The New England Patriots eeked out a victory against the New York Jets, who harassed Tom Brady and the offense into short drives. Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson feasted on the Patriots offensive line, taking advantage of injuries to the “five guys” who protect Brady.
New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan and defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman dialed up well-disguised pressure concepts throughout Week 16, often confusing New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and the blockers assigned to keep him upright. The Patriots escaped with a narrow 17-16 win, but the Jets defense – credited with 4 sacks and 11 QB hits (a season high on Brady this year) – did all it could to disrupt the QB and his offense, holding them to a season-low 231 total yards.
While Ryan’s schemes played a significant role in creating chaos – springing free rushers Brady’s way due to miscues in pass protection calls pre-snap – the Jets talented defensive front often simply man-handled the opposition one-on-one.
Perhaps the most dominant player on the field for either team was Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson, a former first round pick out of the University of Missouri now in his second year in the NFL.
Although only credited with a half-sack and one QB hit in the game to go along with three tackles, the 6’3”, 294-pound defender played a game of musical guards with the Patriots, demolishing any and all of them in his path. New England started the game with backup Josh Kline at left guard, replacing the inactive Dan Connolly (ankle injury). Later, New England shifted right guard Ryan Wendell over to replace Kline and inserted Cameron Fleming at right guard. It didn’t matter much to Richardson, who took turns overpowering each offensive lineman.
Richardson vs. Kline
On a 3rd-and-2 late in the second quarter, the Patriots operate out of the shotgun with an empty backfield. The Jets counter with nickel personnel. New England sends all five receivers into routes while the offensive line faces a standard four-man rush from New York.
The pass protection scheme calls for the uncovered center, Bryan Stork, to scan for a potential rush from the middle/mike linebacker (David Harris, #52) and then aid Wendell on his block of defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson (#96). Both tackles face wide-9 alignments and perimeter pressure threats from the defensive ends. This leaves Kline with a man assignment on Richardson (#91), who aligns on the inside shoulder of the tackle (4i-technique):
The almost cartoonish result above shows Richardson applying a simple bull rush move to drive Kline eight yards into the backfield, treating the guard like nothing more than a blocking sled.
The protection elsewhere is adequate, but Brady’s first read – tight end Rob Gronkowski – is slow to break on the out route. With Brady feeling the pressure from Richardson, the QB makes a hurried, inaccurate throw to his backside outlet in wide receiver Brandon LaFell. Brady can do nothing but shake his head following the incompletion and failed third down conversion.
While Kline’s failure was evident, it should be noted that on a 3rd-and-2 pass play with a one-step drop, the ball should be out as soon as Brady’s back foot hits the 8-yard line. It would appear that the hurry forced by Richardson only occurs because Gronkowski breaks at a greater than expected depth. For a comparison, look at the depth of LaFell’s break on the in-cut route.
Richardson vs. Fleming
On the Patriots’ first possession of the second-half, Richardson tested the newly-inserted Fleming at right guard. Facing 3rd and 11, Brady takes the snap out of the shotgun within a split-back set. The Jets get creative with their nickel personnel, using a “radar” or “psycho” front with zero down linemen while moving defenders right up until the snap in order to disguise the true intent of the pass rush:
Despite having seven in pass protection (then six once running back Brandon Bolden scans the rush and releases into a short pattern), the Patriots fail to handle the well-schemed four-man rush.
By overloading the right side with three pass rushers (and timing the snap perfectly), the Jets cause confusion along the New England offensive line and force advantageous one-on-one matchups, such as running back Shane Vereen taking on outside linebacker Calvin Pace (#97).
With right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and Vereen attempting to account for the outside rushers, Fleming is left responsible for the inside threat in the form of Richardson, who is just wide of tackle at the snap before slanting down toward the B gap.
But as the video above displays, Richardson catches Fleming off-balance in his kick slide – a series of short lateral and backwards steps along a diagonal path used to counter an outside rush. The defender bull-rushes the rookie to the ground, forcing Brady to vacate the pocket. With seven in coverage smothering the three downfield receivers, the play ends in an incompletion and an offensive pass interference penalty on Gronkowski.
The above play is also a great example of the Jets’ ability to scheme tremendous pressure with just three- or four-man rushes that work in concert with the secondary, funneling everything toward the middle of the field where a sea of defenders await in coverage.
Richardson vs. Wendell
Late in the third quarter, the Patriots looked to cap off a successful drive inside the Jets 10-yard line with a touchdown. However, Richardson made sure to hold New England to a field goal.
Needing to convert a 3rd-and-2, the Patriots set up in the shotgun with Vereen offset in the backfield. Despite facing 11 personnel, the Jets maintain a heavy presence in the red zone and use an odd front (defensive lineman head up over center) with six defenders near the line of scrimmage. Richardson (4i-technique) is aligned in the B gap just to the inside shoulder of left tackle Nate Solder. Showing that a bull rush is not the only part of his repertoire, Richardson uses an inside-outside rip maneuver to club Wendell out of his way:
Compensating for a potential outside rush move based on Richardson’s alignment, Wendell kick steps left. The defensive end plays along with an initial jab step toward the B gap before quickly crossing over the guard to the inside, doing so without ever actually engaging the blocker. As Richardson crosses over to the A gap, Wendell reaches for the defender. But Richardson finishes off the combination move by slapping the guard’s inside arm before shifting back to the outside with a powerful upper cut (or rip) through Wendell’s arm, dismissing the blocker before then making his way to the QB.
Richardson causes Brady, who received the snap at the 12-yard line, to retreat back to the 20-yard line and eventually forces another pass attempt under heavy duress that falls incomplete, stealing his towel in the process. Once again, while sacks in the box score look nice, heavily-pressured throws can be just as effective.
Looking Ahead: Feast or Famine
After the game, Sheldon Richardson said Sheldon Richardson “feasted” on the Patriots offensive line; bold words from a player on the losing side, but true nonetheless. New England’s defense and special teams kept them afloat, allowing their offense to pull itself together for a few key drives and a hard-fought win.
With the Denver Broncos falling to the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday night, the Patriots clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, which affords head coach Bill Belichick the option to play it safe in Week 17 and continue to rest the banged-up Connolly and limit Brady’s snaps behind a suboptimal offensive line. It’s clear that, even despite the starting left guard’s recent struggles, Connolly’s veteran presence along the interior line – both in skill and in communication – is badly needed. The depth at guard beyond him presents a nightmarish alternative that playoff teams, much like Richardson, will certainly look to feast upon.
All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.
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