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How Pick Plays Affect the Patriots Defense's Press Coverage

The Patriots struggled to defense the pick plays from the Bills. Here's where they went wrong.

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Rule 8, Section 5, Article 4

Blocking more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage by an offensive player prior to a pass being thrown is offensive pass interference.

Note: It is also pass interference by the offense to block a defender beyond the line while the pass is in the air, if the block occurs in the vicinity of the player to whom the pass is thrown.

The Patriots press defense is excellent, but present a glaring weakness: adjustments to opposing pick plays.

The nature of press coverage puts the Patriots defensive backs close to the line of scrimmage so they can engage and redirect opposing receivers off the snap. An easy counter to this approach is motioning and stacking players, or using legal pick plays.

So long as the pick play occurs within one yard of the line of scrimmage, it will be allowed. It's a useful tool to manufacture space for receivers.

Against the Bills, there was no one more impacted by the pick plays than Alfonzo Dennard. In fact, the Bills seemed to attack him at all times throughout the game. As Dennard is not the same caliber of corner as Darrelle Revis, the Bills hoped to use pick plays to gain quick separation where Dennard couldn't recover.

Dennard was primarily in man coverage of Robert Woods, the Bills number two target on offense and possibly their best route runner.

Quarter One

Dennard Q1

Dennard is in the slot (which he did a fair amount during the game), and he attempted to direct the opposing receiver into the middle of the field. He sits on his outside shoulder to prevent the out route, but the Bills send their tight end over the top of the receiver just in case Dennard was sitting at the stem of the route.

While the tight end didn't directly impact Dennard's coverage, it was clearly drawn up and timed for the tight end to meet the receiver at the top of the route. If Dennard was at the top of the route, he would have been impeded by the tight end, with the receiver free to run a hitch and out from the point.

Dennard covered well and wasn't affected by the hypothetical pick. But the Bills spent their afternoon trying to nudge Dennard away to generate all sorts of separation.

Quarter Two

Dennard Q2

The Bills didn't even try to disguise this. They stacked their receivers and tried to drive Dennard off the snap so Woods could have space in the flat. The receiver places his hands on the outside of Dennard so he can't easily shed the blocker (who was blocking 3+ yards down the field), and forces Dennard to waste time disengaging.

Again, Dennard played extremely well and managed to both disengage and stop Woods from gaining the first down. But this shows how dangerous the press coverage can be in short yardage situations. On one hand, they need to play close so the receivers can't just turn off the snap and reach the sticks. On the other, the defensive backs are free to be blocked at the line of scrimmage since they're so close to the receivers- and with the five yards of contact halo, it seems as if the Bills tried to force Dennard to engage a different receiver to disrupt the coverage.

There's no easy way to defend this. The players just have to hope they can either make the play or hope that the refs are watching the contact.

Quarter Three

Dennard Q3

The tight end Scott Chandler manages to cross right in front of Dennard on another third and short situation. Woods is free to cross the opposite direction of the field and he picks up major yardage. With Devin McCourty covering Chandler off the line of scrimmage, a reasonable assignment due to how effective the tight end was on the day, there leaves no room for the defensive backs to layer and allow one to cross in front of the other.

All Dennard can hope is that the linebacker dropping into zone will be able to pick up the receiver and deter the throw. It didn't happen.

Quarter Four

Dennard Q4

Another combination with Woods and Chandler against Dennard. If Dennard had sold that Chandler impeded his path, there could possibly have been a flag (although my view is that it was clean enough), but Dennard didn't give up on the play. This resulted in a major gain by Woods with Dennard trailing behind.

It should be noted that the past three instances have all come on third or fourth down with under three yards to go. These offensive plays generate a split second of time for the receiver to get open- and that's all they need for a first down to move the chains.

Flagged Play

Dennard Penalty

On this play Sammy Watkins runs towards Dennard two yards down the field, and then flattens his route and goes vertical, preventing Dennard from getting through to Woods. It's a textbook penalty that was rightly called. Three of the four plays above were all legal (the exception being the second quarter example).

This exercise wasn't to pick on Dennard, who actually made great plays in the first half. The fact that he didn't give up on the plays after contact is reason for praise.

The point was to show how press coverage can be exposed in certain situations. Motions and driving routes can and will manufacture space for receivers, especially in short yardage situations. The Patriots need to work on the communication in the secondary with respect to layering and passing coverage.

The Bills were able to move the ball with some success, especially on important downs. The Patriots need to spend extra time working on improving this situational football.