Always a Step Ahead
For the second straight week, the Patriots faced an unusual defensive scheme that was tailored for stopping their offense’s lethal quick-strike passing game. And, for the second straight week, the Patriots made adjustments within the game to dissect that unusual defensive scheme.
Last week it was a 3-2-6 dime package that the Cowboys ran with press-man coverage. Following an uneven start, New England went to their arsenal of pick routes and crossing patterns—staples of theirs and ideal designs for punishing man coverage—after halftime.
Stopping those picks and crossers were at the forefront of Indianapolis’s defensive plan Sunday night. On many snaps, the Colts had their front edge player (including top speed rusher Robert Mathis) drop into shallow coverage. The idea was to take away quick in-breaking patterns and crowd the flats. This pulled the teeth out of Indy’s pass rush, but New England’s quick-strike throws would have nullified the pass rush anyway. Head coach Chuck Pagano and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky cleverly composed a way to make use of pass rushers who were bound to be rendered obsolete. Conceptually, it was a fantastic approach.
The problem is that, with Tom Brady at the helm, even the great approaches can be made to look silly. With so much emphasis being placed on the Russell Wilson-type mobility these days, it remains bafflingly easy for football fans to forget that the best plays a quarterback can make with his feet are when he’s stepping and sliding within the pocket. The most effective offensive designs center around straight drop-back passing, because when you drop straight back you keep the entire width of the field at your disposal. (When a quarterback leaves the pocket, the side of the field away from him becomes increasingly less reachable.) The more field at your disposal, the more area and routes your opponent must defend.
It’s nearly impossible to defend a straight drop-back passer for a prolonged length of time. That’s what Indy’s defense was compelled to do. Some of this was a natural consequence of their coverage-first game plan. But most of it was a product of Brady’s uncanny ability to extend plays within the pocket. On several occasions—including Danny Amendola’s 24-yarder in the first half and Julian Edelman’s 12-yard touchdown shortly after it, plus tight end Scott Chandler’s 25-yard reception early in the second half, to name a few—Brady made the play by climbing up in the pocket.
Though he hasn’t had to very often, Brady this season has been sensational at extending plays like this. That’s been the case throughout his career, really. You could make a legitimate argument that Brady’s feet have done more for his eventual Hall of Fame candidacy than has his right arm.
Brady’s pocket performance Sunday night was extra impressive for two reasons. First, it came behind a makeshift offensive line. A group that was already playing rookies at guard (Shaquille Mason, and at times, Tre’ Jackson) and center (David Andrews) recently lost left tackle Nate Solder to a season-ending biceps injury. When Solder’s replacement, fifth-year veteran Marcus Cannon, left the game in the first quarter with a toe injury, the Patriots were forced to move right tackle Sebastian Vollmer to the blind side (an immensely difficult adjustment for any player), filling Vollmer’s spot with second-year man Cameron Fleming, a fringe roster guy.
Second, there was a seamlessness in the way the Patriots altered their system to exploit Indy’s shallow overloaded coverage approach. The Pats’ passing game became much more vertical, in part because of Brady’s ability to extend plays, but also because of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ play calls. One area where this was particularly evident was on play-action. The Patriots are among the league’s best at what some call “bang” play-action, which is a quick drop back followed by an immediate throw over the linebacker, to a wide receiver a skinny post route. (Expect to see plenty of this when Brandon LaFell is healthy again.) Sunday night the “bang” play-action was replaced by deeper-dropping play-action, where the fake handoff was meant to fool not linebackers, but safeties. Brady attacked vertically, which, if nothing else, forced the defense to account for this potential on snaps later in the game.
We also saw instances during which the Patriots employed zone-beater route combinations at deeper levels—another somewhat uncommon tactic for them. The best illustration was Danny Amendola’s 35-yard catch in the first half, which came off a route that was intertwined with Gronkowski’s pattern and perfectly compromised Indy’s two-high safety coverage. There were also a few seam patterns for No. 2 tight end Scott Chandler, a 6-foot-7 free-agent pickup who used to make his living along the deep-intermediate seams in Buffalo.
We think of vertical passing attacks as those featuring speedy receivers. But Chandler isn’t a speedster. Neither is Amendola. Or, to some extent, Keshawn Martin, who caught a 39-yardger against an Indy coverage mistake. Edelman is more quick than fast, and Rob Gronkowski is more powerful than speedy. (Though granted, Gronk moves very well for his size.) The Patriots’ passing attack is built to play underneath, but Sunday night at Indy, when forced to adjust, Brady proved his targets can also hurt you downfield. Just add this to the growing list of reasons why New England’s offense is the most dangerous in football.