The Miami Dolphins shut down the New England Patriots passing game in Week 1. Mark Schofield reviews the film to find out what went wrong and how the Patriots passing game can get back on track against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 2.
For the New England Patriots’ passing attack, it truly was “A Tale of Two Halves” Sunday in Miami. In the first half, Tom Brady dropped back to throw 33 times, attempting 29 passes and completing 19 for 187 yards and a touchdown. In the second half the engine sputtered with Brady completing only 10 of 27 passes for a mere 62 yards, while being sacked four times. The game seemed to turn on a 3rd-quarter fumble by Brady caused by Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake. New England spent most of the day in 11 personnel, including the 4th quarter, when 23 of their 25 offensive snaps used this grouping.
In reviewing the film several things stood out about the Patriots’ passing game. Play-action can be successful in this offense. However, unless the protection schemes are fixed, Brady and the passing game will continue to struggle. Finally, when there are chances for big gains, the players need to take advantage of those opportunities. Dropped passes and missed throws often lead to losses, especially on the road against a tough divisional opponent.
Look to Play-Action
As we’ll see later in this piece, the Patriots should continue to establish a play-action passing game as part of their arsenal. Against Miami, New England enjoyed early success with that approach, but got away from such plays as they encountered difficulty up front and the game began go get away from them:
On this 2nd and 7 play early in the second quarter, New England lines up in an I-formation using 21 personnel. Miami is in their base 4-3 alignment and personnel, showing an over front on the line and Cover 2 in the secondary. The Patriots bring Julian Edelman in motion from a slot position on the right to a flanker position on the left of the formation, and they fake a lead play to Stevan Ridley. If you look at the still photo below, you can see the effect of the fake:
Notice the middle linebacker and both safeties. Where are they looking? The middle linebacker and the weak side safety both come up to respect the run fake, and Edelman is able to beat Cortland Finnegan deep on a go route. The safety to that side of the field arrives late, and Edelman hauls in the pass for a big gain.
And yes, a better ball might have resulted in a touchdown.
Fix Play-Action Blocking
It was previously mentioned that the play-action game was abandoned in the second half, due in part to failures in blocking. Well, here are two examples.
Patriots 1st and 10 3:39 1st Quarter
Here, the Patriots have the ball in a 1st and 10 situation. They use 12 personnel and line up in a singleback formation with both Michael Hoomanawanui and Tim Wright on the line of scrimmage, one to each side of the formation. Edelman and Danny Amendola are lined up as twins to the right. Miami has their base 4-3 alignment and personnel in for this play. At the snap of the ball New England runs a fake stretch to the right side of the formation. Watch the movement from the line, as each lineman blocks down to their right, as illustrated below (you may also notice that newly acquired tight end Tim Wright does not know the snap counts yet):
As you watch this play unfold, focus on what left guard Marcus Cannon is asked to do:
Cannon is tasked with peeling off and then sealing the right defensive end, Olivier Vernon. As the Patriot turns around to pick up his assignment, Vernon is already moving upfield with a full head of steam. Vernon blows right by Cannon and while he fails to obliterate Brady (due to very quick movement by the quarterback) he does enough to force an incompletion. The end zone view illustrates this quite well:
For a few years now, Patriots fans have debated the merits of pulling linemen on play-action sets. This play is an example of how that scheme can fail.
On the play that may have turned the course of the contest, blocking on play-action also failed for the Patriots. Facing 2nd and 8 near midfield, New England lines up in an I-formation using 21 personnel. Miami is in their base 4-3 defense using an over front, and show Cover 1 in the secondary. They have also walked up the weak-side linebacker to the line of scrimmage, showing five men on the line.
They run a double fake, with Brady first faking to James Develin on the inside dive, and then to Ridley on the lead. The tight end on this play, Hoomanawanui, is tasked with blocking defensive end Cameron Wake.
He fails spectacularly.
As extra insurance (against what eventually happens on this play), Ridley is also tasked with picking up at least a chip block on Wake.
He also fails spectacularly:
Wake gets to Brady and forces a fumble. Miami scores a touchdown on the ensuing drive that ties the game, and the Patriots never see the lead again. To be fair, Cameron Wake is an All-Pro defensive end and a relentless pass rusher. However, on this play New England ran two play-action fakes and ran two blockers at him, yet he still made the play. Before Sunday, the Patriots either need to shore up this scheme or burn this page in the playbook.
Confusion Up Front
Separate and apart from the protection failures on play-action was the general sense of confusion in pass blocking shown on Sunday. This play is a perfect illustration.
Patriots 2nd and 10 12:52 second quarter
On 2nd and 10, Brady is in the shotgun with Shane Vereen next to him. He has Kenbrell Thompkins split to the right, and Edelman, Amendola and Hoomanawanui in a trips to the left as the Patriots are using 11 personnel. Miami is in a 4-2-5 alignment with nickel personnel, and they walk both linebackers up showing blitz. Only one of them actually comes on a blitz, while the other drops into coverage. So Miami rushes five defenders. New England leaves Hoomanawanui in to block on this play, giving them six men to block five. Watch what happens. Everyone blocks to their left. Hoomanawanui has the right defensive end to himself, there is a double team on the right defensive tackle, and another double team on the blitzing linebacker. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer picks up the left defensive tackle, but the unimpeded left defensive end rushes in to force a quick throw. Cameron Wake is the player left unblocked:
If the Patriots shore up their protection schemes on play-action plays, I believe they will find more chances to make big plays this coming Sunday. It will then be up to the players to take advantage of those chances.
Looking Ahead to Week 2
This weekend the Patriots travel to Minneapolis for the Vikings’ home opener. Minnesota is under the leadership of new head coach Mike Zimmer, who served as the Cincinnati Bengals’ defensive coordinator from 2008-2013. George Edwards, linebackers coach for the Dolphins the past two seasons, is the new Vikings’ defensive coordinator, a position he held for the Buffalo Bills in 2010 and 2011.
To get a feel for how the new-look Vikings will attack the Patriots in the passing game, I reviewed previous games to see how both the Bills of 2010-11 and the Bengals of 2008-13 worked to contain Tom Brady and the Patriots’ offense. I began my film review by looking at the tape from Week 3 of the 2011 season, a game that the Bills won 34-31. Looking at this film and the George Edwards’s defense, a few things jumped out at me.
On most plays, the Patriots came out with either one or no running backs in the backfield. Bear in mind that many times the Patriots had either their 01 or 02 personnel packages on the field, even when they went with a “five wide receiver” look. The Bills often countered this with a 4-2-5 defensive look (4 down linemen, 2 linebackers, and 5 defensive backs, with 3 cornerbacks and 2 safeties). Here the Patriots line up in the shotgun with their 02 personnel. Tight end Rob Gronkowski lines up in the backfield, but motions out to the slot pre-snap. The Bills counter with 4-2-5 personnel, as above.
On this play, the Patriots line up in a “five wide receiver” look without five true wide receivers on the field. They are in their 01 personnel, with four receivers and Gronkowski. Even with a slightly different personnel look from the offense, the Bills are in a 4-2-5 alignment.
To drive this point home, the Patriots also ran singleback formations with their 11 personnel, which the Bills still countered with 4-2-5 alignment:
Out of their 4-2-5 alignment, the Bills during this game chose to disguise coverages rather than blitz Brady. In most cases, the Bills would initially show a Cover 2 look, but after the snap they would roll their coverage to either Cover 3 or, more often, Cover 1. Here is an example:
The Patriots come out in a shotgun, single backfield using 11 personnel. Again, the Bills are in a 4-2-5 alignment. At pre-snap, they are showing a Cover 2 look. The two outside cornerbacks are lined up directly across from the two outside receivers, and the extra cornerback is lined up across from the slot receiver. The two safeties are off the ball, showing Cover 2. However, as the Patriots use motion, the strong safety rolls up his coverage to the strong side of the formation, and as the ball is snapped we see a Cover 1 look. Man-to-man underneath, with a single high safety.
4-2-5 with Dime Personnel
In Week 17, the Bills traveled to Foxboro for the season finale. Again, the Edwards defense utilized a 4-2-5 alignment throughout the game, with a slight twist. Rather than a straight 4-2-5, the Bills used a strong safety as a linebacker. Here is an example:
You will see that while this is a 4-2-5 alignment, one of the two linebackers is a strong safety; the player circled is strong safety Bryan Scott. The end zone camera view is included to illustrate this point. The Bills looked even more to contain the Patriots offense through coverage rather than size and pressure. Further, as with the Week 3 contest, the Bills continually relied on rolling coverages at the snap in an attempt to confuse Tom Brady and the Patriots’ receivers:
Here, the Patriots come out in a singleback formation with Tom Brady under center, using their 12 personnel. The Bills are again in a 4-2-5 alignment, showing Cover 2 pre-snap. As the ball is snapped, they roll their coverage to Cover 3, with the two cornerbacks dropping back to cover a deep third and the strong safety rolling up to cover the flat on the formation’s strong side.
However, Zimmer is looking to instill a fast, attacking mindset in Minnesota, similar to what the Bengals ran in years past under his watch. I took a look at what the Bengals did against the Patriots in Week 5 of the 2013 season, an ugly contest won by the Bengals, 13-6. Here are some things that stood out watching the film.
Defenses Blitz an Offense, not a Quarterback
Oftentimes pundits will decry the notion that a defense should not blitz an experienced quarterback because “their eyes light up when they see the blitz coming [and] they know who is going to be open.” While that is true, it is misleading since the quarterback will still need time to make a play. Mike Zimmer blitzed Tom Brady on many occasions during this game and his defense was able to make plays.
Here is one example:
Here the Patriots face 3rd and 2 at their own 22-yard line. They come out in a singleback formation with Tom Brady under center using 11 personnel. Like the Bills, the Bengals are using a 4-2-5 alignment with nickel personnel. Prior to the snap, the weakside linebacker (#55 Vontaze Burfict, one of the better MLBs in the game) walks up to the weakside B gap between the LG and LT, and blitzes at the snap. Included are pre-snap stills from the sideline and end zone cameras to illustrate this alignment.
The Patriots run play-action and simulate the stretch play to the strength of the formation. This involves pulling the LG to simulate the stretch run action. As a result, the C is responsible for wheeling out to protect that gap, in this case picking up the blitzing linebacker. The LT knows this, however, and he doesn’t want to give up a free shot at his QB. So the LT hangs in the B gap and chips up the blitzing linebacker, and a second later the C arrives to take on the LB as well. However, the LT cannot wheel back in time to meet the defensive end, who is then able to get to Brady and force a sack.
Here is another example:
Here the Patriots face 3rd and 5 at their own 37 yard line. They line up in a singleback formation with Brady under center, using 11 personnel. Again, the Bengals line up in a 4-2-5 with dime personnel. Prior to the snap, the Bengals walk both the linebacker and the sixth defensive back up to the line of scrimmage. The screen cap below shows the look right at the moment the ball is snapped: At the line of scrimmage there are eight defenders, including four down linemen and the two “linebackers.” Only one linebacker follows through on the blitz, though, as the other drops into coverage. As we view the play from the end zone camera, you can see how the pocket collapses around Brady and he is forced into a poor throw.
Blitzes Have Weaknesses
Part of handling a team that tries to establish pocket pressure through blitzes, or cause confusion through blitz looks, is taking what the defense gives you. It sounds simple in theory but can be difficult to execute come Sunday. Here is an example of taking what the defense gives an offense and using it to make a big play:
Here the Patriots face 3rd and three deep in their own territory. They line up in a singleback, shotgun formation utilizing 11 personnel. The Bengals are in a 4-2-5 alignment, yet this time they have brought in a sixth defensive back to set up as a linebacker. Both “linebackers” show blitz and walk up to the line of scrimmage pre-snap, while the secondary shows Cover 1. When the ball is snapped, both “linebackers” drop into man coverage underneath. The sixth defensive back, #26 Taylor Mays, is slow to recognize that the running back is already on a swing route to the open field. Brady delivers the ball quickly, before Mays can get to the spot, and it goes for a 15-yard gain. From the end zone view, you can even see Mays put his arm up asking for help as he chases down the running back.
Much like the Bills in 2011, the Bengals also rolled their coverages in an effort to confuse Brady and the receivers. I would like to highlight this play from last season as an example of a near miss that could be a big play if properly executed this coming Sunday.
The Patriots have a 1st and 10 at their own 34 yard line. They come out in a singleback formation with Brady under center, in 11 personnel. The Bengals line up in a Cover 2 look pre-snap, with straight nickel personnel:
This is a very well-designed play that takes advantage of a rolled coverage and the situation. The Patriots bring Amendola in deep backfield motion just prior to the snap. As the ball is snapped, the Bengals roll their coverage from a Cover 2 look to a Cover 1, bringing up the strong safety towards the line of scrimmage and Amendola’s direction of motion. The Patriots fake the reverse and look to come back to the now-weak side of the formation on a screen to the running back. Look at this screen cap from the moment the pass is thrown:
If this is completed, it goes for big yardage. Against the Cover 1, the Patriots have their outside receivers running off the cornerbacks in coverage, the free safety is over 20 yards deep off the ball, and the strong safety has rolled his coverage to the Amendola motion taking himself out of the play. Brandon Bolden cannot make the reception, but the play is there. Look for the Patriots to capitalize on situations like this if the Vikings roll coverages like both their head coach and defensive coordinator have been known to do in the past when facing the Patriots.
What About the Vikings?
Having looked at what previous teams did against the Patriots in years past, it was time to look at last week’s Minnesota tape. The Vikings opened their season with a convincing 34-6 win in St. Louis against the Rams. They held backup quarterback Shaun Hill to 81 yards passing in the first half before he was benched in favor of second-year pro Austin Davis. Minnesota used a base 4-3 defense, switching to a 4-2-5 with nickel personnel, or a 4-2-5 with dime personnel in longer distance situations. In reviewing this film, there were many similarities between what Mike Zimmer did with the Bengals last season, and this version of the Vikings defense. I want to highlight a few things to watch for this Sunday as the Patriots travel to Minnesota
Play-Action Can Work
On this short-yardage play, the Rams come out in a base I-formation look with their 22 personnel on the field. The Vikings are in their base 4-3 defense, with the secondary showing Cover 2 pre-snap. When the second tight end shifts from a wing formation to line up on the line to the left, Minnesota rolls the coverage to Cover 1. They slide the strong-side linebacker onto the line of scrimmage as well, giving them an “eight in the box” look.
The Rams run a simple play-action pass at Minnesota, running the new strong-side tight end downfield while looking to hit a running back for a short gain and a first down. As you watch this play develop, look at how the route works with the tight end creating traffic for the linebackers to fight through to reach the intended receiver. In addition, watch Chad Greenway, the linebacker for the Vikings, get sucked up at the snap of the ball expecting run, which leaves him trailing the back out of the backfield. The play goes for a short gain but a first down, and illustrates how even a veteran linebacker like Greenway can fall for a well-executed and designed play-action pass.
Patriots fans have come to appreciate the intermediate, underneath passing game. From what I saw from Minnesota’s defense, Sunday could afford many chances to have success in that facet of the playbook. Here is one such example.
On this first down play, the Rams come out in an offset I-formation using their 21 personnel. Minnesota counters with their base 4-3 alignment and personnel, showing a Cover 2 look at pre-snap, which the Vikings stay in throughout the play. Underneath, the linebackers are in zone coverage. Watch the two underneath routes on this play, from the tight end and the tailback. The tight end runs a crossing route from the left over the middle at about five yards, while the tailback runs a short curl over the middle. You will see that both routes are open. None of the defenders in the area are in a position to make a play. Worse still, none are able to take away the post route behind them. The X receiver is able to find the soft spot of the Cover 2 zone on a deep in cut 15 yards downfield.
On this play the Vikings linebackers look to be caught between trying to get deep enough to take away the deep in route, and trying to stay shallow enough to prevent an underneath route. They fail at both tasks, and Shaun Hill makes a play downfield for another first down.
Anthony Barr: Young, Athletic and Confused in Zone
With the ninth selection in the recent NFL Draft, the Vikings selected Anthony Barr, a linebacker from UCLA. He earned a starting position with Minnesota, and was featured as a strong-side linebacker for the majority of his snaps on Sunday. Extremely athletic and very talented, Barr made some impressive plays in his debut. However, he showed some confusion in the passing game that, in tandem with exploring the underneath routes, the Patriots should look to capitalize upon this week. Here is an example.
St. Louis lines up in a singleback formation with their 11 personnel. They have a slot formation to the left, and a wing formation to the right. Minnesota counters with their base 4-3 alignment and personnel, and they show (and run) Cover 1 in the secondary. The linebackers are again in zone coverage. Watch him on this play. The Rams use motion, and the linebackers slide in response. Barr is late to slide, leaving him out of position at the snap. As the play develops, Barr appears unsure of his zone responsibility. He comes upfield first, as if he is playing a man coverage, then backpedals into a zone, never really settling in his responsibility for the outside flat. He reacts to the play well, but everything up to that point is an opportunity to exploit.
Will They Spy Brady?
One last play I want to highlight is this one from last Sunday. The Rams face 3rd and 15 and line up with one receiver split to the left and trips to the right, using 10 personnel. Minnesota has nickel personnel lined up in a 4-2-5 formation, using an under front on the defensive line. They line up in Cover 2 in the secondary, and stay in Cover 2 for the play. As the ball is snapped, the weak side linebacker, Barr, is in man coverage on the running back. However, the strong side linebacker, Greenway, drops into a zone and looks to spy the quarterback. This is evident from the end zone view. Watch Greenway trying to read Hill’s eyes, as he looks to bite on Hill’s pump fake. He then mirrors Hill as he tries to buy time with his feet. While I doubt the Vikings will use a defender to spy Brady, if they do so the quarterback needs to find the open receiver and make them pay.
St. Louis 3rd and 15 12:10 second quarter
As you watch the game on Sunday, look to see if the Patriots take advantage of these aspects of the Minnesota defense. If protection schemes are solidified and they work to attack these weaknesses in the Vikings’ defense, New England can get their offense back on track this Sunday.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.