The 1-1 New England Patriots host the 0-2 Oakland Raiders this Sunday in a matchup many pundits believe to be lopsided in the Patriots favor. Tom Brady and the Patriots passing game looks to stay on schedule against a Raiders defense featuring Justin Tuck and Charles Woodson.
In their opener at MetLife Stadium, the Raiders dropped a close contest to the Jets, 19-14. While rookie quarterback Derek Carr’s first NFL start stole the postgame headlines, the new-look Raider defense may be Oakland’s most important storyline of their 2014 season. The defense has a number of new faces, including former Steeler outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, ex-Giant defensive end Justin Tuck, and number five overall draft pick Khalil Mack, another linebacker. They’ve also welcomed back former Raider safety Charles Woodson.
Oakland’s NASCAR Front(s)
Patriot fans are sadly all too familiar with the concept of a “NASCAR” defensive front. In Super Bowl XLVI the New York Giants stymied Tom Brady and the Patriots passing game with their NASCAR package, a defensive line that utilized three defensive ends (Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre Paul, and Osi Umenyiora) and one linebacker (Mathias Kiwanuka) in their front four.
Against the Jets, Oakland utilized a number of combinations on defense. On some occasions they lined up in a 4-2-5 alignment but utilized 3-3-5 personnel, with either Mack or Woodley on the line of scrimmage as a fourth defensive end. Here is one example:
On this second down play, the Jets have quarterback Geno Smith in the shotgun with a pro formation to the right and a slot formation to the left while using 11 personnel. The Raiders have a 4-2-5 alignment, but are using 3-3-5 personnel. Along their defensive front they have Tuck in a wide 9 technique, rookie defensive tackle Justin Ellis in a 1 technique shading the center, former defensive end Antonio Smith lined up in the B gap, and Woodley at the other defensive end.
Other times they lined up in a 4-2-5 alignment but had 2-4-5 personnel on the field, using both Mack and Woodley as defensive ends. Here is an example:
Here with the Jets facing a 1st and 10, they come out with Geno Smith in the shotgun flanked by two running backs. He has a slot formation to his right and a split receiver to his left, as New York is using 20 personnel. Oakland counters with a 4-2-5 set, but look at the personnel on their defensive line. They have Mack at left defensive end and Woodley at right defensive end in a two point stance. Inside they have Antonio Smith at one defensive tackle spot with Ellis at the other.
Perhaps Oakland’s most dangerous front four combination is the one depicted in the below still. On this 3rd and 10 play with 3:07 left in the first half, the Jets run an empty backfield using 11 personnel, and have split a receiver to the left with a quad package to Geno Smith’s right. Oakland counters with a 4-2-5 alignment, but with 2-4-5 personnel grouping. Oakland has Woodley at one defensive end in a two-point stance with a wide alignment. Antonio Smith is on the inside shade of the left guard. Oakland also has Tuck on an inside shade of the right tackle, while Mack is out in a wide 9 technique. With two defensive ends and two linebackers in this front, the Raiders rely on speed and athleticism to put pressure on the quarterback.
Charles Woodson – Savvy Veteran
As with the “NASCAR” front, “Woodson” is another familiar term from Patriot lore. Perhaps best known by New England fans as the player who delivered a blow to the head of Tom Brady on what the rest of the nation has defined as the “Tuck Rule” play, Woodson joins Brady and Adam Vinatieri as the only players from that famous 2001 game still active in the NFL in 2014. The 37-year-old is in his 17th season but showed against the Jets that he can still make quarterbacks pay for mistakes.
On this 1st and 10 play halfway through the first quarter, the Jets have 20 personnel on the field. Geno Smith is in a shotgun flanked by two running backs, and he has a slot formation to his right with a single receiver split to his left. Oakland counters with a 4-2-5 alignment, but they have 2-4-5 personnel on the field. Mack, Ellis, Antonio Smith and Woodley comprise the defensive line, while in the secondary they show Cover 2 with the fifth defensive back cheating towards the line of scrimmage over the slot receiver. At the snap they roll the coverage from Cover 2 to a Cover 3, man under look.
Geno looks to work the ball to the slot receiver side. Jeremy Kerley runs a very shallow crossing route out of the slot position and Eric Decker runs a curl at about 10 yards from the outside receiver position. Geno also has a swing route to that side coming out of the backfield. As this play develops, watch how Woodson plays Decker’s route. Woodson does not immediately break for the curl/flat zone but instead reads the quarterback the entire way. He baits the rookie into throwing an ill-advised pass, and then makes a great jump under Decker for the interception.
Look For the Vertical/Seam Game
On a few occasions against Oakland, the Jets utilized a “four vertical” or “all-go” concept to create chances for big plays against the Raider defense. Although New York failed to capitalize on those opportunities, the film highlights an area where Brady and the Patriots can look to pick up big chunks of yardage on a single play.
First, a few words about the “four vertical” scheme generally, and also on the responsibilities of two players – the quarterback on offense and the deep middle safety on defense – during such plays. The “four vertical” concept simply means that the offense sends four receivers on “go” routes. This typically comes from a balanced formation, so the quarterback has two go routes to his right and two more to his left. His reads are based on coverage. For example, if the quarterback reads either Cover 1 or Cover 3, he will throw to one of the two inside go routes along either seam. The quarterback will focus on the safety in the deep middle of the field, trying to influence that defender by using his eyes and/or a pump fake toward one of the seam/go routes. If the safety takes the bait and commits to that receiver, the quarterback can come back and throw to the other seam/go route.
Meanwhile the safety responsible for the deep middle zone in Cover 1 or Cover 3 has a seemingly simple job when the offense runs a four vertical concept: maintain alignment and wait as long as possible to commit to either of the two inner seam routes. If the safety commits too early, he opens up a passing lane for the quarterback to throw the other way for a big play.
Let’s highlight two instances where the Jets executed this concept against Oakland. On this first play, the Jets have the ball with a 1st and 10 on their own 44-yard line, with 3:47 left in the first half. They line up with Geno Smith in the shotgun using 22 personnel. They have two tight ends and a running back in a wing to the left, and one receiver split wide right. Oakland counters with a 4-2-5 look using 2-4-5 personnel. The Raiders have Woodley and Mack at defensive end and are showing Cover 2 in the secondary. The Jets bring tight end Zach Sudfeld in motion across the formation, and in response the Raiders roll their coverage into Cover 1 at the snap and drop safety Tyvon Branch into the deep middle.
New York runs a four vertical route out of this formation. Branch comes from the other side of the field to help on Sudfeld’s route, ignoring his coverage responsibility (which is to maintain alignment between the two inner vertical routes). Geno has a chance to hit tight end Jeff Cumberland for a big gain, but the throw misses.
In the endzone view, watch the inside linebacker who covers Cumberland. The defender passes him off because he expects to have some coverage help over-the-top, but none arrives. Also, notice Geno Smith’s helmet. Remember that when a quarterback reads Cover 1 or Cover 3 on an all vertical play, his job is to influence the safety with his eyes and/or with a pump fake.
Geno stares Cumberland down for the entire play.
The Raiders once again show their vulnerability to the four vertical concept in this next sequence. New York has Geno Smith in an empty backfield with four receivers to the right and a fifth receiver alone to the left, using 11 personnel. Oakland is in a 4-2-5 alignment with 3-3-5 personnel, and Woodley is lined up at defensive end. They show Cover 2 pre-snap but roll this to Cover 3 after the snap.
The still above shows the outside left receiver running a go route, occupying the left side defensive back. They have running back Chris Johnson as a receiver split wide to the right and he runs a curl route. With the other three receivers in a bunch to the right, the outside man runs a shallow cross, the middle receiver runs a very deep post, and the inside receiver runs a “wheel” route. That gives the Jets a “four vertical” look. Woodson, who is the deep middle safety on this play, and T.J. Carrie, the strong-side cornerback, fail to recognize the vertical route concept and are both out of position. Woodson follows the deep post and doesn’t recognize the wheel route, while Carrie focuses on Johnson’s short route for a few steps too long and also fails to pick up on the wheel route. On this play Geno does look off the one and makes a good throw, but a dropped ball costs the Jets an easy touchdown.
Jets 1st and 20 @ OAK 27 11:02 1st quarter
If the Patriots utilize vertical and seam route concepts against the Raiders, they will find themselves with a number of chances to make big plays downfield and keep the Oakland defense guessing.
How to Beat Their Tampa 2
While Oakland ran primarily Cover 1 and Cover 3 coverages against the Jets, they also deployed a Cover 2 look. On those occasions the Raiders ran a variant of the Tampa 2 coverage, dropping a linebacker into the deep middle in an effort to cover the soft spot of Cover 2.
With 1:43 left in the 1st quarter, the Jets line up with Geno Smith in the shotgun flanked by two running backs using 20 personnel. They shift each RB to the wing on each side pre-snap leaving the quarterback alone in the backfield. Oakland counters with a 4-2-5 look using 3-3-5 personnel and they show Cover 2 in the secondary. They stay in Cover 2, but they drop the strong-side linebacker, Miles Burris, into a deep middle zone. As Burris drops he covers Kerley, who looks to be running a deep route out of the slot position. Kerley then breaks out to the right sideline. The cornerback to that side is occupied by a go route and only comes off that route after the ball is thrown. Kerley settles in the zone away from the linebacker and under the cornerback, who has been influenced by the outside deep route. The play goes for 19 yards and a first down and is a fine example of how to combat the Tampa 2 coverage scheme.
The Patriots passing game will have opportunities to make plays down the field Sunday against the Raiders. If they can solidify their protection schemes against the Oakland NASCAR front(s), Brady and the New England receivers can expose the secondary in a number of ways.
All video and images courtesy NFL.com and NFL Game Rewind.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.