Phil Perry

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

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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. 


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.



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. 


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.


Will the Pats try to fill needs through the supplemental draft?

Will the Pats try to fill needs through the supplemental draft?

The NFL's supplemental draft will take place on Wednesday, and there seems to be more intrigue surrounding the current crop of available players than there has been in recent seasons. If a player is selected -- and there could be a couple -- it would be the first time a player has been taken in the supplemental draft since the Rams took tackle Isaiah Battle in 2015.

Before we get to the top players available, let's give a quick rundown of how the supplemental draft works -- and explain why it's relatively unlikely the Patriots come away with a new player at day's end. 

All teams are split into three groups, per Non-playoff teams that had six or fewer wins (let's call this Group 1); non-playoff teams that had more than six wins (Group 2); playoff teams (Group 3). Group 1 has priority over Groups 2 and 3. Group 2 has priority over Group 3. If there are same-round bids for a player by multiple teams within a group, then there is a lottery that determines priority.

What happens if multiple teams bid a pick from the same round? In that case, the league has a priority order it can defer to. 

All teams are split into three groups: Non-playoff teams that had six or fewer wins (let's call this Group 1); non-playoff teams that had more than six wins (Group 2); playoff teams (Group 3). Group 1 has priority over Groups 2 and 3. Group 2 has priority over Group 3. If there are same-round bids for a player by multiple teams within a group, then there is a lottery that determines priority.

Why does this mean the odds the Patriots will end up with a player is somewhat unlikely? If there's a player the Patriots like, they would have to out-bid other interested teams from Groups 1 and 2. And if Bill Belichick and his staff are vying for the same player with others in Group 3, they have to hope they get some good luck in the lottery. 

Given the value the Patriots place on their spring draft picks, it seems unlikely they'd be willing to part with a valuable selection in order to land a player who will be behind the eight ball once he reports to work. Getting up to speed after missing all of rookie minicamp, all of OTAs and mandatory minicamp would be an uphill climb . . . to say the least. 

Players who become eligible for the NFL following the NFL Draft can be entered into the supplemental draft. Bernie Kosar (1985), Brian Bosworth (1987), Cris Carter (1987), Rob Moore (1990), Ahmad Brooks (2006), Terrelle Pryor (2011) and Josh Gordon (2012) are among the most well-known players to be taken in the supplemental draft. In 1989, a whopping three teams used first-round bids to take players: quarterback Steve Walsh (Cowboys); quarterback Tomm Rosenback (Cardinals); running back Bobby Humphrey (Broncos). In 1999, the Patriots used a fourth-round pick to acquire corner J'Juan Cherry.

Here's a look at the players available this year.

Sam Beal, CB, Western Michigan (6-foot-1, 178 pounds)
Beal could be the highest supplemental draft pick taken since the Browns scooped up Gordon with a second-round pick in 2012. Beal, who was reportedly in danger of being ruled academically ineligible for the upcoming season, carried nine more pounds when he was measured in the spring, according to NFL Media's Gil Brandt. Beal's length and athleticism (4.47-second 40-yard dash, 37-inch vertical leap, 126-inch broad, 4.09-second short shuttle) could make him intriguing for the Patriots. His three-cone was less than ideal (7.11 seconds), but he seems to be relatively polished as a defender. He was a second-team All-MAC selection last season, and against USC he picked off eventual No. 3 overall pick Sam Darnold. All 32 NFL teams were in attendance for Beal's pro day. 

Adonis Alexander, CB, Virginia Tech (6-2, 194)
Alexander has the build to potentially make a move to safety if an NFL team wants to see him there. As a corner, he doesn't quite stack up with Beal athletically. Alexander ran a 4.62-second 40-yard dash, a 4.38 short-shuttle and a 7.19 three-cone at his pro day last month. Alexander was productive in a good conference, though, recording seven picks and 17 breakups in three seasons. His size could entice a team to bid a Day 3 pick for his services in the supplemental draft. He was ruled academically ineligible for his senior season, according to NFL Media's Tom Pelissero.

Brandon Bryant, S, Mississippi State (5-11, 207)
There were 14 teams on hand for Bryant's pro day, according to NFL Media, but the Patriots weren't one of them. His change-of-direction numbers weren't anything to write home about (7.26-second three-cone, 4.23-second shuttle), but his 40 (4.45 seconds) and jumps (34-inch vertical, 123-inch broad) were impressive. An explosive player from an SEC program, Bryant could find himself added to a roster on Wednesday. He announced he was leaving the MSU program after being held out of spring workouts for academic reasons, according to