Tom Brady, Josh McDaniels and the 2018 Patriots’ Passing Game

When the New England Patriots have the football during Super Bowl LIII, the marquee matchup might be in the trenches. Arguably the game’s best all-around player, Aaron Donald, squares off against a cohesive Patriots’ offensive line that has performed yeoman’s work in the past few weeks keeping Tom Brady clean.

But when Brady drops to throw – and has time – how effective can he be? Looking at the course of his 2018 season provides a roadmap into how Josh McDaniels helps his quarterback, the ways in which Brady is still an elite-level quarterback, and how the Patriots have in their offense already the means to attack the Los Angeles Rams’ secondary.

Helping Brady

It sounds almost sacrilegious, the idea of giving perhaps the best quarterback of all time some help, but McDaniels does a tremendous job of helping his quarterback in a variety of ways. One of the ways that the Patriots’ offensive coordinator helps his quarterback is by helping his receivers. The Patriots often have receivers like Julian Edelman running free in the secondary, and while Edelman is a talented route-runner, his ability to get separation is often due to route design and alignment. Take, for example, this touchdown pass from Brady (#12) to Edelman back in Week 6:

The Patriots have Edelman as the inside receiver in a three-receiver bunch, and he runs a corner route. Rob Gronkowski (#87) is the apex receiver in this bunch, and his route takes him inside off the line of scrimmage. Between the alignment and the route design, Edelman gets a free release off the line of scrimmage. His defender tries to jam him around five yards downfield, but with his head start Edelman is able to beat this jam with ease. Brady drops in a perfect anticipation throw, released when Edelman is at about the ten-yard line, and the Patriots have six easy points.

Many of the New England route concepts have conversions built into each receiver’s route, so that a single route can remain effective against any coverage. Whether man or some variety of zone, there is no need to audible, the receivers and the quarterback just need to make the same read of the coverage and be on the same page. One of these is “OPEQ,” a two-receiver combination with an option route from the slot receiver and a “Q” route from the outside receiver. The Q route gives the receiver three potential options based on the coverage, with one of them being a deep comeback route if he faces off coverage.

Against the Green Bay Packers in Week 9, the Patriots called this design early in the fourth quarter on a 3rd and 7 in a tie game. They run the concept to the right, with Edelman in the slot running the option route – allowing him to sit down, break inside or break outside depending on the coverage and leverage – while Phillip Dorsett (#13) runs the Q route. The Packers show Cover 1 in the secondary but rotate to a Cover 2, giving Dorsett the freedom to run the comeback route. Brady initially looks to the left, then comes to the right hoping to hit Edleman on his option route. But when the boundary cornerback peels off Dorsett and tries to “trap” Edelman’s option route, Brady hits Dorsett for the first down:

Use of motion is another means available to McDaniels to help his offense, and his quarterback. Against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game the Patriots turned to motion, often short motion with Edelman, to accomplish two goals. First, moving a receiver before the snap gives Brady a pre-snap indicator as to whether the defense is in man or zone coverage. Second, moving a receiver such as Edelman before the snap, often into a stack-slot alignment, again gives him freedom off the line of scrimmage.

On a pivotal throw late in the fourth quarter, the Patriots use this design to free Edelman on a crossing route:

Finally, play design and calling a concept at the exact right moment is a big part of how McDaniels helps his QB. On New England’s drive in overtime the Patriots faced three different 3rd and 10 situations. On the first two they were able to hit Edelman on crossing routes against Cover 2 Man Under looks, using short motion pre-snap. On the third, expecting a different look, the Patriots changed things, calling for a play that was not in the gameplan but mirrored something they were successful with during their Week 6 meeting. First, the play from Week 6. On a 2nd and 9 late in the third quarter of their regular season meeting, the Patriots put Gronkowski outside to the left in a Y-Iso alignment, and he and Edelman run crossing routes:

Now, the critical 3rd and 10 in overtime of the AFC Championship Game. The Patriots again use Y-Iso, with Gronkowski on the left. He will run a slant while Edelman runs yet another crossing route. As expected, the Chiefs change their coverage, and instead of running Cover 2 Man Under on another third down, they adjust to a Cover 1 Robber, sliding the safety down to potentially jump Edelman’s expected crossing route. Once he sees it, Brady comes right to Gronkowski on his slant and throws a strike:

Through knowing his offense, and knowing defensive tendences, McDaniels puts Brady in position to succeed at a critical moment in New England’s season.

Brady Being Brady

Of course, Brady helps his offensive coordinator look good with his ability to still execute the offense at a high level, and even at his age Brady still displays mastery of a variety of important traits at the quarterback position. His ability to decipher and diagnose what a defense is doing, and then decide what his best option is, in a compressed period of time is almost unparalleled. Look at this Week 4 touchdown throw to James White (#28) on a corner route out of the backfield. Brady releases this pass when White is at the six-yard line, and is able to make this anticipation throw because he knows exactly how the defense is going to play this route concept:

When a quarterback is a step ahead of the defense, he can make anticipation throws like this.

Brady will never be confused with some of the game’s more athletic passers…or even with some of the game’s marginally athletic passers. However, there is more than one way to be mobile in the pocket. With Brady, it comes down to his feet. He’ll never run a sub 5.0 40-yard dash (and at this point he might not crack 6.0) but his footwork in the pocket is masterful. Brady remains able to deftly slide around and through pressure in crowded pockets, and extend plays when you’d most expect him to be brought down and sacked. For example, take this 3rd and 4 throw against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 4:

Brady’s feet are like a prize-fighters, enabling him to create just enough space and stay upright to deliver on this dig route to Gronkowski.

Those feet also give him the ability to click and climb in the pocket, allowing him to avoid edge pressure and deliver on throws. Oh, and if you decide to just spot drop into a basic Cover 2 scheme and don’t get home (or he avoids the pressure) you deserve what’s coming to you:

Another trait that Brady continues to display at an elite level is his ability to manipulate defenders. As a quarterback there will be times that you need to move a defender out of position, sometimes you’ll need to get a defender to forget everything he has been instructed to do on a given play or coverage. In New England’s Week 6 victory over the Chiefs, Brady moved a free safety twice away from the three-receiver side of the formation, enabling him to drop in a perfect throw on a vertical route to one of those three receivers.

First, early in the fourth quarter to Chris Hogan (#15). Watch as the QB moves the free safety away from the trips and towards the two-receiver side, putting him in a position where he cannot help on Hogan’s route:

Then later with under a minute to go, he moves the FS away from Gronkowski’s vertical route:

Look, playing this position can be easy when you’ve beaten someone with your eyes before you even release the ball.

Finally, Patriots fans remember well the aftermath of New England’s loss to the Tennessee Titans. That performance spawned many columns wondering if Brady had hit the proverbial cliff, and whether he was well past his prime. So when he delivered on this throw against the New York Jets in Week 12, throwing this out route to Edelman on time and in rhythm, with perfect velocity and placement, many Patriots fans heaved a sigh of relief:

Brady was never known as a quarterback with elite arm talent and velocity, but all quarterbacks need to be able to hit a minimum threshold of velocity to be successful. With Brady the concern in the wake of the Titans game was that he had perhaps dropped below that level. But as this throw displayed, along with some of the throws we saw in the AFC Championship Game as well as two more we will discuss, he can still crank up the RPMs when necessary.

Looking ahead to SBLII

Let’s close this out by looking ahead to Super Bowl LII and the Rams’ secondary. Under Wade Phillips the Rams are predominately a single-high team, employing a lot of Cover 1 and Cover 3 in the secondary. These are coverages that the Patriots have faced  in the playoffs, as the Los Angeles Chargers played almost exclusively Cover 3 this season, while the Chiefs were predominately a Cover 1 team. So McDaniels and company should have a relatively easy time of putting a passing script together. Here are three designs that you can expect to see.

First is a staple of the Patriots’ offense: Hoss Y-Juke. This is a mirrored route design that consists of a Hoss (hitch/seam) combination to each side of the field while the fifth receiver runs a Juke, or option, route over the middle. Here is this in action against the Chicago Bears:

The Bears run a Cover 3 coverage here, and the inside seam routes bracket the free safety, and Brady has an easy throw to Hogan up the left seam. Attacking the seams is a critical aspect of beating Cover 3, and thankfully for New England, perhaps Brady’s two best throws of the year came on those routes. First in Week 14 against the Miami Dolphins to Cordarrelle Patterson (#84):

Then in the AFC Divisional Round against the Chargers, to Edelman on this stick-nod route up the left seam:

Also, let’s look again at that OPEQ concept against Green Bay:

Against a Cover 3 scheme, this route plays out largely the same. Dorsett will run a comeback route again against a Cover 3 corner who, without safety help over the top, will be forced to respect the vertical threat, giving the WR the chance to work free breaking back to the ball. Edelman will either work toward the sideline away from the curl/flat defender if he has the leverage advantage to the outside, or if there is adefender somehow outside of him, he can check up and find grass between the underneath defenders.

For more on beating Cover 3, you can check out this piece from the archives, looking at the ways the Patriots could attack the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XXXIX.

Super Bowl LIII is filled with intriguing matchups and chess matches. The one that plays out between Brady and the Rams secondary will be another thrilling storyline to watch as this game unfolds.

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