I didn’t see any evidence of a Patriots struggle defending the pick against the Kansas City Chiefs, but there were multiple times on Sunday where the Saints stacked their receivers to run interference on the Patriots defensive backs and almost every time the Saints got the better of the New England secondary.
“There are certain fundamental things that you have to do,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said about defending the pick routes. “You have to do them collectively as a team. You have to work together because there’s more than one person involved on running those plays and defending those plays. And, if you don’t execute them well, if you don’t play the technique properly, then you get beat, and we’ve got to do a better job of coaching it and we have to play it better.
“It shouldn’t be nearly as much of a problem as it was. But, we obviously aren’t coaching it or playing it very well.”
The goal of the pick play is to generate quick separation for the receiver at the line of scrimmage. They show up frequently on third down or by the goal line when the offense needs a few yards in high-leverage situations.
I noted the Saints calling the play on their first drive and on a pair of important third down opportunities. Belichick and the defense need to be better prepared to defend these plays because more teams will use pick routes against New England until they prove capable of stopping them.
1-10-NE 47 (9:34) (Shotgun) D.Brees pass short right to T.Lewis pushed ob at NE 31 for 16 yards (E.Roberts). Pass 1, YAC 15
Eric Rowe and Stephon Gilmore are on the far side of the field to defend Brandon Coleman and Tommylee Lewis. Gilmore is on the point and he’s responsible for covering (pressing? jamming? we don’t know the play call) Coleman, while Rowe is supposed to avoid the traffic and to stay in coverage of Lee.
Lee fakes an inside step before running towards the sidelines and Rowe bites, allowing Coleman to separate the two. Coleman actually changes his path to run directly into Rowe and an official wouldn’t be out of line to throw a penalty flag.
Instead, Rowe is blown far out of the play, leaving Lewis wide open for 15 extra yards after the catch.
What could Rowe have done differently? He could have stayed stacked on top of Gilmore and not moved on Lewis’ fake; that could have allowed him to break on the receiver.
3-4-NE 5 (11:56) (Shotgun) D.Brees pass short left to B.Coleman for 5 yards, TOUCHDOWN. Pass 5, YAC 0
Saints TE Josh Hill runs the same interference that Coleman did in the first play as he separates Malcolm Butler from Coleman. Since this pick from Hill happened three yards down the field, it should have been flagged. Instead, the officials ignored it.
This is the play that Tom Brady highlighted after the game because the officials threw a flag on a pick run by the Patriots inside the permitted 1-yard window. Brady had to lobby the officials to pick up their flag.
Tom Brady on officials inconsistency on calling pick plays. pic.twitter.com/gmzIMe4Pcr— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) September 18, 2017
“I thought it was [legal],” Brady said about the Patriots designed pick play. “When I saw it I thought he was pretty close. Those are some judgement calls sometimes with a yard or a yard in a half. They ran something on the next drive and threw a touchdown pass. He was like three yards down the field. I was like, ‘If we got away with one then they definitely got away with one.' I went out there and thought ours was legal. It is just a man coverage play. Everyone has them and the officials call them differently.”
The officials picked up their flag and allowed the Patriots score to count, but they still ignored a lot of the Saints illegal pick plays.
What could Butler have done differently? Nothing, really. The Saints ran an illegal pick to take away the only way Butler could have defended the pass. That’s why those plays aren’t allowed.
3-9-NO 40 (9:47) (Shotgun) D.Brees pass deep right to B.Coleman pushed ob at NE 18 for 42 yards (D.Harmon) [D.Wise]. Pass 20, YAC 22
On this third play, Stephon Gilmore is aligned next to Patrick Chung and immediately we know that Gilmore is in the wrong. With Chung jamming the tight end, Gilmore is supposed to be a couple yards down the field to avoid this exact scenario of getting picked off from the receiver.
While the tight end appears to engage Gilmore a couple yards down the field, he doesn’t change his route to block the cornerback like Coleman does in the first play mentioned. The tight end should be allowed his right of way. Gilmore just makes a terrible mental error to start the play and gets knocked over to highlight the mistake.
I don’t know the play, but seeing how the Patriots defended this type of route progression by the Saints at other points in the game, I believe Gilmore was supposed to drop towards the sideline with Eric Rowe- in the slot- supposed to defend the middle of the field.
Instead, Gilmore tries to go inside with Rowe, leaving Coleman wide open down the sideline.
2-7-NO 42 (13:21) (Shotgun) D.Brees pass incomplete short middle to A.Kamara
Patrick Chung is covering Alvin Kamara on the line of scrimmage and Malcolm Butler is on the inside against Brandon Coleman. Notice how Butler is a yard behind Chung so he can avoid an immediate collision if they end up on the same plane. This is the proper way to align against a pick route, although it probably should’ve been flagged, too, and maybe Butler should have been another few yards deeper to let Chung cross in front of him to maintain closer contact.
Coleman is trying to pick off Chung three yards down the field (also against the rules) and Chung has to run to the outside of Coleman and Butler, creating that immediate space for Kamara in the middle of the field. Devin McCourty uses his exceptional closing speed to scare Kamara away from making the catch because Chung is too far away to make a play.
Of these four plays, only one appeared to really be allowed by the rules. The officials didn’t call three pretty obvious illegal pick plays against the Saints, but decided to throw a flag against a legal play by the Patriots offense.
The Patriots didn’t necessarily struggle against the pick so much as the Saints made the routes impossible to defend by driving the point person up the field and into the New England defenders.
And since the officials weren’t calling penalties, then the Saints were absolutely right to go back to the same well. Why not take advantage of what the officials are allowing? It’s no different than the 2013 Seattle Seahawks defense challenging officials to throw a holding call on every single play.
I wouldn’t be shocked if the Patriots elevated these pick plays to the league office as plays of emphasis, or at least alerted officials in future games to watch out for these alignments. Because there’s nothing a defense can do to defend a pick play when the offense is playing with a stacked deck.