola some room at the line, but his route wasn't finished there. On the outside, Cooks was well into his post route, carrying corner AJ Bouye deep down the field. Amendola turned his route into the flat up the sideline and into the area vacated by Bouye. There was the post-wheel the Patriots frequently turn to. Linebacker Telvin Smith, who began the play across from White, is one of the most athletic second-level defenders in football -- but Smith on Amendola is still a matchup that favors the Patriots. As Smith carried Amendola into the flat and then up the sideline, Amendola breezed by him, and Brady lofted a perfect pass over the linebacker and into Amendola's outstretched arms. The drive eventually ended with a Stephen Gostkowski field goal thanks to a play that used a couple of methods of attack to get one of the team's most dependable receivers free. 

STAPLE IN 2018: So how do the Patriots try to pull this off in 2018? Amendola, one of the team's savviest route-runners, is in Miami. Cooks, a receiver whose speed forced defenses to take his deep routes seriously, is in Los Angeles. Someone like Phillip Dorsett, who may be the next best thing the Patriots have in terms of a true field-stretcher speed-wise, may be asked to run the clear-out route Cooks handled here. If Kenny Britt is healthy, he could run that deep post as well. So too could Hogan. On the inside, the Patriots have myriad options. Julian Edelman could run the Amendola route. Or the Patriots could use another back, say Rex Burkhead, to handle the wheel if White continues to be trusted as the pick man. Part of what makes the Patriots difficult to defend, aside from concepts like these, is that they can use multiple players to run the same route. For instance, last season against the Steelers, the Patriots used similar principles to try to free up Dion Lewis on an out-and-up in the fourth quarter. James White ran a slant from the outside that could have served as a natural rub for the defender on Lewis, who was in the slot. Pittsburgh played it relatively well, though. The timing wasn't quite right to disrupt the defenders and both White and Lewis were trailed closely in coverage. That forced Brady to eventually land on his third option, Rob Gronkowski, down the seam . . . Even if the scheme might not always necessarily work as it's drawn up, it never hurts to have all-world players at your disposal in case of emergency.

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