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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Signature Plays: Who will lead up front on the two-back stretch?

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NBC Sports Boston Illustration

Signature Plays: Who will lead up front on the two-back stretch?

This is the third piece in a series looking at plays Patriots could rely on in key situations in 2018. On Wednesday, we looked at their high-low crossers. Friday, we focused on the "smash" passing concept. Today, we turn our attention to an old-school favorite: the two-back stretch.

The play was viewed immediately as a sort of knock on the opposition, according to CBS color commentator Tony Romo. 

It was late in last season's AFC Championship and the Patriots could ice the game with a first down against the Jaguars. That first down seemed unlikely, though, facing a third-and-9 at their own 43, with a little more than 90 seconds remaining.  

The Patriots came out in their 21 personnel, with Dion Lewis and James Develin in the backfield and tight end Dwayne Allen off the line of scrimmage. Rob Gronkowski was out because of a concussion he suffered earlier in the game. 

To Romo, the Patriots were playing to punt.

"I mean, this is a safe call it looks like right here," Romo said. "That's telling you they don't think [Blake] Bortles can go down and win the game with no timeouts. That's what that's telling you."

Sure, part of the benefit of running the football is to burn as much clock as possible and pin the opponent deep. But the play-call also could've said that the Patriots had some confidence that if they executed correctly, their two-back stretch play could be the play that sends them to the Super Bowl. 

AFC CHAMPIONSHIP, 1:38 FOURTH QUARTER, THIRD-AND-NINE
DION LEWIS 18-YARD RUN

THE STAPLE: Complicated as the Patriots passing game may be, part of what makes their offense so dynamic is that they can play old-school smashmouth whenever they want to. Develin has seen more snaps the past two seasons than any fullback not named Kyle Juszczyk and he often gets the call in a game's biggest moments. In this situation, Josh McDaniels went to his two-back stretch. The Patriots have athletic and well-conditioned offensive linemen and tight ends to be able to get out on the move on a play like this one after having already run 60 offensive plays. The idea is to use that athleticism and that conditioning to their advantage while attacking the edges of the opposing defense. If there's a cutback lane for the running back to hit because the backside linemen sealed their men, then that may provide the optimal running lane. But that's not always necessary. If the play-side tackle can wall off his man, and if the tight end and fullback can get to the second level with a head of steam, that means the ball-carrier will have all kinds of daylight to the outside. Finally, if the receiver to that side can hold his block, then by the time the defense catches up to the back, a nice chunk of yardage should already be eaten up. That's exactly how it played out.

THE PLAY: On Lewis' 18-yard, game-sealing run against the Jags, Develin was part of a trio of blockers who helped make the play happen. Sending Allen in motion to the left side of the formation, Tom Brady snapped the ball when Allen got outside of left tackle Nate Solder. Then, with an opportunity to end the game, that trio went to work. Solder got to the outside shoulder of defensive end Calais Campbell, neutralizing him with the help of a chip from Allen as Allen worked to the second level. Allen then took on the first linebacker in his path to the inside of the Jags defense. That happened to be Telvin Smith, who was so thoroughly blocked that he got in the way of fellow 'backer Paul Pozluzny. It was a two-for-one for the No. 2 Patriots tight end. Develin led Lewis to the edge and quickly steamrolled safety Tashaun Gipson. Lewis accelerated through the hole between Allen and Develin's blocks and got more than he needed for the first down. All the while, Chris Hogan - arguably the team's best blocking receiver - prevented AJ Bouye from coming downhill and impacting the play. 

STAPLE IN 2018: Develin is back for another year after signing a two-year extension this offseason. He'll likely continue to see extensive usage in key situations, oftentimes leading the way for a back to pick up much-needed yardage or to get into the end zone. (The goal-line lead, for example, is another favorite for the Patriots with Develin on the field. Mike Gillislee scored three times on that play, with three tight ends on the field and Develin plowing through the C-gap. That's another no-nonsense staple for McDaniels, who can run fakes off of the goal-line lead. Gronkowski caught what might've been his easiest touchdown of 2017 when the Chargers bit hard on a Brady play-fake and left Gronkowski wide open on a shallow cross.) Allen is scheduled to be back as well, though he could be in competition for the top blocking tight end role with Troy Niklas. Lewis is gone, leaving an interesting choice for the Patriots as to which back they'll choose to take a critical handoff late like the one he did in the AFC title game. Will it be Rex Burkhead? Or what about Sony Michel? The stretch play seems ideal for both since they seem to have similar running styles as see-hole, hit-hole runners. Michel showed he has the explosiveness and vision to run the stretch play without issue in Georgia's offense. The key to being able to run this type of play in 2018 might be what the Patriots have at left tackle. Solder was one of the team's top run-blockers and his athleticism allowed him to make difficult reach blocks or lead blocks in the open field. Isaiah Wynn seems like the kind of tackle who can get out and move when asked. But what if Wynn ends up on the inside? What if it's Trent Brown on the left edge? There are plenty of questions surrounding that all-important position and they'll remain -- both in the pass game and the run game -- until we see more from Dante Scarnecchia's left tackle options this summer.

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Signature Plays: Gronkowski in the seam makes 'smash' a success

Signature Plays: Gronkowski in the seam makes 'smash' a success

This is the second piece in a series looking at concepts Patriots may rely on in key situations in 2018. On Wednesday we looked at their high-low crossers. Today we look at a league-wide favorite the Patriots like to employ: the "smash" concept.

One of the reasons the Patriots offense has been as effective as it has with Tom Brady behind center is the sheer volume of their offense. It's difficult for opposing defenses to understand what they're looking at from down to down when they're trying to cycle through a library of information consumed in the week leading up to their matchup. 

When that volume of concepts and styles is executed at high speeds, then it gets even more difficult for defenses to keep up. 

Add uber-talents like Brady and Rob Gronkowski to the mix - a quarterback who can manipulate coverage with his eyes and a tight end who can manipulate coverage with his presence alone - the task for defenses is downright daunting. 

In the second entry of our "Signature Plays" series, a series that may help us identify some of the Patriots' favorite concepts in key situations moving forward, we'll take a look at a play that allows the Patriots to play fast and takes advantage of the skills of their two best players: the "smash" concept. 

SUPER BOWL LII VS. EAGLES, 3:29 THIRD QUARTER, FIRST-AND-10: CHRIS HOGAN 26-YARD TOUCHDOWN RECEPTION

THE STAPLE: The smash concept is one the Patriots will at some point rely upon in 2018 to stress opposing defensive backs. Stress them how? By forcing them to make a choice. Here's how it typically breaks down.

On the outside, the wide receiver runs a hitch to try to occupy the outside corner in zone coverage. On the inside, the slot (or tight end) typically runs a flag route to go over the top of the outside corner. If the targeted corner stays with the hitch, the flag is open. If the corner drops to the flag, the hitch is open.

The Patriots will at times run a smash concept against zone teams (Cover-3) with a seam route instead of a flag. If the outside receiver's hitch occupies the outside corner, then that means that corner can't help the deep-middle safety on the seam route.

If the Patriots use a second seam route on the opposite side of the formation, then the free safety has to make a choice of which seam to defend. If that free safety is manipulated to one side of the field or the other by Brady's eyes, then he's in trouble. One of those receivers running seam routes should be in single coverage.

This is a fine concept to run even against man-to-man single-high safety looks. (Meaning that, in theory, as long as Brady sees the middle of the field is closed, he can get to the line and go and feel good about it.) The reason is because the defense is stretched to its limits horizontally, and the dual seam routes force the free safety to make a choice. If the safety leans to one side of the field, then the opposite seam has one-on-one coverage with plenty of space to operate...

THE PLAY: ...That's exactly what happened in Super Bowl LII, late in the third quarter when Brady hit Chris Hogan for a 26-yard touchdown.

Phillip Dorsett aligned wide to the right side of the formation with Hogan in the slot. On the other side of the formation, James Develin aligned wide with Rob Gronkowski in the slot.

Having Develin out wide created some confusion among Eagles linebackers, but when Mychal Kendricks chased Develin out wide, it told Brady that the Eagles -- a heavy Cover-1 and Cover-3 team -- were in man-to-man.

At the snap, both Dorsett and Develin ran quick hitches. Gronkowski fought his way up the field to run his seam route, but he ran into some resistance. Two Eagles defenders had their eyes locked on the All-Pro, and free safety Malcolm Jenkins started leaning that way when Brady turned toward his big tight end.

That gave Hogan plenty of room to work the middle of the field. He started his route wide, getting defensive back Rodney McCleod on his outside shoulder. When Hogan broke inside, because Jenkins vacated the middle to creep toward Gronkowski, Brady had a wide open throwing lane for an easy score.

STAPLE IN 2018: The primary figures from that Super Bowl touchdown are scheduled to be back again this season. Hogan, Brady and Gronkowski are all still under contract. Develin out wide will continue to provide Brady with an immediate man-or-zone indicator if the fullback is healthy. Dorsett could be back, though he may be in competition with other "X" receivers like Malcolm Mitchell and Kenny Britt for playing time. And when Julian Edelman is back on the field, he could end up outside with Hogan stressing the deep middle.

One aspect of the play that's yet to be discussed it what New England's fifth receiver -- Dion Lewis -- did against the Eagles. He had an option route in the short-middle area of the field on linebacker Dannell Ellerbe. That's a mismatch that Brady probably would have been happy to exploit had Hogan not been so open. 

Against zone or man, running a quick receiver like Edelman or James White over the middle while the smash-seam plays out on the outside could yield nice results. With the defense so spread out, getting a slot receiver or a back on a linebacker could turn a short pitch and catch into a big gain.

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