Having earned home field advantage in chilly Foxboro, the New England Patriots welcome the Baltimore Ravens in the 2015 Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs. Both teams are looking at the film, trying to find matchups to exploit and schemes that can work – be sure to check out our developing coverage of the game as we update it.
In Week 16, the New York Jets employed a combination of defensive tactics and talent to overwhelm the New England Patriots blockers in pass protection. It led to an across-the-board failure as the offensive line, tight ends, running backs, and even Tom Brady himself struggled significantly against the Jets’ attack. Sending pressure from seemingly all directions, New York recorded four sacks in the first half and forced the Patriots to change personnel across the interior offensive line in the second half.
The Jets’ ability to pressure Brady without sacrificing coverage was the key to limiting the New England offense to just 17 points. Despite the perception of a blitz-heavy approach, New York sent five or more rushers just 7 times while rushing four or fewer 35 times. The pressure with four-man rushes created three of the Jets’ four sacks and an interception.
Fast-forward to this weekend’s Divisional Round playoff game between the Patriots and the sixth-seeded Baltimore Ravens, who upset the third-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers, 30-17, in the Wild Card round. Meeting the Patriots for the fourth time in the last six postseasons, the Ravens bring schemes that utilize concepts similar to the Jets game plan that exploited a topsy-turvy New England offensive line.
One such concept, the overload, transforms a standard four-man alignment (with three or four down linemen) into an exotic front by shifting extra defenders over a single attack point – either a gap or a specific blocker. To add an additional layer to this concept, the Jets and Ravens will overload more than one area, disguising their intentions and muddying the waters for reading blocking assignments.
Without sound pre-snap communication by the quarterback, offensive line, and any additional blockers, the overload front can wreak havoc on pass protection even when the defense only sends three or four rushers.
Looking Back At Week 16
Facing 3rd and 3 on their first offensive possession of the game, the Patriots, with 11 personnel on the field, operate out of the shotgun with running back Shane Vereen offset to Brady’s right and tight end Rob Gronkowski in line on the same (strong) side.
The Jets deploy nickel personnel and present the unconventional front by overloading both offensive tackles with the threat of two outside pass rushers each. This leaves defensive tackle Muhammad Wilkerson (#96) head up over center with inside linebacker David Harris (#52) stacked behind him as the only interior defenders. While the down and distance suggests a run play remains a possibility, the Jets anticipate pass all the way against the shotgun formation, weakening their interior defense – a call that would prove to be correct.
As Brady receives the snap, the overload alignment causes mass confusion in pass protection, likely due to miscommunication on where to slide protection:
While the Jets show blitz pre-snap, the pass rush devolves into a three-man rush. Both outside rushers on the strong-side of the formation drop into coverage while Wilkerson slants down from left-to-right to draw attention from four blockers. However, he never actually attempts to penetrate into the backfield.
The true attack point is left tackle Nate Solder, as linebackers Calvin Pace (#97), Jason Babin (#58), and Harris work in unison to rush the gaps on either side of the weak-side blocker. To top off the well-designed pressure scheme, Harris and Babin work a cross-rush stunt, with Babin crossing the face of Solder toward the B gap while Harris slips behind his teammate through the C gap.
Even without knowing the exact pass protection call, it’s clear that left guard Josh Kline is responsible for… someone. There are two possibilities: the potential inside pass rush from Harris as part of a dual read (working with center Bryan Stork on Wilkerson but with his head on a swivel ready to peel off and pick up the linebacker); or an inverted block to pick up the overhang defender (Pace) – a call that can be made pre-snap by the tackle when faced with an overload alignment. Instead, Kline blocks air along with most of his fellow linemen on the play.
As a result, Solder must fend for himself in a losing battle against three defenders. By the time wide receiver Danny Amendola breaks free on a shallow drag route (heading toward the vacated area once occupied by Harris), Brady is in no position to complete a pass with Pace breathing down his neck for the eventual sack.
Of course, even in an alternate universe where Kline picks up Harris or Pace, a rusher remains unaccounted for – evidence of further pre-snap failures. Brady had the pre-snap option to check into a six-man protection scheme by keeping either Vereen or Gronkowski in to block, adjusting protection accordingly. Another simple pre-snap adjustment by Brady may have called for Vereen to shift weak-side with a block-and release-read, which would have placed the Patriots in better position to address all pass rush possibilities (whether three or six rushers) and clearly define the blocking assignments.
Now To The Present
If you paid close attention to the miraculous knee-catch interception by Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs that sealed the Wild Card game win over Pittsburgh, then you understand why the above play is relevant to the upcoming New England-Baltimore showdown.
On 3rd and 4 halfway through the 4th quarter, the Steelers align in the shotgun with running back Ben Tate (#34) offset left and three receivers bunched tight to the formation on the right. The bunch formation creates a natural overload effect as the Ravens press the line, both to show blitz and to establish position to jam tight end Heath Miller at the line of scrimmage.
Baltimore has a more obvious overload on the left, lining up three defenders all wide of tackle Kelvin Beachum (#68). Much like the Jets, the Ravens use defensive lineman DeAngelo Tyson (#93) head up over center – as the lone interior presence along the front. It’s 3rd and 4 but Baltimore defensive coordinator Dean Pees does not expect – or respect – the run, particularly with the Steelers operating out of the shotgun:
Although the Ravens showed blitz pre-snap, the defense ultimately sends just three pass rushers – the two outermost perimeter rushers on the left and the down lineman on the right. Suggs, aligned closest to Beachum, simulates an inside pass rush to draw the left guard (#73) and center (#53), but then drops into a short zone. By abandoning the pass rush, Suggs positions himself to defend the running back on a release route or to spy quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on a potential scramble. Tyson also drops into zone coverage over the short middle on the snap.
Despite all the misdirection – and unlike the Patriots above – the Steelers avoid complete confusion and manage to account for all possible pass rushers. Only an added twist – quite literally – by the Ravens causes confusion for Tate as he loses his assignment, safety Darian Stewart (#24), who crosses behind linebacker C.J. Mosley. While Beachum correctly picks up Mosley, he receives unintended help from Tate. As a result, Stewart has a free rush lane toward the QB.
With Roethlisberger’s first read to the right yet to break on the route, the QB – sensing pressure – spins out of harm’s way to avoid the hit from Stewart. Roethlisberger manages to deliver an ugly but effective check-down pass to the now-releasing Tate. But the running back further exacerbates his poor play on the down by failing to handle the short dump-off pass.
Suggs, who played the role of faux pass rusher at the snap, falls back into the perfect place to make a play on the tipped pass, somehow squeezing the ball between his knees for the interception. The drop into coverage was most likely by design but may have also been an instinctual adjustment by Suggs, given that Tyson dropped into a slightly deeper zone within the same area. A good scheme executed by intelligent players presents a devastating combination to combat.
Countering The Overload
When the Patriots square-off against the Ravens this Saturday at Gillette Stadium, they will face pressure schemes that utilize exotic fronts with rushers coming from unexpected places. This happens in concert with unusual defenders dropping into coverage – blitz-like concepts without actually sending more than four rushers and sacrificing coverage.
Working a healthy Daniel Connolly, absent from the starting lineup the past two weeks, back into the interior offensive line should improve the communication issues that emerged against the Jets in Week 16. Pre-snap line calls and adjustments must be flawless when facing overloaded fronts – that starts with Brady before moving on down the line, from setting the protection to anticipating the hot read to the receiver adjusting into the hot route.
One option is to use more six- or seven-man protection schemes to strengthen an offensive line that has been a weakness at times for the Patriots this season. While not ideal, as it leaves fewer receiving options for Brady, it places pressure on an inconsistent Baltimore secondary to hold up longer in coverage.
Another key to dismantling the overload scheme starts before it even begins. Producing on first and second downs to avoid obvious passing situations on third downs would likely lead the Ravens to avoid using overload fronts that are susceptible to the run.
Furthermore, establishing the running game, much like New England did in their last meeting against Baltimore coming in the 2013 season, may be the best counterpunch to the overload fronts and the Ravens pass rush in general.
No matter how the Patriots elect to counter these overload pressure concepts, Brady and the offense should not be caught off guard against these types of tactics when they take the field this Saturday – because our overload overlords are definitely on their way.
All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.