As discussed earlier this week, playing defense in the NFL is a difficult proposition. However, on some nights an offense’s margin for error is razor-thin. Sunday, while Tom Brady and the New England offense performed well, they left some plays – and points – on the field.
A staple of the New England offense is the backside slant route off of frontside play-action. The Patriots attempted this play in the first quarter, but Tom Brady and Brandon LaFell could not make the connection.
With 12 personnel on the field Brady lines up under center. Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Tim Wright all align to the right of the formation, with LaFell split wide as a single receiver to the left. The Packers call on their nickel defense and show Cover 3 in the secondary, with cornerback Sam Shields (#37) in a press alignment over LaFell:
New England fakes the stretch play to the right with Shane Vereen and Brady quickly looks to LaFell backside on the skinny post route:
The play works exactly as designed up until the throw. The fake to Vereen draws in the linebackers. Clay Matthews’s reaction to the fake opens a huge throwing window for LaFell’s route. At the moment the ball is released the WR has Shields beaten to the inside and there is room for him to run:
But the throw is a fraction of a second late. This yoctosecond allows Shields to recover and force the incompletion:
Instead of gaining positive yardage and staying on schedule, the Patriots now face 2nd and 10. They would go three and out on the drive.
With 5:54 remaining in the half the Patriots start a series on their own 20-yard line. Brady is under center and the offense has 12 personnel on the field, with Marcus Cannon in the game as a tackle-eligible receiver. Green Bay has their base 3-4 defense on the field for this snap:
The offense runs a fake counter play to LeGarrette Blount. The running back takes a parallel step left and then cuts to the right side of the line. At the top of the screen Edelman runs a post-corner route, while at the bottom LaFell executes a deep comeback route:
The deceptive motion with Blount works. As Brady comes out of his fake, eight defenders are at or near the line of scrimmage. In the secondary the Packers run Cover 1 and free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix scrambles to get into position:
Or rather, he nearly screws himself into the turf deciding between LaFell and Edelman:
As the throw comes out, Clinton-Dix is in position to help no one. Edelman has beaten Davon House on the outside and has no one between him and the end zone:
But the throw never gets there.
Remember how eight Green Bay defenders were at or near the line of scrimmage due to the run fake? One of them is Matthews, matched up on Cannon before the snap:
The long-locked linebacker blows right by the reserve lineman and gets to Brady:
Matthews doesn’t sack the quarterback, but he does just enough:
Football. It’s the two inches in front of your face.
Clay’s fingertips do enough to prevent a clean throw from Brady, and the football falls harmlessly to the turf yards short of its intended target:
New England took a shot deep in the second quarter, but missed because of a failure in protection. While Clinton-Dix knows he and the Packers defense dodged a bullet on this play, the Patriots and their fans likely felt worse:
On New England’s final drive their star quarterback and talented tight end failed to connect on a deep sideline throw. The Patriots have Brady in the shotgun with 11 personnel on the field, against Green Bay’s base 3-4 defense:
Gronkowski is split wide to the left and runs a vertical route on this play:
As he breaks downfield watch what happens:
Did you catch that? Perhaps a still:
Here is another angle, showing that black sleeve against the white sideline:
Gronkowski uses an old schoolyard trick, throwing his left arm up as a signal that he is going deep. But the tight end then stops his route and breaks into a curl pattern. He may have faked out his defender, but one slight problem exists:
He fakes his quarterback out too.
It is tough to play the “what-if” game, but the three plays covered in Packers passing recap exemplify just how close the offense was to putting more points on the scoreboard Sunday evening. While the Patriots did lose a game some called a “Super Bowl Preview,” they have time to iron out these little flaws in their performance. In a game where those two inches matter, New England needs to accomplish that task if they are to get another shot at the Packers in February.
All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.