Tom Brady and the New England passing game played poorly on Sunday against the Oakland Raiders, struggling to take advantage of opportunities throwing the ball. Furthermore, the offensive line failed to keep Brady clean in the pocket as the veteran was hurried on a number of plays, taking six hits behind the line of scrimmage including two sacks. Brady finished the day completing 24 of 37 passes for 234 yards and one touchdown and, despite not looking sharp thus far, has yet to throw an interception this season. While a number of factors stood out when evaluating the film, there are three central themes to review. (There are four, actually, but the Mystery of Danny Amendola is a tale unto itself.)
Anatomy of a Three and Out – Passing Version
The Patriots’ offense began the day on their own 17-yard line following an Oakland punt. The offense quickly went three and out, which we will examine in detail. When an offense is struggling, their failure to make steady progress with respect to down and distance leads to difficult situations and reduces the margin for error; converting third and long is all well and good, but it’s far better not to get into that situation in the first place.
1st and Ten
New England comes out with Brady in the shotgun using 11 personnel. They have a trips formation to the left and Brandon LaFell is the single receiver split wide to the right. The Raiders have their nickel package on the field and the secondary shows Cover 1. The Patriots run a very simple route concept with dual hitches by both outside receivers, LaFell to the right and Danny Amendola to the left. Both routes are open, as shown.
Brady throws to LaFell, who is in position for a short yet quick gain. This is an example of a quarterback making his read based on field position. With the ball at the right hash LaFell’s route is a shorter throw and a higher percentage play. However, the throw is off target and the pass falls incomplete.
2nd and Ten
The Patriots again put Brady in the shotgun, this time with 12 personnel. New England has two tight ends in a wing to the right with a slot formation to the left. Oakland shows a 3-4 up front, with Cover 2 in the secondary. The Patriots bring Julian Edelman in short motion from the outside and set up a stack to the left just as the ball is snapped. With the Raiders in man coverage underneath, Brady looks to quickly hit Shane Vereen on a swing route out of the backfield. New England has the look they want with Vereen on a linebacker but the pass falls incomplete.
3rd and Ten
Following the two incompletions, here is where the failure to stay “on schedule” with steady yardage gains causes problems. New England lines up using 11 personnel, with two receivers in a slot to the left and a tight end and a third receiver to the right. Oakland brings a sub package onto the field with three down linemen, two linebackers, and six defensive backs. The situation allows the Raiders to bring on two extra secondary players and focus on pass coverage. This is the pre-snap alignment for both teams:
The Raiders have four defensive backs covering the width of the grid about 10 yards downfield. With defenders able to sit so deep on a 3rd-and-long play, the offense can still attempt a pass to pick up the first down but the throwing lanes will be tight and there is slim margin for error. Or, the offense can play it safe and try what the Patriots do here: Throw a quick screen to LaFell in the flat. This gets the ball into a playmaker’s hands quickly, forcing the deep defenders to come up the field and make a tackle. The Raiders make the play and the Patriots are forced to punt.
The failure of the New England offense to gain positive yardage on first or second down places them in a difficult spot on third down. Rather than dictate the play to the defense, they are left to react to the situation presented. As this season progresses, continued failure to stay on schedule will result in more three-and-outs for the Patriot offense.
The play-action passing game was successful against Oakland and two plays are worth discussing. As many have noticed, both here on Inside The Pylon and at other media outlets (video link), New England is using rookie Cameron Fleming as a blocking tight end more and more each Sunday. Having established their willingness to run behind Fleming, Josh McDaniels and the Patriot offense built upon that foundation against the Raiders by adding play-action calls to the portfolio. Here is one example.
New England has just taken possession for the first time in the 2nd quarter. They have Fleming on the field, having used him in the 1st quarter on a series where the offense moved the ball well on the ground. Fleming is positioned at tight end to the right and the Patriots have a slot formation to the left. Oakland lines up in a base 3-4, showing Cover 1 in the secondary. New England brings Edelman in motion across the formation from left to right and Brady fakes a lead play to Stevan Ridley. As he carries out the fake, watch how the linebackers and the strong safety react.
Those defenders are frozen momentarily by the fake to Ridley and this opens up a big throwing window for Brady to find Edelman on the outside. The pass is completed for a 12-yard gain and a new set of downs.
Another example of play-action being used in that deceptive fashion comes on 1st and 15 early in the 3rd quarter. After a false start sets them back five yards, New England has 11 personnel on the field and Oakland is in their nickel showing Cover 1 in the secondary, as shown in this end zone view.
Prior to the snap, Miles Burris (#56) is lined up over the left guard. Notice just how hard Burris bites on the fake.
This opens up a big throwing lane for Brady to hit LaFell on a quick slant.
The receiver hauls in the pass for a 15-yard gain so even despite the false start penalty New England gains a first down. By using play-action, an offense increases the probability of moving defenders out of position and opening up throwing windows. If the Patriots can be successful on the ground, these windows will grow bigger and bigger on play-action calls.
The final concept is the idea of showing a defense one look and later using a variant as trickery. On an earlier play, resulting in an incompletion to Amendola at the goal line, the Patriots initially had an empty backfield with Stevan Ridley split wide to the left. Ridley then motioned into the backfield prior to the snap.
Later, facing 3rd and 4 with 8:00 left in the game, New England shows Oakland another empty backfield. With Vereen split wide to the left. Burris shadows him to that side. The Patriots put Vereen in motion but not into the backfield, instead moving him into a stack slot to the left. At the snap of the ball Vereen is out in space matched up with a linebacker one-on-one. The running back executes a quick out route for the catch, breaking Burris’s tackle and gaining a new set of downs. You can see Burris pre-snap trying to get into the right position, then choosing to give Vereen a cushion off the line of scrimmage. By first showing Oakland the halfback motion into the backfield, the Patriots were able to later come back to this look, isolating a running back on a linebacker and converting a big 3rd down.
While there exist areas of concern in the passing game, the New England Patriots have found ways to move the ball through the air. If they can stay on schedule, they should find more opportunities down the field and in the play-action passing game.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.