The Wheel Route is Undefeated, Even Against Bill Belichick

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]For the Patriots, the 2017-2018 season ended very similarly to how it began. New England lost to the Kansas City Chiefs 42-27 to open the season, mainly due to Matt Patricia’s defense having no answers for how to stop Andy Reid’s offensive game plan. The same could be said for Sunday’s 41-33 Super Bowl loss to the Eagles which was uncoincidentally led by Reid’s disciple, Doug Pederson. Reid and Pederson led squads are the only teams to put up 40 or more points on the Patriots in the last decade.

Part of the reason for that is how the two coaches have been able to manipulate New England’s linebackers and safeties by forcing them to bite on fakes and putting them in unfavorable matchups. One way in which Reid and Pederson have successfully done that is through the use of the wheel route. The RB wheel route in particular.

The wheel route is perhaps the toughest route to defend. The design of the route is meant to make the defender, a lot of times a LB if it’s a RB wheel, believe the offensive player is running a swing or flat route before they break vertically up the field. This forces the defender to take a sharp angle to the flat area of the field only to try and go against their momentum to catch up with the RB or receiver once they recognize they’ve been fooled by an illusionary play. Most players at positions like LB and S don’t possess the speed to be able to recover after that. The one downside of this immortal route is that the wheel is a difficult throw for the quarterback to make as it often needs to be placed perfectly into a “bucket.” Nick Foles had no such issue on Sunday night.

The Chiefs’ Kareem Hunt and Eagles’ Corey Clement proved to be the thorn in the Patriots side when running the wheel route in Week 1 and the Super Bowl, respectively.

Let’s rewind to September.

On 1st and 10 from the Kansas City 22, the Chiefs line up in 11 personnel down 27-21 with 14:19 remaining in the 4th quarter.

Smith motions the slot receiver, Tyreek Hill (#10), across the backfield as the ball is snapped and fakes the jet sweep handoff. Hill runs a swing route to the flat and Patriots safety Duron Harmon (#30) crashes down to play the flat as CB Eric Rowe (#25) rolls to the middle of the field.

Kansas City sends WR Albert Wilson (#12) on a go route, TE Travis Kelce (#87) on a crossing route and RB Kareem Hunt (#27) on a wheel route. Smith is able to direct attention to his tight end with his eyes, as Kelce’s crossing route occupies both S Devin McCourty (#32) and Rowe in the middle of the field. When Smith sees Rowe commit to the cross, he turns and looks to the right side of the field, recognizing that Hunt is open against DE Cassius Marsh (#55) and LB Kyle Van Noy (#53), who have both dropped into coverage underneath.

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Hunt covered by a DE like Marsh is obviously a very favorable matchup for Reid and the Chiefs. The long speed difference between a RB and DE is too great to overcome. Moving the defender in the MOF helped clear space for Hunt to have free running room with no defender over the top. Smith places a perfect pass to the rookie back for a 78 yard touchdown.

Fast forward 22 weeks to last night’s Super Bowl and New England was once again at a loss for words – this time on two wheel routes by Pederson’s Eagles.

With 1:46 remaining in the first half, the Eagles are leading 15-12 and the Patriots are set to receive the second half kickoff – so the Eagles were desperate for some sort of points heading into the 3rd quarter. The Eagles are in 11 personnel with Clement next to Nick Foles in the shotgun on a critical 3rd and 3 on their own 36 yard line.

The Patriots are in a single high man defense look prior to the snap with their CBs in a press alignment on the line scrimmage across from the Eagles receivers. The S McCourty is playing off the line of scrimmage across from TE Zach Ertz (#86). Philadelphia calls a mesh concept, running crossing routes with Ertz and WR Nelson Agholor (#17) to the inside part of the field with Clement running the wheel route. Harmon, playing as the single safety, is shaded to the left side of the field, making it easier for Foles to complete the pass to Clement without safety help over the top.

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Clement does a good job selling the swing route running towards the boundary which causes DB Jordan Richards (#37) to sharply break to the flat. As Richards breaks, Clement turns vertically upfield on the RB wheel. The Wisconsin rookie is able to easily beat Richards and receives the pass from Foles along the boundary. Clement then breaks two high tackles in open field – an issue the Patriots had all night – before being stopped inside the New England 10 yard line. The play resulted in a 55 yard gain and led to a creative Eagles touchdown caught by Foles before halftime for a 22-12 lead.

Later in the game, with 7:25 left in the 3rd quarter, the Eagles faced another critical 3rd down. This time the Eagles were on the Patriots 22 yard line leading 22-19. Philadelphia was in 11 personnel with the receivers stacked at the top of the screen and Ertz on the wing of the left tackle with Foles and his RB Clement in the shotgun.

Foles turns his attention to the stacked receiver side of the field before turning back to the wheel side. This time, WR Mack Hollins (#10) runs the crosser and is carried by CB Johnson Bademosi (#29) across the field. Ertz is being bracketed by Richards and McCourty in case he runs a seam route. Ertz, however, doesn’t run the seam and breaks inside, leaving McCourty turned toward the middle of the field while in no man’s land. Meanwhile Clement is running the wheel route with LB Marquis Flowers (#59) defending him. Clement slightly surpasses Flowers’ coverage and runs past McCourty, who now has to turn and adjust in an attempt to make up ground. Clement does an excellent job of fading to the outside giving his QB room to complete the pass. Foles drops a perfectly thrown ball over McCourty’s outstretched arm into Clement’s hands for a controversial touchdown to put the Eagles up 10.

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The Eagles are Super Bowl Champions due to excellent offensive scheming and aggressive play calls. Pederson had the pulse of the game and outwitted New England much like his mentor did 22 weeks prior through the use of the wheel route. The Patriots inability to adjust to the Eagles’ strengths after halftime proved to be fatal for the defending champions. And that’s something that’s rarely said for a Bill Belichick coached team.

Check out more of Joseph’s work here, including a look at Baker Mayfield’s Touch and Torque and how Kirk Cousins could potentially fit in Denver’s offense.

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