Some football teams are game-plan oriented. Others simply do what they do because they are confident that they cannot be stopped. Regardless of the approach a coaching staff takes when constructing its weekly game-plan, each team has a handful of offensive plays that the opponent knows they will see and have to be alert for.
This series will explore some of the pillars of New England’s offensive scheme by introducing its most commonly used concepts, explaining how they relate to the Patriots’ scheme, and breaking down each concept’s pre- and post-snap reads and progressions.
WHAT IT IS
The slant-flat is a two-man route combination off of a three-step drop that can, from certain formations, include a check-down to a running back out of the backfield. This concept offers the quarterback two high percentage options to throw to: a slant route from the outside receiver and a flat route or quick out from the inside receiver or running back.
It is a favorite of Tom Brady's on early downs as well as third and short or medium situations. Like most of New England's offensive staples, the slant-flat requires quick decision-making, good timing, and precise ball placement in order to give the receiver an opportunity to turn up-field in stride and gain yards after the catch, or YAC.
HOW THEY USE IT
The Patriots most commonly run the slant-flat concept from the 2x2 "Dubs" formation, the 3x1 "Trips" formations, and 3x2 "Empty" sets.
NFL Game Pass: Slant-flat concept to the backside of an empty spread formation
Though the team uses this combination from a number of personnel groupings and alignments, the use of gargantuan tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Scott Chandler or big-bodied wide receiver, Brandon LaFell as outside receivers running slant patterns in tandem with small, shifty wide receivers, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola running quick-outs from the slots out of a "Dubs" formation is the most advantageous and difficult to defend.
The slant, which has the higher big-play potential of the two routes, is a great route for receivers with the strength to fight through press coverage, the frame to box out defenders, and the ability to break or evade tackles in the open field. These are areas where Gronkowski and Chandler excel, particularly when they are matched up against smaller cornerbacks and safeties. Speed isn't very important for this pattern, but it certainly helps if the receiver is able to make the first defender miss and has nothing but green-grass in front of him.
The flat route, on the other hand, requires at least marginal speed and quickness to turn up-field as well as the elusiveness to slip past a flat or off-man defender and get extra yards.
WHEN THEY USE IT
The beauty of this concept is in both its simplicity and its versatility. It only features two reads for the quarterback and can be employed against just about any basic defensive coverage.
The slant-flat can create a natural pick versus tight man-to-man, meaning the routes take place in such close proximity that defenders in coverage must either bubble over or cut under an incoming receiver they aren’t not responsible for.
Failure to do so will result in a collision with either or both the receiver and the man covering him, causing the defenders to lose ground on their man and an opportunity for more YAC. The play below, taken from New England’s 28-24 Super Bowl XLIX victory over the Seattle Seahawks, illustrates how the slant-flat concept can put defenders in a tough position.
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On 2nd and 10 from New England’s 29-yard line, Julian Edelman motions over from the right side to create a 3x1 formation with Brandon LaFell lined up across from cornerback Byron Maxwell in the left slot, flanked to his left by Gronkowski, who is aligned on top of the numbers opposite strong safety Kam Chancellor.
Richard Sherman follows Edelman across the formation and Chancellor has abandoned his traditional spot in the box and shadows the tight end outside, which tells Brady pre-snap that Seattle is playing some form of single-high man coverage, likely Cover 1.
After the ball is snapped, neither Maxwell nor Chancellor gets a jam on his man, allowing LaFell and Gronkowski to run their routes cleanly. Edelman runs a clear-out to occupy the middle linebacker. As LaFell makes his way to the flat, Gronkowski, who has already beaten his man, and Chancellor’s presences force Byron Maxwell to bubble over to avoid being picked.
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Both receivers are wide open, and Brady targets Gronkowski, who has a better chance of breaking off a big gain than LaFell. The pass is deflected at the line by defensive lineman, Tony McDaniel, but the receivers execute their assignments perfectly.
Against off-man coverage, the outside receiver will be the primary target unless he creates traffic with the man covering the inside receiver as depicted in the picture above, in which case Brady would throw to the flat. The outside receiver’s ability to get off the line unabated allows him greater acceleration out of his break while running into open field, giving him the best chance of gaining YAC.
If the opposing team is playing Cover 2 (with two deep safeties), Brady will either throw to the outside receiver once he has been funneled inside by the cornerback or dump it off to the receiver in the flat if the outside receiver is held up. The degree of difficulty is high for this throw, however, because of the small window between the flat and hook defenders when targeting the slant. A corner may also bait the quarterback into thinking he is occupied by the outside receiver and, if the ball is thrown late, he can break on the ball for a breakup or an interception.
Brady will often target the backside flat-defender against Cover 3 (three deep zone coverage) or Cover 4 (four deep zone coverage) because, in base or nickel packages, this player is typically a linebacker. The linebacker's relative lack of speed and need to stay close to the formation to fill run responsibilities creates an easy mismatch that the Golden Boy will take all day.
If the flat defender overcompensates and leaves a hole between the himself and the hook defender, the slant should be open for a good gain. If the defender is slow to get to his spot, the quarterback will target the flat. Below is an example of how the Patriots use play-action to achieve this goal.
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On a 2nd and 8 from Seattle’s 28 yard line, New England comes out in a "Dubs" formation with Brady in the shotgun, LeGarrette Blount as the offset back to his left, Edelman in a reduced split inside the numbers to the right side of the formation. Brandon LaFell and Amendola are in their traditional spots outside and inside, respectively, on the left side.
This formation does not offer a backside linebacker mismatch against Seattle’s staple Cover 3 Buzz defense, as K.J. Wright is in good position to defend a possible flat route by Gronkowski. Instead, Brady uses a quick play-fake to Blount to freeze slot corner, Jeremy Lane, who is trying to read the quarterback’s eyes and is duped into thinking the he has handed the ball off. This gives Amendola plenty of room to work with and results in a 10 yard gain to set up a 1st and 10 inside the red-zone.
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The slant-flat is also a great combination to use against the blitz. If it is a man blitz, the man coverage reads and progressions mentioned above apply. The vast majority of the time, teams have their defensive backs line up with an inside shade on the receiver because, in a true blitz 0, there is no inside or safety help.
In other words, one broken tackle and the receiver is off to the races. If Brady reads a nickel corner blitz, he knows his inside receiver is either uncovered or is being covered by someone in poor position to defend a quick pass outside. This means the flat will be his hot read, unless the blitzing corner is directly in his throwing lane.
Against zone blitzes, most of which leave the flat zones uncovered in order to defend hook zones and deep halves, thirds, or quarters, Brady will take the flat route every time it is given to him and the situation allows it (refer to just about any New England-Pittsburgh game from the beginning of Brady's career).
The versatility of the slant-flat concept and the elements required to execute it properly epitomize the way the Patriots play offense and mesh perfectly with the skill-sets of Brady and his receiving corp. It has been a key piece in Brady's arsenal since he took the helm as New England's starting quarterback and will continue to be until the day he hangs up his helmet for good.