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Film review: The Patriots’ deep passing game was on point against the Browns

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In the first game with Tom Brady under center, the offense looked good attacking the opponent deep.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is among the most accurate passers in the NFL year in and year out. One reason for that is his aversion to taking risks and his willingness to throw the safe pass even if it does not gain the same amount of yardage as a risky one might.

This makes Brady an effective quarterback in the short- and intermediate range. However, it also created a reputation of him not being as good a deep ball passer as others around the league. While this notion does not reflect reality, it still lingers. But just don’t watch Sunday’s game tape!

Brady was on fire against the Cleveland Browns, slicing through the defense while completing 28 of 40 pass attempts for 408 yards and three touchdowns. He displayed accuracy no matter where he went to with the football – whether short, intermediate or deep, the future Hall of Famer was on point.

In fact, Brady did not miss a single one of his deep pass attempts as New England’s deep ball game was on point.

1) 2-8-50 (14:29) T.Brady pass deep left to C.Hogan to CLV 7 for 43 yards (I.Campbell)

In the first quarter, the Patriots had two plays of 30+ yards. Both were relatively short passes to Rob Gronkowski and James White, respectively, with most of the yardage being picked up after the reception. Early in the second quarter, New England had its third long pass of the day. However, this time, the entire 43 yards were gained through the air.

New England’s offense came out in 11 personnel, with Brady under center and running back LeGarrette Blount (#29) lined up behind him. Julian Edelman (#11) lined up on the offense’s left, just on the outside shoulder of tight end Rob Gronkowski (#87), who was in a three-point stance next to left tackle Nate Solder (#77). Rookie Malcolm Mitchell (#19) was split out wide to the right with Chris Hogan (#15) in the slot:

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After the snap, the offensive line and Gronkowski ran a stretch-play to the left, with Blount following the blockers and the three wide receivers going on routes. The stretch was executed perfectly and immediately caused the two off-the-line linebackers as well as the two deep safeties to move to their right. The Patriots had gained only 27 yards on the ground up to that point but the Browns, given the personnel on the field, still had to respect the run:

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Brady did not hand the ball off to Blount and by the time he had turned back around again and was looking down the field he had a) no defenders near him – center David Andrews (#60) was quick to turn around and potentially pick up defensive end Carl Nassib (#94) – and b) two receivers, Mitchell and Hogan, gaining inside leverage on their respective routes:

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With deep safety Ibraheim Campbell (#24) cheating towards the middle of the field due to the fake run, he had to reverse course to provide help against the deep ball. Hogan’s post route in particular put stress on Campbell, as New England’s wideout had already put a substantial gap between him and the cornerback originally in charge of covering him by the time it became clear that the play was a pass.

Due to the fake run, Brady had enough time to assess the situation and decide whether to deliver the ball to Mitchell or Hogan. The quarterback went with the latter and delivered a pass that gained 43 yards:

Brady led the receiver a tad too far to the outside, causing Hogan to fall down after the reception, but by doing that eliminated all chances of Campbell breaking up the pass. And even though this meant that the play would not end in a score, New England still had first and goal and scored their third offensive touchdown of the day three plays later.

2) 3-6-NE 31 (8:01) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass deep right to C.Hogan to CLV 6 for 63 yards (J.Haden). NE-C.Hogan was injured during the play. His return is Probable.

On the third play of their next possession, Brady and Hogan again connected on a deep ball. On a 3rd and 6 situation, the offense came out in an empty set with Brady in the shotgun. Other than running back James White (#28), who was on the field for Blount, New England had the same skill position players aligned. Edelman and Mitchell lined up on the offense’s left, while Gronkowski, White and Hogan lined up on its right:

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After the snap, Gronkowski stayed in to block. This allowed a) the team to eliminate one defender – linebacker Demario Davis (#56) – from immediately impacting the play and b) the blockers to easily handle the four-man rush the Browns sent to challenge the pocket. In turn, Brady had enough time to go through his progressions.

First the quarterback looked to Edelman, who ran an out-and-go and could not quickly enough gain separation (although he ultimately did get a step on the defender), then towards Mitchell, who ran a post which led him straight into the heart of Cleveland’s coverage. Therefore, Brady started to climb the pocket to buy additional time for his other two targets to get open:

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While White could not, Hogan could. The first-year Patriot was able to get by cornerback Joe Haden (#23), who originally defended Hogan in off-man coverage. However, Haden’s eyes were glued to Brady until it was too late and Hogan had gotten by him. With Jordan Poyer (#33), who was the lone deep safety on the play, drifting towards Brady’s first two reads, Haden was on his own – he had already lost.

By the time the Patriots’ quarterback released the ball, Hogan had created a two-yard gap between him and the defender. This was enough for Brady to try to test the defense deep. It worked perfectly, as the 39-year old perfectly hit his target in stride:

Haden was able to catch up to Hogan but not after he had already gained 63 yards. The Patriots, however, were unable to take advantage of the deep ball and resulting good field position. Their drive ended on a failed fourth down attempt.

The Patriots executed the play very well. The offensive line, despite being challenged by only four rushers, recognized the situation well after the Browns originally indicated pressure. The one-on-ones on the edges and the double teams on the interior easily won their battles, giving Brady enough time and space to move in the pocket. He made the most out of it, showing excellent patience and footwork in the process.

3) 1-10-CLV 37 (12:28) (No Huddle) T.Brady pass deep right to M.Bennett for 37 yards, TOUCHDOWN

Early in the third quarter, the Patriots went back to the stretch-play. The offense aligned in a max-protection set, with Brady under center and White behind him. Gronkowski and fellow tight end Martellus Bennett (#88) lined up in a three-point stance next to right tackle Cameron Fleming (#71), while wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell was split out wide on the left with Danny Amendola (#80) on the outside shoulder of left tackle Nate Solder (#77):

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Following the snap, the entire formation – with the exceptions of Mitchell and Amendola – moved to the right. The defense countered by attacking the perceived blockers. However, due to the fact that the Patriots quickly snapped the ball and thus created some confusion within Cleveland’s linebackers, the interior of the line was pressured more aggressively than the boundary.

This, in turn, allowed both Bennett and Gronkowski a relatively free release onto their routes. The fake handoff to White not only gave Brady yet another clean pocket to operate, it also made the defenders responsible for the underneath zones move up towards the point of attack. Consequently, both tight ends were wide open by the time Brady was on the top of his drop-back:

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What also helped was deep safety Poyer cheating towards the quarterback’s blindside. This might have been useful when it comes to defending the first deep pass of the day but in this particular situation made it even easier for the Patriots to connect on the deep pass. Had Poyer stayed on his initial course and not fallen victim to his instincts, he might have been able to tackle Bennett sooner. Alas, he did not and the the offseason acquisition was able to score his third touchdown of the day:

Once again, New England executed to perfection. While the Browns did not defend the play well, part of it had to do with the fact that they fell into the trap set by the Patriots’ fake zone run. This trap was made possible due to the personnel on the field. Both tight ends are able blockers and could execute an actual zone run, while both Mitchell and Amendola are respectable pass catching options.

4) 2-10-NE 35 (11:20) T.Brady pass short right to R.Gronkowski to CLV 28 for 37 yards (C.Kirksey)

New England’s next long completion came early in the fourth quarter, on Tom Brady’s final drive of the day. The offense had 12 personnel on the field with Blount the lone running back. Prior to the snap, Martellus Bennet motioned from the left side of the formation to the right to line up on Rob Gronkowski’s outside shoulder. On the left, the team used wideouts Edelman (split out wide) and Amendola (slot):

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The Browns brought six-man pressure against the Patriots’ five offensive linemen supported by the pass-protecting Blount. The blockers, all in one-on-one matchups did a nice job to give their quarterback 2.1 seconds of clean pocket – enough for him to deliver a that traveled 34 yards through the air:

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Cleveland’s blitz package left five players in coverage. However, due to the route combination, particularly on the strong side, Bennett was left uncovered on a short out route. Yet Brady decided not to throw to him and instead targeted the other tight end going down the seam:

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Gronkowski was able to gain separation on linebacker Christian Kirksey (#58), which gave Brady enough confidence to throw him the ball after quickly looking to the left side of the field. Despite the Browns blitzing, Brady was still able to set his feet and deliver a perfect touch pass to his big target for a gain of 37 yards:

As all four plays above show, New England has had tremendous success stretching the field vertically against the Browns. Part of it was exploiting mismatches, part of it was well designed plays (the zone run-fakes) and route combinations (double go route on Bennett’s touchdown) taking advantage of the personnel’s abilities and versatility. No matter what the team tried, it worked.

And while the Patriots probably won’t have the same deep-ball success each week, they have shown that they are capable of attacking secondaries deep; an element defenses will have to consider when game-planning against New England’s offense. And one that might open up other parts of the field to exploit.