It is no secret that the NFL is a copycat league. Coaches and scouts scour hours of game film trying to find a play, a concept, a blitz, or a formation to gain an advantage over an upcoming opponent. Mark Schofield reviewed the Indianapolis Colts’ defensive footage from 2014 to identify concepts that the New England Patriots offense can use to attack the Colts pass defense on Sunday. Here are the results –– with strong evidence that the Patriots can deliver on their side of the equation.
In their Week 1 game against Denver, the Colts faced the dangerous aerial assault of Peyton Manning and the Broncos’ offense. The veteran quarterback completed 22 of 36 passes for 269 yards and three touchdowns, including this 35-yard scoring strike to tight end Julius Thomas.
Manning lines up under center and the Denver offense has 12 personnel on the field, with a slot formation to the left and two tight ends to the right in a wing alignment. Indianapolis has their base 3-4 defense on the field showing Cover 1 in the secondary:
The Broncos implement the high-low opposite: slot receiver Emmanuel Sanders running a deep post route while Thomas runs a shallow crossing route underneath him. Watch as three defenders (the slot cornerback, the opposite-side cornerback, and the free safety) collapse on Sanders’ deep post route, opening up the middle of the field for Thomas to beat the linebacker:
This should look familiar to Patriots fans. Josh McDaniels implements this design in a number of different ways, either between a tight end and a wide receiver or between a tight end and a running back. Against Chicago, Shane Vereen and Rob Gronkowski executed this technique with tremendous results.
Early in the third quarter, the Patriots faced 3rd and 10 on the Chicago 48-yard line. McDaniels emptied the backfield, with Tom Brady in the shotgun and 11 personnel on the field. Vereen starts out wide to the left and motions towards the football prior to the snap. Gronkowski is the inside receiver in a trips formation on the offense’s right. Chicago has nickel personnel on the field and they show Cover 1 in the back:
The running back and tight end execute the high-low opposite on this play: Vereen running a shallow crossing route from left to right while Gronkowski crosses from right to left deeper downfield. Watch as two linebackers break on Vereen’s route:
This leaves Gronkowski one-on-one with the strong safety. The big TE easily beats the man coverage, secures the throw from his quarterback, and breaks multiple tackles en route to the end zone:
The beauty of this offensive concept is that it forces the defense to stay disciplined in coverage of crossing routes. These patterns are deadly against man coverage ‒ such as Cover 1 ‒ because receivers can use angles to accelerate away from their defenders. Add a second crossing route, and you have defensive backs collapsing on one receiver while letting the other run free. Expect New England to throw a few passes using this concept on Sunday.
Play-Action with Backside Slant Route
Another concept that gave the Colts defense fits involved play-action passes using a backside slant or crossing route. During Indianapolis’s Monday night game against the New York Giants, Eli Manning is under center and the Giants have 12 personnel on the field, with wide receiver Rueben Randle split wide to the left. The Colts have their base 3-4 defense on the field showing Cover 1 in the secondary. They also put one of their inside linebackers in the C gap between the right tackle and the in-line tight end:
Notice that as the Giants fake the stretch to the right, the run simulation pulls the second-level defenders to their left – away from the backside crossing route run by Randle:
This opens up a huge throwing window for Manning to find the WR on the intermediate crossing route for a big gain:
This is a favorite of McDaniels and Brady. The Patriots often use this concept, throwing the backside slant route to Brandon LaFell. With 12:03 remaining in the first quarter, Brady is under center with 11 personnel on the field. LaFell is the single receiver split wide to the right, while the Patriots have trips to the left. The Bears have their nickel defense on the field and show Cover 1 in the secondary and the cornerbacks in press alignment:
After the snap, Brady fakes an off-tackle run play to the left, then comes back immediately to LaFell on a slant route to the backside. Again, notice the play-fake drawing in the defenders on the second level and opening up a throwing window for the backside slant:
The WR secures the throw from Brady, breaks a few tackles, and earns a fresh set of downs:
An offense succeeds when it can influence defenders’ movements away from the intended target of a play. Counter plays and screen passes are two examples of this idea, but the play-action run and backside throw combination is another. The fake to one side of the field gets defenders moving away from the intended target, hopefully opening up a big lane for a quarterback to find his first read. The Patriots love to use this concept to start drives, so look for this play on Sunday.
Beating Cover 3 with Deep Curls
This might seem like a narrowly focused concept, but it is really broader than the title suggests. Throwing the deep ball out of heavy formations is something that teams like to do, and Indianapolis is no exception to this rule. But the Colts themselves have been hurt by this scheme, and the Patriots can follow a road-map charted by their Divisional Round foes.
During the Colts Week 5 matchup, Baltimore faces 1st and 10 from their own 20-yard line to start the second quarter. Joe Flacco is under center and the offense has 21 personnel on the field. The Ravens have an offset i-formation and a slot receiver alignment to the right. Indianapolis has their base 3-4 defense in the game and shows Cover 3 in the secondary:
Flacco executes a run fake to the right while the two receivers run deep patterns. The Ravens implement a three-receiver route on this occasion: Steve Smith Sr. runs a deep post from the slot; Torrey Smith runs a deep curl pattern; and fullback Kyle Jusczyck is the outlet receiver on a swing route. This play works – not because of the run fake, but because of the separation between the routes:
The swing route from the fullback freezes the outside cornerback in place, while Steve Smith’s deep post route occupies the opposite cornerback. Because of Torrey Smith’s speed and vertical release, the free safety has to respect the deep threat, staying deep. Torrey Smith throttles down and finds the soft spot in the zone behind the linebackers and in front of the free safety. Flacco delivers the football and the Ravens have themselves a first down.
New England’s first play against Cincinnati in Week 5 had the Patriots facing 1st and 10 on their own 20-yard line. Shown below, Brady is under center and the offense has 21 personnel on the field. The Bengals have their base 4-3 defense in the game and show Cover 2 in the secondary:
At the snap, Cincinnati rolls their coverage into Cover 3. The Patriots fake the off-tackle run to the left and instead run a three-receiver passing play: fullback James Develin runs a short out route to the left after the play fake; Julian Edelman runs a deep post pattern from the right; and LaFell runs a deep curl route on the left.
Do those patterns sound familiar? They should:
This is nearly identical to the play the Ravens ran against the Colts, and New England enjoys the same level of success. The outlet route from the fullback holds the outside cornerback in place, while the deep post pattern occupies the opposite CB. The safety in the middle of the field is forced to read LaFell’s vertical release. Similar to the previous play, the free safety turns to anticipate the go pattern. But LaFell breaks off his route on a curl, and Brady hits him with the ball for a big gain.
Remember, New England ran the ball very well against Indianapolis in their first meeting, so they might be in heavy, run formations often during the AFC Championship Game. Taking advantage of this passing concept out of such formations against the Colts is something to watch for on Sunday.
Tight End Iso on the Goal Line
Finally, let’s look at Denver’s first touchdown against the Colts in the Divisional Round. With the ball on the Indianapolis one-yard line, the Broncos and Colts set up in goal-line, jumbo formations:
Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas lines up as a tight end to the left and, prior to the snap, he shifts to the outside. Safety LaRon Landry follows the WR outside, while outside linebacker Jonathan Newsome (#91) widens his alignment away from the rest of the defensive line:
Manning takes the snap and lofts a pass to the back corner of the end zone. Thomas beats Landry’s coverage and secures the football for the touchdown:
Does this look familiar? It should:
The main difference here is that Denver tried to stop Gronkowski with linebacker-in-name-only Von Miller. When the tight end shifted outside, the OLB followed him and used an inside alignment to try to prevent the slant route. Gronkowski was able to beat Miller on a slant route using a quick jab-step, and Brady hit his target in stride.
In the Divisional Round game, when Thomas split to the outside the Colts sent both a safety and a linebacker outside. Newsome shifted outside for one reason only: Stop the slant route. Manning and Thomas saw this, adjusted, and threw the fade. Given that the fade route has the higher degree of difficulty, look for the Colts to use the same strategy should this situation arise.
Given that this is the third meeting between these teams in 362 days, there is a high level of familiarity between the squads. They know what has and has not worked against each other during previous meetings. But knowing what has worked for other teams against an upcoming opponent is also precious knowledge, especially when the successful concepts are already part of your arsenal of weapons. Given that all of the schemes outlined are plays already relied upon by McDaniels, expect the New England offense to have a great deal of success when they attack the Colts pass defense Sunday night.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.
Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.
All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.