If you thought Tom Brady and the New England passing game could not improve upon their impressive display against the Bengals, you were mistaken. The signal caller turned in a nearly mistake-free effort in Buffalo, completing 27 of 37 passes for 361 yards and 4 touchdowns. Brady found 10 different receivers against the Bills, including touchdown tosses to Tim Wright, Brian Tyms, and two to Brandon LaFell. While many aspects of the Patriots’ passing game jumped out of the screen during review of the tape, two stood out above the rest: the growing importance of LaFell to the offense; and the success New England enjoyed with play-action passing.
Here, in Part 1 of our breakdown, we’ll examine the Brady-LaFell connection. In Part II, we look deeper at the play-action passing game.
Signed in the offseason from Carolina, 5th-year veteran got off to a slow start in 2014 with the Patriots. LaFell drew flags for offensive pass interference in each of his first three games, wiping out catches by Danny Amendola. The receiver did not record his first reception until Week 3 against the Raiders. LaFell finally broke out with 6 catches for 119 yards and 1 touchdown in the Week 4 Monday night loss to the Chiefs. He had just one catch in the 43-17 rout of the Bengals, but it went for 20 yards. On Sunday in Buffalo, LaFell hauled in 4 passes for 97 yards and 2 scores, both in the 4th quarter.
On his first touchdown reception, New England faces 3rd and 11 just inside the red zone with a little over 8:00 remaining. The Patriots place Brady in the shotgun and have their 21 personnel on the field. As Julian Edelman is sent in motion from left to right, the Buffalo sub package – four linemen, one linebacker and six defensive backs – appears completely confused:
Both safeties and an underneath defender collapse on the tight end’s route, freeing up a huge window for LaFell’s shallow crossing pattern. The receiver settles into the hole in the zone and brings in the throw from his quarterback. He then cuts directly upfield and waltzes in for the score.
While his first touchdown was the result of play design and Gronkowski-induced paranoia, LaFell’s game-sealing touchdown was simply a superb individual effort. Clinging to an 8-point lead with three minutes remaining, the Patriots face 2nd and 12 near mid-field. Brady is in the shotgun with 11 personnel and Edelman, Amendola, and LaFell are in trips formation to the right of the offense. Buffalo’s nickel personnel are on the field and the secondary shows Cover 1 in the backfield. From the outside position in the trips, LaFell runs a corner route:
Across from him, Leodis McKelvin gets a good jam at the line of scrimmage, but with his size and strength LaFell is able to recover from the initial contact and continue on his route. There is traffic underneath but none of the offensive or defensive players make any contact with or impede McKelvin’s pursuit; LaFell creates separation from the cornerback after the contact between the two players with his speed. This is a big play in a huge spot by LaFell.
While the two touchdowns show his importance to the offense, a play in the 3rd quarter is evidence not only of Brady’s growing trust in LaFell, but the coaching staff’s as well. With a six-point lead, the Patriots face a 3rd and 9 in their own territory early in the 3rd quarter. New England has 11 personnel on the field with trips to the left and LaFell is the single receiver split wide to the right of the formation. Buffalo has a sub package on the field with three linemen, three linebackers, and five defensive backs. The secondary shows and stays in Cover 3 for this play:
Gronkowski’s seam route again draws the attention of three defenders, freeing up the middle of the field for LaFell’s crossing route. Starting off the line, the receiver makes a hard step to the outside against Brandon Spikes and then cuts over the middle on his pattern, securing the pass and turning upfield for a big third-down conversion. While the tight end was likely the first read on this play, LaFell was the second given the design of the play. LaFell’s developing relationship with Brady is a strong sign for the offense as the season develops.
Over the past 14 days only one group of people was despondent in New England: Cardiologists. The success of the offense against Cincinnati and Buffalo lowered heart rates and blood pressures throughout Patriot Nation. As Brandon LaFell continues to grow into his role in the offense and earn the trust of his quarterback and coaches, the receiver can look to play A.J. Frost to Brady’s Harry Stamper. (NOTE: Look, I just noticed Armageddon was on and I shoehorned a reference in here. Shoot me with the one gun NASA allowed on their two experimental titanium space shuttles).
In Part 2 of our Pats-Bills passing review, we’ll dig into the play-action dynamic.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.