After proving he knows the Oakland Raiders offense inside and out, Ted Nguyen tackles a new assignment: How the New England Patriots exploit matchups with their versatile personnel.
The Patriots offense begins with explosive tight end Rob Gronkowski and the versatile talents of wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. Add the multidimensional running backs like Dion Lewis and James White and the plan is to take advantage of matchup problems from the inside out with these talented playmakers. This approach produced the Patriots’ fourth Super Bowl title last season, and has them atop the AFC playoff standings. And this season, it has helped propel the Patriots to the best passing offense in the NFL.
Tom Brady and company had one of the best offensive performances against the league leading Denver Broncos defense this season even with running back Lewis, and wide receivers Edelman and Amendola missing the game because of injuries. New England nearly won by primarily targeting the Broncos’ safeties, linebackers, and third or fourth corners, like Bradley Roby, Darian Stewart, and Brandon Marshall, while rarely looking in the direction of the excellent duo of Chris Harris Jr. or Aqib Talib on the outside.
Creating true one-on-one situations by placing their tight ends and running backs outside, the Patriots negated double coverage opportunities for the Broncos robber and free safety. New England has been singling out their best matchups on the outside all season and with the rash of injuries, they heavily leaned on this concept to move the ball against Denver:
On this play, the Denver defense is in its base Cover 1 defense. The Patriots line up Gronkowski (#87) on the outside and give him an option route based on the pre-snap alignment of the defender. If the defender is lined up tight then Gronkowski will run a fade, if he is lined up deep then he will run a hitch, and if the corner is lined up head up or outside shade, he will run a slant.
The safety, Stewart (#26), lines up off of the tight end and the free safety cheats over to that side for double coverage, so Gronkowski runs a hitch. Brady sees the mismatch and knows that the free safety cannot make a play from that deep and delivers the ball on time. The tight end easily breaks the corner’s tackle and scores the first touchdown of the game:
Later in the game, Roby (#29) presses Gronkowski, making it difficult to create space for a hitch and the corner’s inside leverage takes away the slant, so the TE adjusts and runs a fade. Brady makes the same read and throws a beautifully timed – and placed – back shoulder fade.
The Patriots also split their running backs out wide to create one-on-one matchups. On this play, the Patriots are in an empty set with running back Brandon Bolden (#38) lined up outside at the bottom of the screen. Brady sees linebacker Danny Trevathan (#59) widen out with him, indicating the Broncos are playing a man coverage on Bolden’s side. Brady likes the matchup, sees that there is no robber in the middle of the field and knows Bolden can out run Trevathan:
Defenses avoid single coverage on the outside by playing more zone, but Brady and company have shown time and time again that they will pick apart zones with excellent spacing and correct reads. Relying on zone against the Patriots is electing a death by a thousand cuts. Packages with more defensive backs on the field present a serious size disadvantage in the run game against the Patriots’ tight ends and running backs.
Here, the Patriots are in a 12 personnel grouping. The Broncos, who have been getting gashed by matchup problems, elect to come out in their dime package (six defensive backs) on first down early in the third quarter. They are clearly trying to defend the pass, and the Patriots run a draw scheme with tight ends Scott Chandler (#88) and Gronkowski leading the way:
New England collects versatile players, allowing them to play chess while the other guys…you know. In order to stop them, a team’s defensive personnel must be multidimensional. Few teams have athletes that are well-rounded enough to do so, which is why the Patriots are able exploit mismatches. These personnel groupings and schemes put the opposition in bad positions and it is very impressive to watch. It will be interesting to see if the rest of the league can ever catch up to Bill Belichick and the Patriots.
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Inside The Pylon covers the NFL and college football, reviewing the film, breaking down matchups, and looking at the issues, on and off the field.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.