Editor's note: This article is originally from September 14th, 2015. It is relevant again due to the Patriots' decision to retain four tight ends and fullback James Develin. Enjoy.
The New England Patriots offense revealed how they would compensate for the lack of wide receivers on the roster: a whole lotta beef.
On seven snaps, the Patriots played without a wide receiver, and on four of these plays the Patriots utilized four tight ends. The other three featured Shaq Mason at fullback, which I included because Shaq is amazing and the replacement of injured fullback James Develin is still in the works.
The Patriots used these four tight end sets in the red zone three times and scored three touchdowns. Here's how it all played out.
1. 14:30, 2nd quarter, Brandon Bolden -3 yards
Left guard Shaq Mason just misses his assignment as Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier sprints into the backfield for a big loss. It was a great diagnosis by Shazier, but Josh McDaniels has now planted the "run!" seed in the Pittsburgh brain.
2. 4:06, 2nd quarter, Rob Gronkowski 6-yard touchdown reception
Both Pittsburgh linebackers and the free safety (23) are suckered into the line to open up the end zone. Ryan Shazier, who had the terrific stop of Bolden, attacks left guard Josh Kline because he thinks he'll get the same play. Gronkowski blows past the Steelers defense and Tom Brady just has to drop the ball into the bucket for a score.
3a. 11:17, 3rd quarter, Brandon Bolden stuffed at the goal line.
Do we count this alignment? Not really, but I will because I want you all to see Shaq Mason as a fullback.
Even though this didn't work, I will forever love this play design. pic.twitter.com/mdUPBBIZS1— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) September 14, 2015
3b. 10:43, 3rd quarter, Scott Chandler 1-yard touchdown grab.
Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons is as good as coverage linebackers get in this league, so this shows how unfair the play design makes it for defenses. Patriots tight end Michael Hoomanawanui flexes to the far side and draws strong safety Will Allen in coverage. Allen is the Steelers only defensive back on the field.
So with Allen out of the box, the Patriots get to flex out Gronkowski and Chandler knowing that they'll draw linebackers in coverage. This is an easy presnap adjustment win by Tom Brady. The Patriots look like they're playing at half speed and they still get an easy score. Take note of the crossing pattern with Gronkowski and Chandler.
4a: 10:03, 4th quarter, Shaq Mason enters as fullback again. Same exact play as before. Brandon Bolden stuffed at the line.
4b: 9:28, 4th quarter, Shaq Mason again at fullback, but acts as a blocker for a fade pass to Rob Gronkowski, who catches it out of bounds.
For those keeping score, the Patriots were 2 carries, -3 yards and 0/1 during their three tight end + Shaq set.
4c: 9:24, 4th quarter, Rob Gronkowski catches a 1-yard touchdown pass over linebacker Terrence Garvin.
The Patriots flex out Hooman out and the Steelers send their only defensive back on the field in coverage again.
When the Patriots flex out Rob Gronkowski and Scott Chandler, you can see Garvin on the far side crossing his arms to tell his fellow linebacker Timmons to watch for the crossing route. This is literally what the Patriots were hoping, because Garvin steps to cover the inside and Gronk runs to the corner for a fairly easy touchdown grab.
These plays work because the Steelers have to respect the Patriots run game with the four tight ends on the field. If teams keep defensive backs on the field when the Patriots get LeGarrette Blount next week, then New England is just going to run the ball down the opposing team's throat for easy yardage. But when the teams put linebackers on the field, then Rob Gronkowski and Scott Chandler are able to win their 1-on-1 match-ups every time.
What teams have multiple linebackers that can cover tight ends on a consistent basis? The Panthers, Seahawks, and the Ravens are the only teams that come to mind. Luckily, the Patriots won't play any of them during the regular season.
The weakness of every AFC East competitor is their distinct lack of quality linebackers. With these sets now on film, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels knows opposing defenses are going to try and think of ways to win these match-ups. I would expect the Patriots to run a draw play up the middle against the Bills with Dion Lewis squeezing his way for yardage, just to add another threat to the package.
But if you're an opposing defensive coordinator, how do you stop this match-up? Defensive contact penalties (holding or pass interference) make up roughly 50% of all goal line penalties in the league, so asking linebackers to play tight coverage is just asking for a penalty flag to be thrown.
New England has a fun new scheme that is near impossible for defenses to stop. Josh McDaniels is going to build off of this package for the rest of the season.