Gameplan: Patriots Play Action Passing Against Indianapolis

The highly-anticipated rematch of last season’s AFC Championship Game between the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts kicks off Sunday night. Mark Schofield looks at the Patriots play action passing, and how it figures to be a big part in the gameplan. 

Sunday night’s meeting between the Patriots and the Colts has been circled on everyone’s calendars since the schedule was announced this spring. New England trampled Indianapolis, first in Week 11 and again in the 2014 AFC Championship Game, running for a combined 423 yards.

While the contest has no shortage of potential storylines, one interesting aspect from a schematic point will be New England’s ability to attack the Indianapolis defense with play action passes. Given the improved Colts run defense, and the early struggles of the Patriots play action passing in the meetings last season, New England will be reviewing the game tape to find concepts that can work.

In the Jonas Gray game Week 11,  Tom Brady and the New England offense failed on the first seven attempts at a play action pass, with two interceptions.

The first was an attempted go route in the direction of Brian Tyms. Late in the first quarter the Patriots have a 7-3 lead and are facing 1st and 10 near midfield. Brady is under center with trips formation right, including two wing tight ends, and a single receiver split wide to the left. Both wide receivers – Brandon LaFell at the top of the screen and Tyms at the bottom – use a wide split. Indianapolis has a 4-2-5 nickel package in the game, showing Cover 6 in the secondary.

Prior to the snap, Tyms comes in short motion toward the football, before he releases vertically:


The WR splits the coverage down the field, and Brady tries the long throw:

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From the end zone angle we can see how the protection broke down, leading to the underthrown pass. New England fakes a stretch play to the right, with Rob Gronkowski lined up on the line of scrimmage. Defensive end Erik Walden (#93) is lined up over Gronkowski:


As the tight end releases vertically, Walden remembers at the last moment that he needs to get a jam on Gronkowski:


The defender propels himself off the turf toward Gronk, but misses.

However, failing to jam Gronkowski has an unintended benefit. With the offensive line flowing to the right, selling the run fake, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (#76) is out of position to block Walden. The failed assignment by the Colts defender gives him inside leverage, and a free shot at Brady:

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Vollmer tries to stop Walden, but with inside positioning the DE brushes past the RT and forces Brady to throw quickly, as he is sliding away from Tyms. Being hurried on a deep throw, and unable to set his feet results in the interception.

The head-scratching interception that Brady threw near the end of the first half was also off play action, with an outside zone look from the blocking up front. With 1:46 remaining in the half and an 11-point lead, the Patriots face 3rd and 1 deep in their own territory. They line up with a jumbo package using Cameron Fleming as a tight end,on the left, in a double-wing with Gronkowski. Big defensive tackle Montori Hughes (#95) lines up in a 0 technique over center Bryan Stork:


The blocking calls for the offensive line to all fire out left, with right guard Ryan Wendell (#62) needing to execute a reach block on Hughes. But the big DT is too quick and splits the A Gap between Stork and Wendell. They make a valiant effort, but Hughes is in the backfield quickly and bearing down on Brady, who forces the pass:

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In the second half, the Patriots shored up their protection, leading to better results when using play action. Brady threw a touchdown pass to Tim Wright off of a play-fake, but the best play action play of the night might have been a completion to Julian Edelman.

The Patriots have an eight-point lead and face a 2nd and 10 on their own 20-yard line. They have 21 offensive personnel in the game in an offset i-formation. Tyms and Edelman are in stack slot on the right. The Colts have their base 3-4 defense on the field, showing Cover 3 in the secondary, but they use Cover 1 as the play develops:


Brady fakes an off-tackle run to the left before settling into the pocket. Tyms runs a deep go route, occupying both the slot cornerback and free safety. This clears space on the outside for Edelman:


Brady has to buy a bit of time by climbing the pocket, but with the ability to set his feet and throw, he delivers a strong throw to Edelman for a decent gain:

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On this play from the third quarter of the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots line up with six offensive linemen, using Fleming as an extra tackle on the left side of the offense. The Colts have their base 3-4 defense in the game and show Cover 4 in the secondary. Brady fakes the counter play to LeGarrette Blount, with guard Josh Kline (#67) pulling in front of the fake run:


Edelman releases on a vertical route. Watch how hard safety LaRon Landry (#30) bites on the run fake, leading Gronkowski to celebrate as the ball is still in flight:

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Thus far in 2015 it seems that the Colts have improved their run defense, featuring a new trio of defensive linemen in veteran Kendall Langford and Stanford rookies David Parry and Henry Anderson, as well as adding Nate Irving to the linebacking corps. Despite the improvements, they are still giving up play action plays for big gains. On successive plays Jacksonville hit for big yardage using play action fakes very similar to those outlined above.

First, the Jacksonville Jaguars face 1st and 10 at their 20-yard line with quarterback Blake Bortles under center and 12 personnel on the field. Two tight ends and a receiver align in trips formation left, while a single receiver sets up on the right. The Colts have their base 3-4 defense in the game and show Cover 2 in the secondary:


At the snap, Indianapolis rolls into Cover 1:


The Jaguars fake an off-tackle run, using a max protection blocking scheme and only three receivers released:


Like the long completion to Edelman, Allen Robinson (#15) runs a deep post route, occupying the cornerback and the free safety. This clears space for Allen Hurns (#88), who crosses the field and is wide open when he enters the vacated outside zone:

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On the very next play, the Jaguars connect on the vertical route off of play action that Brady missed last season:

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Bortles is pressured on the interior, but has time to get enough on this throw to Robinson for the huge gain.

Play action passing against Indianapolis got off to a rough start last season for the Patriots, but as the offensive line began to gel, the offense was able to make some big plays off of this scheme in both victories. Even though the Colts might have shored up their run defense with the two Stanford rookies, they are still vulnerable to these plays – even on designs that the Patriots have already used against their Sunday night opponent.

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 NFL Game Pass.

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