You hear it all the time nowadays: the NFL is a matchup-based league.
For years, the Patriots have attacked defenses by using a versatile group of skill players to take advantage of weak spots in the opponents coverages. But it goes deeper than getting pass-catching running backs like Rex Burkhead on linebackers and safeties.
The Patriots also manipulate defenses with formations which puts opponents in no-win scenarios as their coverages are rendered useless based on the formation and personnel on the field.
Against the Broncos, the Patriots snapped the offense out of its four-game funk by combining those two aspects of their scheme to create a nightmare for Denver’s defense.
The real centerpiece of the Patriots’ aerial assault isn’t the running backs or wide receivers, but rather tight end Rob Gronkowski. When you look at the box score, Gronk had a modest four catches for 74 yards, or at least modest by his standards.
However, when you watch the tape, Gronk’s presence on the field completely shifted the game in the Patriots’ favor.
Below, I will outline how the Patriots dictated the matchups and openings in the Broncos’ secondary, which led to the type of performance we’ve been waiting for from this group all season.
Pass-Catching Running Backs
Let’s start with the Patriots’ first touchdown of the game which foreshadowed perfectly how the night would go when the Pats had the ball.
The Patriots split running back Rex Burkhead out wide against Broncos safety Darian Stewart.
In the past, the Broncos typically matched up against the Patriots pass catchers in press man coverage, forcing them to play physical at the line of scrimmage.
The Broncos played more zone than usual against the Pats, but their man coverages were picked apart by Tom Brady nonetheless.
Having said that, this play is made possible by the presence of Rob Gronkowski.
Gronk takes three Bronco defenders with him into the corner of the end zone, including a dedicated double-team.
That opens up the middle of the field for Burkhead and makes this an easy touchdown for the Patriots.
Here’s a third down play from the first quarter where the Patriots spread the Broncos out despite it being short yardage situation.
The Patriots get running back James White lined up across Broncos safety Will Parks.
It appears that Parks is in zone coverage based on his technique (opens his hips, looks in at quarterback) despite the rest of the secondary being in man.
Brady and White both recognize the coverage, and White runs a slant to pick up the first down, which is the perfect call against this coverage.
When teams play with a single-high safety, and the outside defensive backs are in zone coverage, the slant from the outside receiver is nearly impossible to stop.
Finally, here’s White’s touchdown catch in the fourth quarter that rubbed salt in the Broncos’ wounds.
It’s Parks again in coverage as the poor guy got picked on all night by Tom Brady.
White motions into the backfield and when Parks follows him it tips off the man coverage to Brady.
Brady hangs onto the ball in the pocket long enough to allow White to make his move on the out route, and its an easy touchdown.
The Broncos tried to use many of the coverages that have worked against the Patriots in the past, but their safeties and linebackers weren’t up to the task of covering the Patriots’ running backs and tight ends.
Gronk Being Gronk
The Patriots used Gronk as a decoy for much of this game, but they also got the big guy on the stat sheet as well.
Poor Will Parks again gets put in man coverage against Gronk on the outside, and Brady immediately goes to #87.
This is a matchup Gronk wins nine times out of ten, and he makes a great move at the top of the route to create separation.
After the bye week, Gronk looked lighter on his feet, certainly a good sign for him and the Pats.
Throughout his career, Gronk has always been a nightmare for defenses in the red zone, and he was again on Sunday night.
Here, the Patriots run two receivers into the flat, which creates a one-on-one matchup for Gronk against the linebacker.
Brandin Cooks’ Impact
Brandin Cooks had the toughest matchups of the night for any Patriots receiver spending most of the game going up against Pro Bowl corners Aqib Talib and Chris Harris.
Cooks more than held his own in those matchups and the Patriots helped him out by designing plays that would give him a chance to make an impact.
This is one of my favorite plays of the season for the Patriots.
You can see how the formation gives Cooks all that green space to work with on the right side of the field, and he runs a devastating deep-out that Aqib Talib has no chance to stop.
As good as Talib is, with Cooks’ speed it’s nearly impossible to cover him in space like that.
The play picked up 25 yards but could have gone for more if Cooks makes a better cut at the top of the route, and the throw by Brady is a tiny bit too far in front.
Nevertheless, that’s a great use of Cooks’ speed that isn’t just him running a go route.
Here’s the near-TD that should have been a pass interference on Chris Harris.
The best part of this play, however, is that the Patriots were able to get Cooks in single coverage without safety help.
Gronk occupies three Bronco defenders again in the middle of the field in basically the same scenario as the Burkhead touchdown.
Cooks is a threat to go to the house the second he steps on the field and if the Patriots continue to create matchups like this one he’s going to create big plays.
The big offseason acquisition has only topped the 100-yard mark once this season, but the constant vertical threat he presents is paying huge dividends for the Patriots offense.
The plays above all have elements of formations dictating matchups, but here are a few examples where it directly led to big plays for the Patriots.
I love everything about how the Patriots lined up on this play, and its pick your poison for the Broncos defense.
The Pats line three receivers up on the same side of the field, two of which are Rob Gronkowski and Brandin Cooks.
The safety on that side of the field has to respect Cooks as a deep threat, and the linebacker gets pulled to the check down receiver over the middle.
The formation leaves the middle of the field vacated for Gronk, and the safety has to shade towards Cooks making him a step late to the seam route.
The Broncos being in zone coverage made this an even easier completion, but I’m not sure how you stop it regardless of the coverage.
You knew it was the Patriots’ night when Dwayne Allen caught his first pass of the season, a touchdown no less.
This play is similar to the one above as Gronk, Cooks, and Amendola are all lined up on the same side of the formation.
That and Burkhead's angle route over the middle draws all the coverage away from Allen, creating a foot race with Von Miller to the pylon.
Time and time again the Patriots got their skill players in space in man coverage by controlling the location of the Broncos defenders pre-snap with different formations.
Entering Sunday night’s game, the Patriots knew that the strength of the Broncos defense was in their cornerback group.
Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, and Bradley Roby likely make up the best trio of cornerbacks on the same team in the NFL, and rather than attack that strength, the Patriots picked on matchups they knew they could win against consistently.
The strategy worked to perfection, and the offense looked like the unit we expected to see all season.
One that took advantage of its insane depth and used its top end talent to create mismatches for others, and produce big plays on their own.
In many ways, this was a perfect game by the Patriots offense, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels deserves a lot of credit for his game plan and play calling.
McDaniels has taken some heat in recent weeks as the offense sputtered into the bye, but he was at his best on Sunday night creating easy throws for Brady and simply out-coaching the Broncos’ defensive coaches.
Nobody expects the Patriots to score 41 points every week, but they have far too many weapons to be held down like they were in the four games before the bye week.
When the Patriots bring the game to opposing defenses instead of letting them dictate the script, they’re nearly impossible to stop.