The NFL is a copycat league and streak routes are in every team’s playbook. Still, it is incredibly rare to see nearly identical patterns for each team become turning points in the eventual outcome. With the season on the line, both the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens ran the same play. Dave Archibald and Mark Schofield reviewed the film frame-by-frame for the six inches in front of your face, and here’s what they found.
The New England Patriots trailed 31-28 with 5:30 remaining facing 1st and 10 at the Baltimore 23-yard line. With the ball on the left hash mark, Tom Brady lines up in the shotgun with 11 personnel on the field. Wide receiver Brandon LaFell splits wide to the left, while the Patriots align three receivers to the right. Tight end Rob Gronkowski sets up next to right tackle Sebastian Vollmer in a three-point stance, with WRs Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman in a slot outside of Gronkowski:
The Ravens’ nickel defense surveys the field in a blitz posture. Linebacker C.J. Mosley (#57) sets up in the B gap between left tackle Nate Solder and left guard Dan Connolly. On the other side of the formation, safety Will Hill (#33) stands a few yards off the ball, over Vollmer. In the secondary, the defensive backs show Cover 1 with free safety Darian Stewart (#24) standing between the hash marks near the goal line.
In Cover 1, the free safety typically lines up over the football and tries to read the quarterback’s eyes. Due to the offensive personnel alignment ‒ with three receivers to his left ‒ Stewart takes a few steps away from dead center, towards the three-receiver set ‒ and Gronkowski. At the snap of the football, Stewart is aligned with the goalpost support, two to three steps away from the normal Cover 1 alignment:
Notice how Stewart’s left foot is precisely on the marker for the extra point.
Dropping back, Brady does little to disguise where he is throwing. To his credit, Stewart reads this play perfectly. Brady takes the football and immediately turns towards LaFell, as Stewart recognizes this and breaks quickly to his right:
LaFell beats Rashaan Melvin on his streak route (also known as a go route, fade route, or fly route) and Brady drops the throw in perfectly. The ball reaches the sideline, keeping LaFell away from the middle of the field. Stewart races to the spot of the reception, but arrives two steps late:
This is surely a difficult play for Stewart, even from his standard alignment. Had he aligned over the football at the outset, he might have arrived at or near the moment of the catch with a chance to separate LaFell from the football. Given his starting point, he cannot get there, and the Patriots score the eventual game-winning touchdown:
About three-and-a-half minutes after Brady found LaFell in the end zone against Cover 1 to take the lead, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco faces a nearly identical look from the left hash, and he targets Torrey Smith on the same route on which LaFell scored. As the play unfolds, however, key differences emerge from the Patriots’ successful pass. They are little things, but little things add up:
On 2nd and 5 at the New England 36, Baltimore spreads the field with 01 personnel (four receivers and a tight end), and the Patriots counter with an unusual look: three cornerbacks and a whopping four safeties. Further, only one of these safeties is deep: second-year man Duron Harmon (#30). Here we see one difference: unlike Stewart, Harmon is lined up directly over the center, not shading to either side of the formation. He doesn’t need to cheat over towards tight end Owen Daniels (#81), partly because the Patriots are already bracketing Daniels with safeties Patrick Chung (#23) and Tavon Wilson (#27), and partly because Daniels doesn’t pose the same deep threat as Gronkowski.
Here is a sideline view of the pre-snap alignment:
Wide left (top of the frame, above) is speedster Torrey Smith (#82), covered by cornerback Logan Ryan (#26). Smith beats the press, gets an outside release and runs the streak route ‒ just as LaFell did. Flacco attempts to drop the pass in to Smith behind Ryan before Harmon can get over:
Another difference in this play involves the quarterback. While Brady had stepped forward to deliver his pass, here Flacco falls off to the side as he throws, likely due to pressure from Jamie Collins (#91) and a congested the pocket. Consequently, Flacco doesn’t get much velocity on the throw, which has to travel a dozen yards farther than Brady’s. The placement of the throw is also off-target; rather than dropping in along the sideline where only Smith can make a play, the ball sails more towards the middle of the field.
These factors, plus Harmon’s range and strong play recognition, let the safety get to the throw before Smith does. Harmon attacks the ball and shields Smith with his body so the receiver can’t stop him from catching the ball, thus sealing New England’s come-from-behind victory. But for a few minor differences, Flacco’s throw could have been a game-winning touchdown instead of a season-ending turnover.
Football. It’s the six inches in front of your face. A step too early or too late and you don’t make the play. These two plays from Saturday night changed the course of the contest, and illustrate how this sport truly is a “game of inches.”
Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.
Dave Archibald knows pass defense, specifically how coverage, the pass rush, excellent cornerbacks, versatile safeties and in-game adjustments can make a big difference.
All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.