Offense ain’t easy. Mark Schofield, Inside The Pylon’s Quarterback, looks at the passing game before and after each matchup. No scramble drills this week, as Tom Brady and the Patriots were nearly perfect. But they could have done better…
TWIP: What Went Wrong
Yes, you read that headline correctly. On an afternoon when Tom Brady and the New England passing game was nearly perfect (30-for-35) , we reviewed the footage from the Patriots-Bears game with an eye on each of the five incompletions to see why they failed. These plays demonstrate just how difficult it is to complete a pass in the NFL, providing context for the incredible performances we saw from Brady and the offense on Sunday.
Two of the incompletions are simply drops, which we will address in short order:
As we illustrated in How to Throw Against Cover 2, a defense rolls a coverage not necessarily to confuse the quarterback, but to confuse … anybody. If the passer makes the right coverage read but the receiver doesn’t, it can lead to an incompletion ‒ or, worse, a turnover. On this play from the second quarter, Brady and Edelman each read the coverage differently. The pass falls harmlessly incomplete but demonstrates the difficulty involved with two players, one of whom is a Hall of Fame bound quarterback, trying to interpret coverage schemes on the fly.
Facing 2nd and 14, Brady is in the shotgun and the Patriots have 11 personnel with a slot formation to the left, tight end Rob Gronkowski in a tight slot to the right, and Edelman split to the outside (circled in white). Chicago’s nickel defense is on the field showing Cover 2:
On the Move
At the snap, the safeties adjust their alignment and roll the coverage. Chris Conte drops deep toward the middle of the field while Ryan Mundy comes toward Gronkowski. To the outside, Edelman begins his route and looks to be running a vertical pattern:
Edelman continues deep on a go route:
And the Other Read
Brady throws the ball five yards downfield along the sideline, to where he expected Edelman to be on the hitch. From the end zone camera you can see the quarterback look to the free safety and then come immediately to the sideline with his throw:
This play illustrates just how tough it is adjusting to coverages mid-stream. Brady looks at the free safety to get a read of the coverage, which is what a quarterback is taught to do. He sees the defender heading toward the middle of the field and reads Cover 3. Anticipating that Edelman will run a hitch route against that coverage, he delivers the pass expecting his receiver to make the same read. However, on the outside Edelman sees the press coverage through the play and reads Cover 1, continuing on a vertical route, which would be correct for that coverage.
Chicago does a tremendous job disguising its intentions on this play, and two experienced players cannot agree on their read of the secondary. Thankfully for New England, the pass falls incomplete.
For the record, I think this is Cover 1 and that Edelman made the right adjustment. However, I think Brady read this as a Seattle-style Cover 3 and expected a bit more cushion on the outside. Reading coverages is a difficult thing to do from the couch, let alone as an NFL player.
Tip Your Hat
Two other incompletions are examples of Chicago’s defensive players doing their jobs. On the first, the Bears are able to defend another “high-low opposite” route from New England utilizing a timely stunt on the defensive line. With 10:07 remaining in the game the Patriots are in the red zone but face 3rd and 6 at the Chicago 9-yard line.
Cover helps Pressure
The running back comes in motion toward the formation and at the snap he is in a slot-stack formation on the right:
The Safety Dance
As the play develops Wright runs a post pattern and Vereen runs a quick slant. Similar to Gronkowski’s third touchdown of the day, the goal is to force the free safety to commit to one of the routes. If the safety jumps Vereen underneath, Brady can make a play to Wright. But if the safety is held in place by the post route, the quarterback can find his running back on the slant:
Pressure Benefits from Coverage
The safety stands his ground, but because of the action up front the quarterback is forced to rush the throw. From the end zone camera the Bears show an A-gap blitz from middle linebacker D.J. Williams, but the player to watch is Jared Allen in the black circle:
Off the snap Allen bursts straight-ahead and reserve tackle Marcus Cannon opens his hips to the sideline to meet the threat. Just inside, Dan Connolly has engaged defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff. However, the veteran defensive end will not continue in a straight line:
Out and In
Allen cuts inside behind the defensive tackle, and he finds a clear path to the quarterback:
Put together, the stunt from Allen forces the quarterback to make the throw quicker than he would like. Brady’s pass falls incomplete and New England must settle for a field goal:
If the quarterback has a beat or two more, he likely delivers a better throw to Vereen who will have a step more of separation. But with Allen’s timely stunt, Brady does not have time to wait.
The Kitchen Sink
Finally, New England tries to fool Chicago on a play that crams in so many concepts that it needs to be addressed. With 5:52 remaining in the first quarter Brady is under center with 12 personnel on the field.
The Bears have their base defense on the field and show Cover 2. The key players here are Vereen and Gronkowski, circled in white and red respectively:
Second Time Lucky?
After completing the first fake, Brady looks to Edelman who is coming into the backfield on the end-around movement. Gronkowski continues to block and the rest of the offensive line sells the run action to the defense:
Brady fakes the handoff to Edelman and now the fun really begins. Gronkowski has disengaged from his blocker and is heading into a pass pattern ‒ a wheel route to the sideline:
Know who else is running a wheel route? Vereen, right behind Gronkowski:
Follow the Trail
This is the “trail” concept. Two receivers run the same or very similar routes, one behind the other. The lead receiver works to pull defenders out of position opening up room for the trail receiver behind him. Here, the goal is for Gronkowski to pull any defender who remains in position after the two run fakes with him. This will create space for Vereen on his wheel route:
The route works to create some space, but not enough. The cornerback recognizes the play design and still has time to close down on Vereen and force an incompletion:
On this snap Josh McDaniels and the offense throw two play-action fakes at the defense followed by a trail concept. Working together, all this planning should pull at least one player out of position, and it does: cornerback Tim Jennings is a step or two out of his Cover 2 alignment. After all the machinations thrown at the defense on this play, the best the Patriots can do is influence Jennings to run a few steps out of position. The other guys get paid for a reason.
While the origin of the phrase is unclear the sentiment is true: Only three things can happen when you pass and two of them are bad. The three sequences studied in depth demonstrate how hard it is to complete a pass in the NFL. The intricacies of timing, vision, positioning, deception, and mid-stream adjustments by personnel on both sides of the ball combine to challenge even one of the all-time great quarterbacks. But just as nobody remembers how many times Babe Ruth struck out, the 30 passes Tom Brady completed for 354 yards and 5 touchdowns are why he’s on his way to Canton.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.