Week One is finally back. The anticipation is building for tomorrow’s game against the New England Patriots and like last year, we’ll attempt to break down the weekly opponent the best we can.
This year, Jon Ledyard and myself will be collaborating our scouting reports. We’ll play to our strengths – he’ll be focusing on the individuals while I’ll be looking at overall scheme. These reports will be broken down into two articles, one for offense and one for defense.
Keep in mind this is the first week, making tape a little more limited, including zero access to 2015 coaches tape. The farther we go into the season, the more complete and thorough these will be.
ALEX’S SCHEME REPORT:
New England’s Run Game
Arguably the most unique thing about the Patriots’ run game is their wham blocking. The concept, at its basic level, is a tight end or fullback cracking and sealing a defensive tackle. The San Francisco 49ers were a big proponent of it, at least under Jim Harbaugh.
Saw it twice in the game I watched the most, the third preseason game against the Carolina Panthers. They run it out of heavy and spread personnel. Saw it out of 22 and 11. Both came on 2nd down, though the distance varied, with the Patriots around their 30. Flipped through another game, it’s amazing how something like that can predict when it will happen again, and sure enough, in the first game versus the Green Bay Packers, on 2nd and 10 on their own 26, they whammed out of 22 personnel.
To sum up, the alert: the Patriots tend to wham block comes on second down, around the 20-30 yard line, out of various personnel.
We’ll draw up and show one of these from the Panthers game. This is out of 11 personnel, which will force the Steelers into nickel. Makes the blocking scheme more similar than in base since the Panthers run a 4-3 and the Steelers a 3-4.
Patriots do some pre-snap motion of the tight end to put him on the same side as the one tech and the side the run will go. He down blocks, or whams, the one tech, allowing the center and left guard to freely work to the second level. No chip, no combo, just win because of the angle. You’re not looking for a pancake, just a seal to create the alley.
The playside tackle sets his hips and keeps the EMOL to his outside. The backside guard and tackle simply down block the three and five tech.
And here it is in game.
Harder to show without coaches tape but hopefully seeing it on the whiteboard will make it easier to understand.
They’ll mix in a crack toss game, against using the angle advantage their tight end has. A down block on the five tech while the center and right tackle pull. It puts the offensive line in space, likely on a defensive back, either a corner or safety, giving the offense the advantage.
Cut blocks from the backside (BST) guard and tackle.
Patriots mix in power and zone schemes. They’re relatively balanced. Seems like most of their zone runs have cut blocks from the backside players, making it vital for the backside defenders to stay alert and on their feet. If they can work over cut blocks, they’ll be able to squeeze the runner and dissuade them from cutting it back. Will go a long ways to shutting down their running game.
They’ll run a lot, and run it effectively, out of 11 personnel, forcing teams into nickel, removing the nose tackle, and naturally creating gaps.
This isn’t new to the sport or to me but Mike Tomlin made a critical point in his press conference previewing the game. Patriots love to use multiple tight end sets. Double tight 12 personnel and three tight ends. It emphasizes run fits because it creates extra gaps to cover. If there was one tight end to a side, the defense has to defend the A, B, C, and D gaps. With two tight ends to a side, you have to also defend the E gap. With three tight ends to one side, you have to defend an F gap.
Example of a two TE set below.
And the gaps a defense has to defend versus a three tight end look.
At its extreme, that’s six gaps the defense must account for. Must be an assignment sound defense from a run fill standpoint. Lot of players that have to do their job well and naturally, it creates issues when someone doesn’t.
A great counter to two or three tight ends to a side is to play Cover 3 Cloud. It allows the cloud side corner to play the flat against the pass and set the edge versus the run. Doesn’t have to play the deep third. Possible reason why Antwon Blake would get the nod over Cortez Allen because Blake is the strong, more physical run defender than Allen.
As Tomlin also alluded to, Tom Brady is a maestro at playaction. Sells it well, uses it out of those heavy tight end sets, and they’ll use other false keys to suck up linebackers.
Example from the Panthers game. Playaction and a false key of pulling the right guard. Receiver has a reduced split and runs a skinny post, winning inside. Should have made the catch but Aaron Dobson somehow turns it into an interception.
Don’t have a great tendency for it though I’d have more corners alert for any 21/12 personnel with the receivers lined up inside the numbers.
New England’s Passing Game
Other game I looked at quite a bit was the 2013 contest against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Players change but the coaching staff largely hasn’t, Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels were there then and are now, so it’s something we can learn a little bit from.
Had a focus of the splash plays in this game. First one came on 3rd and 25, a 34 yard completion to Rob Gronkowski. Patriots ran a common concept that probably every NFL team has in their playbook – a sail route. Three man combination route of a vertical, a corner, and a flat. Defense must defend three different levels.
Typically a Cover 3 beater by overloading one side of the field with vertical routes.
Here it is drawn up on the whiteboard.
And in game, using the coaches tape.
Here are the Patriots running that skinny post I mentioned above out of a heavy personnel. Max protect, just a two man route, but Gronkowski stems outside, then inside, and wins.
One last thing on offense. They’ll flex their tight ends out wide. Not just Rob Gronkowski but 6’7 Scott Chandler caught a 22 yard touchdown pass against the Panthers in similar fashion. Using that size to create natural matchup problems. Either you match him against a corner, and if the Steelers are in nickel, it’ll be the 5’8 Antwon Blake, or you remove a linebacker from the box to cover, leaving yourself susceptible against the run (especially if you’re already in nickel and have removed the nose tackle).
On special teams, expect Dion Lewis to be the starting kick returner. Danny Amendola and Chris Harper, the latter a rookie, got work on punt returners. I’ve see Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan work as jammers. Team isn’t afraid to single vice and go with an eight man rush, stressing the protection scheme of the Steelers’ punting unit.
JON’S INDIVIDUAL REPORT:
We typically think of the New England Patriots offensive line as a strong unit with several overachievers on it, but a close film review reveals that this group may in fact be a weakness on the team. Three fourth round picks have been spent in the past two drafts to rectify the issues, but the unit could be without one of those draftees in starting center Bryan Stork this Thursday. Stork is dealing with a concussion, and had not yet been cleared to return to practice as of Tuesday morning. Starting right guard Ryan Wendell might move to center in his place, which would make both starting guard spots unclaimed at this point. Let’s take a closer look at New England’s offensive line on tape.
These clips come from the team’s third preseason game against Carolina, when the starters saw their most extensive work. First possession of the game, 3rd-and-3, Nate Solder doesn’t get enough depth in his kick slide and gives up edge pressure far too quickly.
Can’t open up your set foot (outside leg) and allow the defender to power through your punch so easily. Lots of messy work by Solder on this play, who really does appear to be a shell of the player he used to be.
Solder’s struggles continued on the next series, as he failed to pick up a simple twist while rookie left guard Shaq Mason handles it flawlessly.
On the flip side, the team has to love what it sees from Mason, who also has center experience should the team call on him to fill that role. Mason was shockingly not invited to the combine, but still got a fifth round grade from me. Billed as a phone booth mauler whose run blocking was obviously ahead of his pass protection coming out of Georgia Tech, Mason’s steadiness as a pass blocker surprised me on tape. Here’s the same image I showed earlier of Solder giving up the edge, but this time look at Mason’s punch.
His one hand shoots a little high, something he’ll have to be careful of, but I still love the tenacity and desire to punch, not absorb your defender as a pass protector. He does have to be careful not to get caught up hand-fighting and forget to move your feet to mirror interior rushers, like Mason does at the end of this play.
Initial punch still looked great, just can’t get so occupied battling in pass protection that you don’t move your feet and get some depth. Mason is aggressive as a blocker, so he can be susceptible to swim moves and hand swats as a rookie. I’d bet any sum of money that Cam Heyward will be well aware of that on Thursday night should the former Yellow Jacket earn the start.
In the run game, get Mason moving vertically onto targets, even second level, and this is typically what you get:
He also made several outstanding pull blocks in the run game, one of which is detailed later in this article. Looks like the real deal, and I would be surprised if he doesn’t get the nod at one guard spot, especially if Stork is out.
We don’t know who starts at the other guard spot yet, but if Stork plays, Wendell and Sebastian Vollmer make up an experienced right side of the offensive front. Josh Kline (#67) may be one of the first guys to be called upon, former Kent State lineman who brings some mobility to the run blocking game. Seems to be a stiff competition between he and Mason for the starting left guard spot, although the rookie got the start in this game. Here’s a great reach block by Kline to get across the nose and drive him out of the gap to create a running lane.
Not that he’ll play, but the Patriots other rookie offensive guard, Tre Jackson, got rag-dolled and gave up inside penetration a lot against Carolina. Just something to file away with so many interior offensive line spots up in the air for New England right now.
One more for the road. Right tackle Vollmer flawlessly handling a twist, while Solder gets blown by again on the left side.
If Steelers are going to stop Tom Brady and the Patriots offense, pressuring the quarterback is essential. The left side of the line could be very susceptible in pass protection, so expect to see James Harrison matched up against Solder a lot on third downs.
The running back position is another spot that is up for grabs for New England on Thursday night, as leading preseason rusher LeGarrette Blount serves his one game suspension this week. Jonas Gray was expecting to fill his shoes after averaging 5.1 yards per carry this preseason, but the second-year back was waived this past weekend in a surprising move.
That leaves Brandon Bolden and James White to handle the bulk of the rushing duties, as the duo combined for 32 carries over the four preseason games, 27 of which were White’s. The second-year back played in just three games last season, rushing nine times for 38 yards.
Here’s one of White’s best runs of the preseason, an 11-yard scamper against the Giants last week.
Love backs who don’t hesitate at the line of scrimmage. Get in behind the pulling guard (Mason again by the way) and run right off his backside while accelerating through the crease. Great block and good vision by White to eliminate wasted movement. That’s basically who White is, as he’s not a great athlete with lightning quick feet or breakaway speed, but there is plenty of substance to his style, and he’ll generally get everything the defense gives him.
Bolden has spent the past three seasons in New England, but has never rushed for more than 274 yards during any of those campaigns. He runs hard and physical, but lacks vision and is an average athlete. He only had five preseason carries, and I expect White to get the bulk of the workload on Thursday.
Scott Chandler was an underrated offseason pickup by the Patriots, a big target with minimal athleticism, but solid hands and the ability to play flexed if need be. New England loves to run two tight end sets, and Chandler’s jack-of-all-trades skill set complements the otherworldly skill set of Rob Gronkowski very well. Against Carolina the Patriots rolled him outside against one of the best coverage linebackers in the game in Thomas Davis, and the long tight end gets just enough to separation to reel in a beautiful ball from Brady.
In 14 of Chandler’s 16 first half snaps against Carolina, he was flexed out in a two-point stance rather than being used in-line. Pittsburgh will have to decide how they want to cover the big tight end, especially with Gronkowski to worry about too on Thursday night.
That’s also just a gorgeous touch throw from one of the best to ever lace ‘em up. Indefensible toss, which is what you’ll typically get if Brady gets much time to throw.
Something I’ve noticed from Brady over the years, once he gets 20-30 yards from the end zone, he almost always goes for the kill shot on an early down. Patriots use tons of vertical concepts in that area of the field, and Brady throws with excellent accuracy and touch. New England will dink and dunk down the field, but get Brady in range and he’s targeting the end zone. Period.
I think Brady is a little more easily rattled or rushed in his throws these days than early on in his career, but it is still a minor weakness. He has such a quick release that edge pressure often won’t faze him, but he will turtle up some against pressure in his face. Pittsburgh loves to attack the A-gaps, and with the potential for a few new starters on the Patriots interior offensive line, expect to see plenty of blitzes to get Brady out of the pocket, where he is much less effective.
I know it is just preseason, but worth noting that, of the Patriots starting offense’s 12 drives over the first three preseason games, eight ended in three-and-outs, two ended with an interception thrown by Brady, and one ended in just four plays. Only one resulted in a touchdown, the starters’ seventh and final possession against the Panthers two weeks ago. So yes, the Patriots offense is still a fearsome machine, but they are also still figuring things out this season.
Also only fair to point out that Gronkowski and Julian Edelman were healthy scratches in every single preseason game. Obviously those two change a lot of what New England does offensively, as both have an expansive route tree and will be moved all over the formation. If you’ve watched football at all over the past couple years, you know exactly how this duo can hurt a defense. Gronkowski is a master of contested grabs and has the vertical ability to threaten the seams, while Edelman is fantastic at creating separation in the short-intermediate areas of the field, and at working magic after the catch.
The rest of the receiving corps doesn’t scare me much. Danny Amendola is a guy who can thrive off the chaos others create however, and does have a propensity for circus catches. He won’t make much of an impact if you are aggressive with him in coverage. Aaron Dobson is the third receiver, but he’s been a disappointment since arriving in New England as a second round pick in 2013.
Ultimately it doesn’t matter how talented the receiving corps is, Brady always elevates his teammates with his play. It is one of his best qualities as a quarterback, and one of the reasons why New England never feels pressured to spend tons of money or first round draft picks on offensive skill players. This isn’t even a shot at Pittsburgh’s secondary, but they simply have no prayer of slowing down Brady if they can’t win on first down and if they can’t pressure the pocket. Their defensive success keys on those two things on Thursday night.