The New England Patriots evened their record at 1-1 this past Sunday with a sound 30-7 victory over the Minnesota Vikings in Minneapolis. While the numbers were not the gaudy statistics Patriots fans are used to, Brady was accurate on a number of throws and worked underneath throughout the afternoon to exploit the weaknesses of the Vikings’ defense in underneath coverage, as discussed in last week’s Patriots Passing Game.
The Brady-Edelman Connection
Brady’s lone touchdown throw of the game came on a 1st and goal toss to Julian Edelman. This play was previously examined as our Inside The Pylon Offensive Play of the Week, and illustrated Brady’s command of the offense and ability to recognize a defensive scheme pre-snap. The play also highlighted the continued trust Brady has in Edelman, who has emerged as the veteran quarterback’s go-to receiver when New England needs a big play.
Another example of this relationship occurred early in the second quarter, when New England faced 3rd and 14 at their own 34-yard line. After a long pass to Danny Amendola was called back for an offensive pass interference penalty on Aaron Dobson (a play we’ll examine below), the quarterback faked a draw play to Shane Vereen and hit Edelman along the sideline for a big gain.
Two impressive things about this play: the first is the effort shown by Edelman in getting separation from the defender; the second is the perfect throw to Edelman’s back shoulder by Brady pre-snap. Minnesota shows Cover 2 in the secondary with their nickel personnel on the field. Across from Edelman is second-year cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who is playing tight man-to-man coverage on Edelman. As the play develops, Rhodes attempts to get a jam on Edelman as the receiver initially looks to be running a slant route inside. But when Rhodes makes his move, Edelman cuts back to the outside and continues up the field. This adjustment leaves Rhodes leaning away from Edelman and a throwing window is opened up for Brady. Brady’s throw is right on target and the play is able to go for big yardage. Rhodes cannot recover in time to make a play on the ball or the receiver, and Edelman is off and running. This kept the drive alive, and Edelman later capped it off with a touchdown catch.
Patriots fans are growing weary of Danny Amendola’s lack of production while fretting over a perceived “lack of trust” in the receiver by Brady. With this in mind I reviewed every one of Amendola’s snaps from Sunday’s game to see what his role was in the offense. His action was limited as New England used a number of two-tight-end formations and called frequently upon Brandon LaFell for his blocking ability in the run game. In addition, Amendola did not have an official target, and the only time Brady threw to him was the aforementioned long completion negated by Dobson’s PI penalty (for illegal contact on a pick move.)
New England faces 3rd and 4 early in the second quarter with a three-point lead. They come out in a trips formation to the right with Brady in the shotgun. The Patriots have their 11 personnel on the field with Tim Wright lined up on the left side of the line. Minnesota counters with their nickel package, showing Cover 1 before the snap in a blitz posture. New England brings Edelman across the formation in motion and the Vikings back away from the blitz. Dobson, the outside receiver in the trips, runs a quick slant route as Amendola runs a wheel route under him. The play goes for a big gain but is rendered moot on the penalty; Dobson makes too obvious his intention to “pick” the defender, makes contact, and is called for it. Despite being undermined by the flag, this is a well-designed sequence demonstrating that Brady does look towards Amendola in big spots.
On the next play (the 3rd and 14 pass to Edelman previously discussed) Amendola is the inside receiver in the slot to Brady’s right. With Minnesota in Cover 2, Amendola runs a nice post route and is initially open over the middle of the field. However, the slot receiver to the other side, tight end Rob Gronkowski, also runs a post route. These two routes collapse on each other and are effectively swallowed up by the two safeties in the Cover 2 scheme.
Later in the drive, New England has 2nd and 8 at the Vikings’ 19-yard line. They line up with Brady in the shotgun using 20 personnel, as James Develin and Brandon Bolden flank the quarterback in the backfield. Edelman and Amendola are in a slot to the left side of the formation, with Amendola the inside receiver. Minnesota is in a Cover 1 look with their nickel personnel on the field. Amendola runs a post route and appears open until the free safety on this play, Harrison Smith, jumps the route. As the play develops, Brady is looking to work the ball into Amendola until Smith makes him look off. That prompts the quarterback to opt for his secondary read which is Develin running an arrow route.
While Amendola’s name does not appear on the Sunday stat sheet, Patriots fans should realize that Brady does look to get the ball to the receiver throughout the game, and in big situations. Remember that at the heart of the New England offense for years has been this mantra: Brady’s favorite receiver on the field is simply the open receiver.
Gronk Watch 2014
In his second game back from his ACL injury Gronkowski was targeted six times, hauling in four passes for 32 yards. Patriot fans are concerned, with good reason, about his health and status. We reviewed each time the tight end was targeted in the Vikings game to see how the Patriots were using their biggest receiving threat.
Target #1 – 1st and 10 at the MIN 26, 1:45 left 1st Quarter, 7-7
Brady first looks to Gronkowski on a first down play late in the opening quarter with the Patriots just outside the red zone. New England has 12 personnel on the field with Michael Hoomanawanui and Gronkowski in a tight wing formation to the left, and Edelman and Dobson in a slot to the right. Minnesota has their nickel package on the field, and show a tight Cover 1 concept pre-snap while indicating a blitz. The Vikings choose not to blitz, staying in Cover 1 for this play. Gronkowski attempts to run a drag route across the field at 10 yards but Minnesota does a good job disrupting his route with a jam at the line of scrimmage.
The end zone view shows how Minnesota defends the tight end. They use defensive end Everson Griffen to get an initial hit on Gronkowski, denying him an easy release off the line of scrimmage. The Vikings then have a double team on the tight end, with strong safety Robert Blanton over the top of the route and rookie linebacker Anthony Barr underneath Gronk. The jam at the line and the combination coverage work and the pass falls incomplete.
Target #2 – 1st and 10 at the NEP 20, 15:00 left 3rd Quarter, 24-7 NEP
Gronkowski entered the stat sheet on the Patriots’ first offensive play of the second half. New England began at their own 20-yard line using 12 personnel, with a tight end and a receiver to each side of the field. Gronkowski is positioned on the line of scrimmage in a traditional tight end alignment. Minnesota is in their base 4-3 defense and their secondary uses Cover 2 Man Under on this play. New England runs a simple “go-out” combination on each side of the formation, a basic concept where the outside receiver runs a go route and the inside tight end runs a quick out to the sideline. The play is designed for the outside receiver to pull the cornerback out of the short wide zone, allowing the tight end to gain separation from the linebacker on the out route. Here, the play works as intended. Dobson’s go route takes the cornerback, Rhodes, away from the zone and Gronkowski beats Barr in man coverage for a seven yard gain.
Target #3 – 1st and 10 at the NEP 32, 13:58 left 3rd Quarter, 24-7 NEP
Two plays later, the tight end secures his second reception of the game. In this sequence, it appears the receiver and Brady employ a sight adjustment for an easy pitch and catch. Here is a freeze frame of the moment the ball is snapped:
New England has Gronkowski split wide to the left, with Brady under center and their 12 personnel on the field. At the moment of the snap, Minnesota is still trying to get set up, seemingly in Cover 1. Remember that two plays earlier the Vikings had their base 4-3 personnel on the field. Now, when the Patriots go up-tempo and split Gronkowski wide to the left, the defense has difficulty getting aligned. Their two cornerbacks cover the wide receivers to the right of the formation in a slot alignment, leaving the safety Smith scrambling to line up across from #87. A quick snap and easy throw leads to a simple five yard gain.
Target #4 – 1st and 10 at the MIN 45, 9:42 left 3rd Quarter, 24-7 NEP
Gronkowski’s biggest play of the game occurs here. They again have 12 personnel on the field, with Hoomanawanui and Gronkowski in a tight wing to the left and Edelman and Dobson in the right slot. Minnesota is in their base 4-3 defense showing Cover 1. New England sends running back Stevan Ridley in motion to the left, leaving an empty backfield. The motion draws middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley out of the middle of the field, indicating man coverage underneath. Ridley runs a go route, freeing up space for the tight ends who run identical out routes at different yardages ‒ Gronkowski at five yards and Hoomanawanui at two yards. Gronk is isolated with Chad Greenway and he secures the catch, dragging Greenway and Blanton for about five extra yards as the play goes for an 11-yard gain.
Of the six times he is targeted on Sunday, this play most resembles the Gronk of old.
Target #5 – 3rd and 5 at the MIN 29, 8:39 left 3rd Quarter, 24-7 NEP
On this play New England again splits Gronkowski out wide to the left. Minnesota has their nickel personnel on the field and shows Cover 1 with Smith in coverage on Gronk. The tight end runs a slant route behind a double linebacker blitz from Minnesota and appears to be open, having placed himself between Smith and the ball. However, Greenway is able to knock the pass down at the line while on his blitz, preventing a completion.
Target #6 – 3rd and 8 at the MIN 47, 4:08 left 3rd Quarter, 27-7 NEP
On Gronk’s final play as a target, Brady and the Patriots are in a shotgun formation using 11 personnel. Gronkowski comes in motion from right to left, establishing a trips to the left side of the field. The Vikings have a 4-2-5 alignment, but with 3-3-5 personnel using linebacker Barr on the line of scrimmage as a defensive end. Prior to the snap the Vikings show a double A gap blitz and tight Cover 1 in the secondary. At the snap Minnesota rolls this into a Cover 2 Man Under look, and Gronkowski is isolated on backup linebacker Gerald Hodges. Gronk runs a 7-yard out, makes the catch, and cuts upfield while dragging Hodges for an additional three yards and a first down.
In summation, Gronkowski was a small part of the New England offensive game plan this past Sunday, as the Patriots established a ground game and used turnovers and a special teams touchdown to grab an early lead. However, he again demonstrated both his physical ability (on the 11-yard reception) as well as the match-up problems he presents for defenses (when New England caught Minnesota in their base personnel grouping). As he continues to work himself into game shape Gronk’s impact on both game plans and scoreboards should continue to grow.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.