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Film Review: Patriots WR Malcolm Mitchell dominated the comeback route in the Super Bowl

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The rookie receiver caused Falcons defenders to trip over their own feet.

New England Patriots rookie WR Malcolm Mitchell was one of the heroes in Super Bowl LI and collected all five of his fourth quarter targets for 63 yards during the magical comeback.

Rookie wide receivers rarely succeed in the Patriots system due to the complicated nature of timing and option routes and the need to develop a rapport with QB Tom Brady. And if even a rookie receives opportunities, they aren’t supposed to carry the offense on the biggest stage.

So what makes Mitchell different?

The simple idea is that head coach Bill Belichick finds what a player does well and puts them in a position to succeed, a sentiment echoed by RB LeGarrette Blount after the Super Bowl. Mitchell is a confident route runner that came out of a Pro Style offense at the University of Georgia that relied heavily on option routes.

Where Mitchell is at his best is with comeback routes- and he’s so good that the Patriots just ask him to run to the sticks and get open for easy third down conversions on a regular basis. Even Brady was bragging about Mitchell’s prowess to MMQB’s Peter King.

“[The comeback is] actually a route Malcolm runs really well,” Brady said to King. “He really sells that go route really hard, he gets the DB running. Every corner is different in the game because there's a scoreboard behind him. In practice you can be pretty brave with jumping routes because nobody cares if you get beat for a touchdown. In the game it's different. They always have to be fearful of you throwing the ball behind the defense.”

In other words, Mitchell does such a good job of making the defender believe that he is going to run deep that he generates a ridiculous amount of separation when he finally stems his route and comes back to the first down marker.

Of Mitchell’s five receptions in the fourth quarter, four of them came with Mitchell isolated on one side of the field, with three receivers on the other side. I counted five plays in this alignment, with Edelman receiving the target on the additional snap.

Let’s take a closer look.

Q4 1-10-NE 13 (14:51) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass deep right to M.Mitchell ran ob at NE 28 for 15 yards (J.Collins)

RB James White in backfield; TE Martellus Bennett, WR Chris Hogan, WR Julian Edelman

Mitchell runs a comeback on the far side of the field.

This is the first Patriots play of the fourth quarter and they go to their rookie receiver. The Falcons have a single deep safety and White occupies the flat to prevent a Falcons defender from uncutting the pass to Mitchell.

Mitchell presses down the field and forces CB Jalen Collins to flip his hips before planting and coming back to the ball. You’ll note that QB Tom Brady releases the ball as Mitchell starts slowing his route, showing the quarterback and receiver to be on the exact same page.

Q4 1-10-NE 28 (14:29) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass short middle to M.Mitchell to NE 35 for 7 yards (J.Collins)

RB James White in backfield; TE Martellus Bennett, WR Chris Hogan, WR Julian Edelman

Mitchell runs a crosser from the far side of the field.

It seemed like if Mitchell wasn’t running a comeback, he was running a crosser. Why?

“The Patriots liked the man-to-man matchups against [CB Jalen] Collins,” King wrote in MMQB. “Why? Because he is, in the vernacular, ‘long,’ and New England’s scouting theory entering the game was that ‘long’ corners (Collins is 6'1") are slightly slower at stopping and starting.”

So whenever the Patriots saw Collins in coverage of Mitchell, Mitchell was going to use Collins’ length against him by changing direction.

Collins starts with outside leverage and Mitchell simply gets a step on the defender to make the play. The way that the three players on the nearside run their routes makes it seem like Mitchell was the first read on this play, too, because they cleared the open field for Mitchell.

If the rookie had a bigger step on Collins, then he would have a ton of field to navigate.

Q4 3-11-ATL 26 (7:03) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass short left to M.Mitchell to ATL 14 for 12 yards (C.Goodwin).

RB James White in backfield; WR Julian Edelman, WR Danny Amendola, WR Chris Hogan

Mitchell runs a comeback on the near side of the field.

Mitchell is in coverage by Falcons CB C.J. Goodwin and runs such a quality route that Goodwin falls to the ground. Just like in the first play, the Falcons have a single deep safety and the Patriots use White to ensure none of the Falcons defenders get in the passing lane.

Mitchell converts a key third down here as the Patriots needed to continue their drive for points.

Q4 1-10-NE 25 (2:38) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass incomplete short middle to J.Edelman (R.Alford)

RB James White in backfield; WR Julian Edelman, WR Danny Amendola, WR Chris Hogan

Mitchell runs a crosser from the far side of the field, but Edelman receives the target...maybe?

This isn’t a target for Mitchell, but it shows him in isolation on the far side of the field. Mitchell is in coverage by Collins again and if Brady waited a fraction of a second longer and waited for Mitchell, instead of forcing a throw to a clearly occupied Julian Edelman, then Mitchell would have had a big gain.

Although I think this was supposed to be another target for Mitchell. Just like the other crossing pattern for Mitchell, I think Edelman was supposed to cross behind Mitchell and try to rub the defender, just like Martellus Bennett accomplished.

I believe the Falcons defender engaged Edelman and disrupted the route and forced an error. Edelman is occupied by the defender for literally the entire route. Brady just didn’t see that Edelman was running into the passing lane because he was so focused on Mitchell.

Q4 2-10-NE 25 (2:34) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass short left to M.Mitchell pushed ob at NE 36 for 11 yards (J.Collins)

RB James White in backfield; WR Chris Hogan, TE Martellus Bennett, WR Julian Edelman

Mitchell runs a comeback on the near side of the field.

Mitchell sells the go route so well that he causes himself to fall down.

“I thought I saw Malcolm start to slip,” Brady told King. “Then he went behind the left tackle or left guard so I really couldn't see the completion. I just heard the crowd go ohhhhhhh (dejected voice), then OHHHHHHHH (happy voice).”

Just like the other comeback routes, the Falcons had a single high safety and the Patriots ran White to occupy the passing lane. The Patriots ran essentially the same play to Mitchell three times in the fourth quarter- Mitchell’s route and White’s chip and leak to the flat are the only essential components because Brady was always throwing to Mitchell- and the Falcons just let it happen.

This isn’t Brady throwing against a soft zone. This isn’t Mitchell getting a buffer from the defensive back off the snap. This is the Patriots relying on a rookie to win a one-on-one, and the rookie executing to near perfection.

In the fourth quarter, four of Mitchell’s receptions went for first down and his 63 yards was the most of any player on either team. Mitchell saw his role expand in the Patriots offense down the stretch and he should see even more opportunity in 2017 because he delivered when his number was called.