From a competitive perspective, the New England Patriots’ Sunday night game against the visiting Seattle Seahawks was one of the most entertaining contests of the 2016 NFL season. A game featuring two of the league’s best teams. A rematch of a recent Super Bowl. A game coming down to the wire.
As has been the case in Super Bowl XLIX, a late fourth quarter goal line stand decided the game. Only this time, the Seattle Seahawks emerged as the victor after stopping New England on four consecutive plays from inside the 5-yard line.
Let’s take a look at the film to analyze those four plays.
1-2-SEA 2 (:43) C.Fleming reported in as eligible. T.Brady up the middle to SEA 1 for 1 yard (J.Reed; T.McDaniel).
After a long completion to Rob Gronkowski set up the Patriots at the Seahawks’ 2-yard line with less than a minute left in the game and the team down by seven points, New England opted to go big. The team used 23 personnel on its first try to find the end zone.
The offense aligned in an i-formation with LeGarrette Blount (#29) as the halfback behind fullback James Develin (#46). Tight end Rob Gronkowski (#87) lined up on the right tackle’s outside shoulder, while eligible tackle Cameron Fleming (#71) lined up on the opposite side. Motion-man Martellus Bennett (#88) moved from Gronkowski’s outside shoulder to Fleming’s prior to the snap:
At the snap, Tom Brady (#12) immediately pushed off his left food to get good movement up the field on a sneak. Brady tried to sneak through the A-gap between center David Andrews (#60) and right guard Shaq Mason (#69). Andrews combined with left guard Joe Thuney (#62) to slow down 0-technique defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin (#77), while Mason and right tackle Marcus Cannon (#61) initially double teamed 4i-technique defensive tackle Tony McDaniels (#93):
Mason, after quick contact with McDaniels served as the lead blocker on the sneak. While this blocked Rubin’s path to the quarterback, it freed up McDaniels again who combined with defensive tackle Jarran Reed (#90) to stop Brady after one yard. The play was actually well executed by the offense but neither the line nor the quarterback did eventually generate enough push to help Brady gain more than a yard.
Seattle called a timeout after the quarterback sneak, giving the Patriots 30 seconds to come up with a new plan for attack. They did, but neither personnel nor formation changed.
2-1-SEA 1 (:37) C.Fleming reported in as eligible. L.Blount up the middle to SEA 1 for no gain (K.Chancellor).
On 2nd and goal, New England opted to attack Seattle out of the same i-formation it used on the previous play. Blount and Develin once again lined up in the backfield, with Fleming and Gronkowski the tight ends on the outside of Nate Solder (#77) and Cannon, respectively. Bennett made the same motion he did on 1st down:
At the snap, the left side of New England’s offensive line – Solder, Fleming and Bennett – were able to produce a very good upfield push, paving the way for Develin to take on the second-level defenders in front of him:
There was a potential opening on the left side between Develin and Fleming but with Blount approaching the C-gap at full speed, he would have been unable to redirect to attack the space one gap further to the outside. He also could have tried to increase his chances of scoring on the run by extending the football just a bit while in the air:
However, Blount did not make that split-second decision, which would have been a dangerous one anyway, given the situation, and the Patriots were stopped inches short of the goal line.
3-1-SEA 1 (:19) C.Fleming reported in as eligible. T.Brady FUMBLES (Aborted) at SEA 1, and recovers at SEA 2. T.Brady to SEA 2 for no gain (C.Marsh).
After the Patriots called their first timeout, they once again opted to attack the Seahawks without a wide receiver on the field. In fact, they used the same 23 personnel group that had been on the field the previous two plays. At first, the offense aligned in a tight formation with Gronkowski as the fullback, Develin as the motion man, and Fleming and Bennett as the blockers on the outside of Solder and Cannon:
Prior to the snap, however, Brady gave a pre-determined motioning signal to lighten the box for what was to come. Gronkowski split out wide to the offensive left, Develin went to the right-side slot and Bennett to the right boundary:
All three split-out players drew man-to-man coverage. However, it did not matter as the Patriots tried another quarterback sneak. By doing so, the team opted not to try to exploit the potential mismatch of 6’7 Martellus Bennett covered by 5’10 Earl Thomas (#29).
Unfortunately for the Patriots, the sneak never came to fruition as the center-quarterback exchange did not work quite as planned. Brady started to push upfield before David Andrews released the football and did not cleanly receive it. Instead, it fell through his hands and onto the ground:
Luckily for New England, Brady recovered the lose football giving his team one more chance for a game-tying score. Before coming back for the fumble, Brady was trying to sneak behind the left side of the line (as opposed to the first sneak). While left guard Joe Thuney did not generate noticeable upfield push, left tackle Nate Solder and blocking tight end Cameron Fleming did.
4-2-SEA 2 (:14) (Shotgun) PENALTY on SEA, Defensive 12 On-field, 1 yard, enforced at SEA 2 - No Play.
The Patriots lost a yard on the sneak but got it back on a pre-snap penalty against the defense. What is interesting about the non-play is the fact that the Patriots used a different personnel group to attack the defense: 02 personnel. It was the first – and last – time, New England’s offense fielded a package with wide receivers on the field.
Chris Hogan (#15) and Danny Amendola (#80) lined up on the right side of the formation, with Bennett standing on Cannon’s outside shoulder. Gronkowski was flexed out to the far left with Julian Edelman (#11) joining him in the slot after motioning out of the backfield:
Seattle’s penalty negated the chance to see this formation in action, as New England went back to its 23 personnel package on the next play.
4-1-SEA 1 (:14) C.Fleming reported in as eligible. T.Brady pass incomplete short left to R.Gronkowski.
As has been the case on the first three goal-to-go plays, the Patriots used their jumbo personnel to attack the Seahawks on a last-chance 4th down from the 1-yard line. New England had the same players on the field, aligning in the same formation and going through the same pre-snap shifts as on the 3rd down play:
The Seahawks once again countered with a cover 0 man-to-man look, using their safeties to guard the tight ends. Split out to the far left, Gronkowski – the intended target on the play – was covered by safety Kam Chancellor (#31):
After the snap, Brady dropped back a quick two steps to throw a fade to his intended target, Rob Gronkowski (once again not opting to potentially go after the height difference in the matchup of Bennett versus Thomas). The big tight end was covered well by Chancellor, who waited patiently for the play to develop.
As a result of the defender not moving, Gronkowski ran straight at him and initiated contact to get open towards the corner of the end zone. However, this contact slowed the tight end’s momentum down substantially and forced him to fall to the ground in a desperation attempt to make the catch. He did not and it was basically game over.
Had Gronkowski been able to get past Chancellor without contact, he likely would have caught what looked like a well placed pass. Unfortunately for New England, neither that nor a defensive pass interference penalty – despite Gronkowski’s protest a good no-call – did happen, raising questions as to why such a low percentage play was called. But, then again, Gronkowski has run the fade route successfully throughout his career; he simply was unable to get past a perfectly positioned opponent yesterday.
What stands out when looking at the four plays the Patriots ran in this "do or die"-situation is the personnel and formations they used. All four plays were run from the same 23 personnel grouping with three tight ends (one of them an eligible third tackle), a big running back and a fullback as the skill position players on the field. Given the plays – three consecutive runs/sneaks – it makes sense to put the big guys on the field, though. It also makes sense considering that Seattle has one of the best secondaries in the NFL.
Still, seeing Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, James White and Chris Hogan on the sidelines in this high-pressure situation is certainly curious. And it also leads to the question if the Patriots would use them if a similar situation occurred at some point in the future – or if they would stick to what looks like the 2016 version of 2015’s four tight end formation.