The New England Patriots might have stalled in the red zone against the Los Angeles Chargers, but they managed to move the ball between the 20s with relative ease. The Patriots led drives of 14, 11, 12, 16, and 10 plays to get into scoring position as they used the same game plan against the Chargers that they’ve used against all teams that run a similar defense to the Seattle Seahawks.
The Chargers defensive coordinator is Gus Bradley, who used to serve as the Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator. The Patriots actually played Bradley’s successor one week prior as they faced the Atlanta Falcons and head coach Dan Quinn. New England has faced Bradley, Quinn, and the Seahawks on six occasions over the past four seasons, including both Super Bowls XLIX and LI.
And in all six games, the Patriots utilized a very similar offensive strategy.
“If they drop deep, you’ve got to throw it short,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said about the offensive strategy. “If they’re short, you’ve got to throw it deep, and you just play that game with the defense all day.”
On the Patriots most successful drives in Super Bowl XLIX, Brady led the offense on drives of 8 or more plays against the Seahawks, picking up small yardage to move down the field. As Dan Quinn said before Super Bowl XLIX, the goal of the Seahawks-style secondary is to keep their defensive backs on top of the receivers, with the linebackers helping out underneath.
“Their basic philosophy defensively is to put one more in the box than you have,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said on Monday morning. “Whether that’s man or zone, which is the way that Seattle plays it, which is the way that Atlanta plays it with Quinn, which is the way that Coach Bradley played it at Jacksonville, and that’s pretty much what we saw yesterday from Los Angeles.
“So, however many guys you have, they’re going to have one more. And, if it’s a three-receiver set, that could be the safety, it could be the nickel back, but they’re going to have another guy down there, one more than you have, with a six-technique on tight end and everybody else in a one-gap, gap-control defense. That’s what they do. I mean, whether it’s over or under, it’s still the same principle, and it’s mostly over. It’s the same principle defensively. I don’t think that’s going to change too much from that general system of defense.”
So with the opposing defensive backs keeping receivers in front of them by dropping deep, then Brady’s logic is to simply throw the ball short in front of the defensive back, to challenge the linebackers in coverage, and to move methodically and slowly down the field.
“Some people aren’t patient enough to do that, but [Brady is] patient,” Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward said about the Patriots short passing attack. “At the same time, we held them to a lot of field goals down there. They scored once. Sometimes you have to play bend don’t break. They only had 21 points. We still gave our offense a chance to tie it at the end.”
The Patriots used a similar strategy against Bradley’s Jaguars team in 2015, with the Patriots scoring on each of their first nine drives, which included drives of 10, 14, 8, 10, and 17 plays. They used it again in the 2016 regular season game against the Seahawks, leading drives of 9, 11, 10, 10, and 11 plays.
They did it against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI with drives of 9, 12, 11, 13, 12, 10, and 8 plays, and again against the Falcons this regular season with drives of 8, 14, 13, 10, and 8 plays.
Some might argue that the Patriots use this strategy against every team, with slow methodical drives, but it’s actually as simple as Brady explained. If teams play off the receiver, the Patriots will go short. If they play tight coverage, like the Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs did to start the year, well then the Patriots are going to throw it deep.
“We tried to take away the deeper threats, because in man-coverage, there were some mismatches,” Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn explained after the game. “And we knew the backs were heavily involved in their passing game and we had to come up and make those tackles. We didn’t always do that today.”
Since the Chargers made the active decision to take away the deep pass, that left a lot of opportunities for the Patriots receivers underneath and the running backs often had the best match-up against the weak Chargers linebackers.
“Tom did a great job checking it down to us when we were open,” Patriots running back Rex Burkhead said about his quarterback. “Whether that was in the zone or man coverage, we were just doing our best to get open. It ended up kind of being that type of game.”
“That type of game” always seems to happen against these Seahawks coaching trees. The Patriots average nearly 4 drives of 10+ plays against these teams, or roughly 39% of all drives, versus only 14% of drives against other teams. The Patriots long, extended drives usually rely on running backs picking up chunks of yards to move the chains and play another set of downs.
And while some teams change their defensive strategy on a weekly basis like the Patriots do, the benefit of playing someone from the Seahawks coaching tree is that they never change their defensive style. What they consider a strength of their defense is that they’re able to become experts in a single style of defense; it’s also the weakness that Brady is willing and able to exploit.
“Everything that we do is exactly the same for as long as I can remember,’’ Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll once said about his defense. “We have adapted to our personnel, we have adapted to what the game calls for now. But it’s always come out of the same notebook that basically started back in the day in Arkansas [in 1977].’’
New England won’t get another chance to use this game plan in the 2017 regular season, but so long as disciples of Pete Carroll run their same defensive approach, so too will Tom Brady and the Patriots be willing and able to run 10+ play drives to get into scoring position.