The Patriots Opening Drive: A Study In Versatility

The New England Patriots scored a resounding division win over the Miami Dolphins, and Mark Schofield looks at how the Patriots opening drive of the game demonstrates versatility in their offensive approach is paying big dividends.

New England begins this drive on their own 20-yard line following a touchback with Tom Brady under center and 12 offensive personnel on the field. The two tight ends, Rob Gronkowski (#87) and TE/tackle hybrid Michael Williams (#85), set up in a wing formation on the left, with Danny Amendola to the outside of them. The Dolphins slide two linebackers over the tight ends:

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Just prior to the snap, Amendola comes in motion toward the line, setting up just outside Gronkowski:

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The Patriots run a power-pull run here, with LeGarrette Blount (#29) taking the handoff:

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Center David Andrews (#60) executes a critical block on this play. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (#93) lines up in a 3 technique on the outside shoulder of guard Tre Jackson (#63). But the guard is pulling on this play, meaning that the center has to execute a reach block on the highly-paid DT. The center does his job, allowing Jackson to flow to the other side of the formation:

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The pulling guard angles to the first unblocked player, defensive back Jamar Taylor (#22), and Blount cuts inside for a 7-yard gain.

Play Two

The Patriots stay with the same personnel, but line up with a tight end and receiver on each side of the field in pro formation. After a bit of confusion, Miami sets their 4-3 defense in a stack, with linebacker Jelani Jenkins (#53) behind defensive end Cameron Wake (#91). New England uses the same design here, a power-pull run, only this time guard Josh Kline (#67) pulls from the left:

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Once more, the rookie center needs to execute a key block at the point of attack. DT Earl Mitchell is lined up in 1 technique, in the A gap between Andrews and Kline. With the guard needing to vacate and pull to the other side of the formation, the center needs to perform a reach block on the big DT. He succeeds:

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Andrews’s success allows Kline to cut to the other side of the formation, where he picks up Jenkins on the outside. Right tackle Cameron Fleming (#71) and Jackson double-team Suh on the inside, and Williams contains Wake on the edge. Blount takes the handoff and works through a small crease for a four-yard gain and a fresh set of downs.

Play Three 

For this 1st and 10 play on their own 31-yard line, the Patriots turn to one of their offensive staples: bang play action. The quarterback executes a fake stretch run and then throws a backside slant route. The offense sets up again with 12 personnel with a dual TE wing to the right and a stack slot left:

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Take a look at the defensive front: With two tight ends to the left, the Dolphins bring Jenkins up to the line so that he must now be accounted for. This creates a natural bubble over Amendola, the inside slot receiver. But Edelman is the primary read, and, before the snap he uses motion on the outside to widen his starting point and create a better angle for his route:

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Amendola releases vertically before breaking off a corner route. This finishes clearing out that bubble area:

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Brady carries out the stretch fake to Blount before stopping and pivoting to the backside, where he finds Edelman for the quick gain. Only a perfect tackle from Taylor prevents this from picking up more yardage.

Play Five

The Patriots face their first tough test of the drive, a 3rd and 16 on their own 26-yard line, following an illegal block penalty on Amendola and a two-yard gain to Brandon LaFell. They deploy an 11 package, with dual slot formations. Edelman and Gronkowski are in a slot to the right, with the TE the outside receiver. Amendola and LaFell are in slot formation left, with LaFell on the outside. Running back Dion Lewis (#33) checks into the game, standing alongside Brady in shotgun:

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The Dolphins have their 4-2-5 sub package on the field and, up front, both DEs use a wide 9 alignment while the secondary shows Cover 2:

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The Patriots set up a running back screen, with Andrews and Kline releasing downfield to block for Lewis on the left side, while Amendola and LaFell run go routes to clear out the defense:

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Because of the go routes and coverage, linebacker Koa Misi (#55) is the only defender with the opportunity to bring down Lewis after a short gain. But with the two blockers, the LB doesn’t have a chance:

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Lewis cuts  inside of Misi and accelerates upfield, picking up 17 and converting this big third down for New England.

Play Seven

After two more running plays pick up ten yards – including another power-pull play with Jackson out in front of Blount – it’s time for the Patriots to cash in using play action. For the seventh play of the drive they line up with LaFell and Edelman as wide receivers, with LaFell lined up on the left with Williams inside. Gronkowski is on the right with Edelman, using a pro formation with the receiver using an extra wide split:

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The Dolphins have their base 4-3 defense in the game, showing Cover 4:

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The Patriots show another running play here to the defense, with Brady faking a handoff to Blount aiming right. As the QB and RB carry out this fake, watch the second level defenders break forward:

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All three linebackers bite on the fake, opening up room for the receiver cutting behind them ‒ Gronkowski:

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The TE hauls in the pass from Brady on a short crossing route and breaks the attempted ankle tackle of safety Reshad Jones (#20). From there he cuts upfield, where LaFell delivers a great block on free safety Michael Thomas (#31), springing Gronkowski for the score.

This early scoring drive demonstrated the versatility of the New England offense. Using just a few basic running plays, they were able to get the ground game going to set up the play action passing game. As a defense facing the Patriots, the last thing you want to do is make it easier for Brady to find Gronk, but, as this drive shows, once the ground game starts working, New England can use this to influence defenders and open up space for the big tight end. These designs certainly helped Brady on the night, as the QB finished the game 7 for 9 for 144 yards and the one touchdown on play-action passes, with a 155.8 passer rating

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.

Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.

All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.

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