The Dallas Cowboys have allowed three wide receivers to post 80 or more yards against their defense. One receiver was the Atlanta Falcons' Julio Jones, who is the most athletic freak of a wide receiver in the entire league. The other two are the Philadelphia Eagles' Jordan Matthews and the New Orleans Saints' Willie Snead.
The New England Patriots could try to mimic what the Falcons did with Jones, but without a wide receiver of that athletic capability the Patriots hopes of mimicking the Atlanta offense are slightly diminished. But Matthews and Snead are far from the same level of athleticism and produced well enough for the Patriots to copy and paste their plays into the week 5 game plan for Julian Edelman.
Matthews is aligned in the near slot.
This is a fairly simple idea and is the bread and butter of the Denver Broncos offense with Demaryius Thomas. The goal is to get the ball into the hands of your playmaker with open space to run. The Patriots could (and should, in my opinion) teach Aaron Dobson to play in space. Instead, the routes will go to Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola.
The Cowboys are aligned with a single deep safety and the Eagles counter with a fair simple idea. As we've covered, Dallas prefers to rush with just four, leaving the remaining seven players to drop into coverage. One of the linebackers will trail the running back to the near side, removing them from the play. Another linebacker will have the role of guarding the middle of the field and watching the quarterback.
Of course, the Eagles love what the Cowboys are showing. Matthews runs the low cross as the defensive back is playing off coverage. By sending the running back to the near side, one of the Cowboys linebackers is drawn out of the play. The back is just bait in this play. The tight end in the far slot is bait, too, running counter to Matthews and generating traffic for the defenders to navigate.
The wide receiver on the far side is just supposed to clear out more space for Matthews to run. Easy first down.
The Patriots could run a similar concept with Edelman as Aaron Dobson clears space on the far side and Rob Gronkowski acts as bait in the far slot. It's an easy way to avoid an interception, while still moving the ball down the field.
Snead is aligned on the far outside.
The Cowboys are playing cover three and Drew Brees actually has two viable options, if the Cowboys hadn't started their delayed blitz up the middle. If you look at both receivers on the far side, Snead is running an out route, which is ultimately the completed pass- but the tight end Ben Watson was wide open into his flag route.
As the Cowboys sent their middle linebacker up the middle, the strong safety was supposed to take over a coverage role in his place. The free safety is frozen in the middle of the field which allows Watson to generate separation at the stem of his route. Imagine Gronkowski getting that much space?
The combination of Snead's out route and Watson's flag route works well against this coverage because it forces the cornerback to make a decision: does he drop backwards to continue to cover the tight end? Or does he stick with the wide receiver in front of him?
Edelman and Gronkowski can work this exact combination against the Cowboys. They could also have Gronkowski on the near side of the field and have him run up the seam to further freeze the free safety. Dobson could work in Watson's place and would be a tremendous deep threat in that role.
Snead is aligned on the far outside.
If Brees wanted, he could've hit Brandin Cooks on the near side with no one to beat. It's telling that he went to Snead instead of trying for the big shots in this and the prior example- but those big throws can and will be open to Tom Brady if he's willing to risk those throws.
Snead is part of another combination route as the Cowboys drop into quarters coverage (four players covering a quarter of the deep field). Dallas has their middle linebacker, typically tasked with guarding the middle of the field, covering the inside seam for the slot receiver.
I have no idea what the far side defensive back was doing on this play. He was watching the slot receiver instead of Snead and the defender turned his hips like he was expecting the slot man to clear out underneath. The coverage underneath of Snead took the bait of the leaked tight end into the flat. No one was covering Snead until the defensive back realized his mistake.
Just the split second of separation was enough for Brees to hit Snead on the outside.
The Patriots need to take advantage of these mental mistakes from the Cowboys. There are clear questions of communication and comfort in these defensive schemes. These defensive backs seem to struggle to plant their foot and drive back to the receiver, exacerbating the issues.
Two Step Drop
Couldn't help myself, here's a play from Julio Jones. He's in the slot opposite of the motion man.
This is a GIF of two plays. They're the same exact play, just flipped. We talked about how the Dallas defensive line bites on the play action when the offensive line shows a zone run and this is the same mistake on both plays. It's clear the Falcons saw this tendency because they went after it all game.
Essentially, the Falcons showed run by motioning the tight end opposite of Jones in the slot. By putting the tight end on the line, and by showing a stretch zone blocking scheme out of the snap, the Cowboys instinctively react and start trying to defend the run in the direction of the tight end, and away from Julio Jones.
Quarterback Matt Ryan takes two steps in his drop before firing to Julio Jones for some really easy yardage.
The Cowboys can struggle with their communication on defense and their aggression can be used against them to clear space for receivers. It's up to the Patriots to take advantage.