New England Patriots WR Chris Hogan scored on a monster 53-yard touchdown pass against the Buffalo Bills defense. QB Tom Brady threw a perfect ball and Hogan generated enough separation to make the score look easy- or like the Bills suffered a major breakdown on the back end.
“Obviously we blew an assignment,” Bills head coach Rex Ryan said after the game, “and they executed the play and so, you know, bad result.”
“Busted coverage,” Bills CB Stephon Gilmore shrugged.
But this play goes far beyond a simple breakdown in execution by the Bills. This was a play meticulously planned and execute over the course of the first quarter. The Patriots were watching the tendencies of the Bills defenders and were just waiting for a moment to take advantage of their weaknesses- and their decision to hyperfocus on an apparently overrated TE Rob Gronkowski.
On the Patriots first drive, which resulted in a nice touchdown pass to WR Danny Amendola, Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels were scouting the Bills secondary.
On the very first play, the Patriots set up with TE Martellus Bennett and Hogan on the far side and WR Julian Edelman and Gronkowski on the nearside. Brady motioned Bennett to the nearside to create a 3x1 formation with Hogan isolated on the far side.
The Bills appear to rotate their coverage as CB Stephon Gilmore, who was originally covering Bennett on the outside, slides to cover Hogan in the slot. The defensive back originally covering Hogan changes his coverage to watch RB James White out of the backfield.
For Brady, this reveals a lot of information. I wouldn’t be surprised if the goal of this play is to isolate Bennett on a linebacker as Gronkowski, Edelman, and Hogan draw coverage to the far side of the field, or to see how the safety reacts to the three receivers on one side of the formation.
The pass falls incomplete, but the wheels are in motion. On the very next play, the Patriots set up with Edelman and Bennett on one side, and Gronkowski and Hogan on the other. Brady motions Edelman to the opposite side to create another 3x1 formation. Brady hits Edelman for a first down, but more importantly Brady has seen how the Bills coverage reacts.
Brady knows the linebackers will shift towards the three receivers to take away the quick slants underneath, and that the deep safety will react to Gronkowski’s route. The safety will bite if Gronkowski sits down in the middle of the field, he will drop back if Gronkowski goes deep. The deep safety is watching Gronk’s every move.
On the Patriots third passing play- this is now three straight- the Patriots open up with the same Gronkowski/Hogan and Bennett/Edelman pairings before motioning Hogan to the far side with Bennett and Edelman. Gronkowski stays in to block while Bennett gets a one on one with a linebacker for five yards.
On the next play- four straight passing plays!- the Patriots have Gronkowski and Edelman on the far side with Hogan and WR Danny Amendola on the nearside. Edelman motions to the nearside to create yet another 3x1 with Gronkowski isolated. Brady knows that the safety is watching Gronkowski, which means that RB James White will have an easy one-on-one against a linebacker- who we know has shifted towards the trips formation. First down.
On the fifth passing play, the Patriots don’t use the 3x1 formation, although Gronkowski fakes the motion to the other side, and Brady just misses his tight end on a one handed grab out of bounds.
But it’s the sixth play that really sets up the future touchdown.
The Patriots have another 3x1 formation and all of the information we have collected through this first drive holds true. The deep safety will cheat over to defend Gronkowski. The linebacker will defend the running back in the flat. If Gronkowski is on the trips side, then the isolated receiver should have one-on-one coverage every time.
Hogan runs an impressive route, selling the idea of a go route, before whipping outside for a big first down. Gilmore is out of position and unable to make a play on a crucial third down.
“They didn't ever beat us one on one really,” Gilmore said after a game where he was clearly beaten one on one.
And now that Hogan has put the comeback route in Gilmore’s mind, the Patriots also know that the go route is wide open since Gilmore has no help over the top.
The Patriots played with these concepts on the next passing play, with White motioned out wide, in order to isolate Edelman in the middle of a zone with no one in coverage, but the real payoff came on the next drive.
Q1 3 and 13 from NE 47 (1:41) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass deep left to C.Hogan for 53 yards, TOUCHDOWN. Caught in flat at BUF 9.
Do you see all of the elements from the opening drive in play here? The Patriots have a 3x1 formation and the Bills have dedicated six players to stopping the trips. The Bills even blitzed a defensive back to occupy White and prevent him from leaking into the open field.
But Hogan has a one-on-one with Gilmore. Gilmore is in trail coverage to eliminate the potential comeback or out route at the sticks. There is no one over the top. Hogan turns on the gas and is gone.
Tom Brady on the touchdown
“That was something that was pretty early in the game and Hog [Hogan]'s just looked like he had a chance. It looked like they were giving favor in coverage to the other side of the field and when you do that, it's one on one back side and he had a good inside release and Hog's fast; he runs by people and they don't catch him, so if you can put it out there for him and let him run under it, he's able to make those plays.”
Chris Hogan on the touchdown
“It's just one of those plays. You know, when it's third down you don't have the chance to do a lot. The defense was good on the line and the ball was getting dunked to me, so once I got off the line the ball was already in the air. It seemed like the ball was up in the air for a long time, it was just one of those things that I go up and make a play.”
Rex Ryan on the touchdown
“It was without question frustrating. You get them backed way up on the third-and-long and we blow a coverage that---it's just 10 guys playing one thing and somebody else playing something else. And even if you're not singing out of the same hymnal, it looks bad and sounds bad and everything else.”
Stephon Gilmore on the touchdown
The Patriots figured out Rex Ryan’s defense pretty early on. Cover Gronkowski with a deep safety at all times. Rotate coverage so a cornerback is always covering the outside receiver. Shift the linebackers over to remove the quick inside crossers.
McDaniels and Brady saw these as guidelines and crafted plays to take advantage of these tendencies.
If Gronkowski is drawing a safety and a is aligned on the outside covered by a cornerback, then that means a player on the other side of the formation will be covered by a linebacker.
Flip the roles and put Gronkowski with the trips formation and then the player on the other side is isolated in one-on-one coverage with a cornerback.
Add in a healthy dose of James White flexed out to the sideline, who will be covered by a linebacker and the cornerback responsible for the outside man, if you want to see some hilarious match-ups.
“We just gave them everything,” Gilmore said after the game. “[Brady] seen it, easy throws, just gave them everything.”
And as the Bills were giving the Patriots “everything,” the Patriots were drawing a perfect play to get Hogan behind the secondary and into the end zone.