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.
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.