On Sunday against the New York Jets, the New England Patriots offense had quite a successful day at the office. The unit scored 27 points, gained 498 yards and especially in the second half was able to control the tempo and rhythm. New England did that by successfully running the football and in turn setting up play-action passes down the field. This success, however, goes deeper than the stat sheet and the unit’s execution.
It also used various forms of deception to challenge a defense that has shown plenty of inconsistency so far this season. The play-action game is one aspect of this, as head coach Bill Belichick explained in his weekly film breakdown: “Play-action is a way to create some openings if you can get them to buy into the fact that they think it’s a run and you’ve had success running the ball,” Belichick said.
Play-action challenges a defense’s instincts and reaction, another method of deception used by the Patriots on Sunday attacks not just those two but also the general knowledge of a group: using one formation but running different plays out of it. One example of that is the 11-personnel formation “flood slot”.
The Patriots ran this formation multiple times against the Jets and always had three wide receivers on the field — either Josh Gordon or Phillip Dorsett as the X, Julian Edelman as the Z, and Cordarrelle Patterson as the F — as well as Rob Gronkowski and a running back serving the Y and H roles, respectively. Four minutes into the game, we and New York’s defense saw the formation for the first time:
New England, with James White in the backfield, ran for 2 yards behind the strong side of the 1 flood slot formation. The modest gain, caused in part because of a breakdown up front and Patterson slowing down the pulling right guard on his way to the perimeter, did not stop offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels from using the formation again. The next time, however, it was used as a passing formation:
Against New York’s cover 1 look, the Patriots opted to run a play-action pass to Gronkowski out of the 0 flood slot look. With the linebackers taking a more cautious approach, the tight end was able to get free on a crossing route for a 15-yard gain. While the offense used the same basic formation as it did on White’s the first quarter run above, the play call was a noticeably different one.
The Patriots continued using the flood slot formation later in the game as well in both running and passing situations. “I think any time that you can make one thing look like something else, that creates a conflict on the defensive side of the ball,” McDaniels said during a conference call earlier this week when asked about using formations to give his unit an advantage via deception. “If you can make a run look like a pass or vice versa, that’s certainly something that’s productive and can be useful for you.”
“I would say there’s a lot of different things throughout the course of the game that you can use to try to make something look a little different,” the veteran play caller continued. “You’ve got sixty-some plays a game — you’re going to be able to hide certain things, and other times, you’re just going to line up and count on your execution being better than what the defense might be able to play on their side.”
In the case of New England’s flood slot formation, the team combined run and pass concepts, pre-game motion, and play-fakes to create one look that can evolve in numerous ways. It helps that the Patriots have a quarterback in Tom Brady that has the experience and knowledge to make the right call on the field as well as a set of players able to a) not tip their hand prematurely and b) execute no matter what the ultimate call looks like.
“If we can add something to [a play] — protect it, marry it with another play or two or three in the game plan so that the defense has to look at a lot of different things the same way — then that’s great,” McDaniels added. “I think you’ve got to always look to try to help yourselves as best you can by not giving away whatever it is you’re trying to run, and if that means we can marry some things together, then certainly we’re going to try to do that.”
Ultimately, however, the whole concept of using deception through formations and play calls relies on the players themselves. “The most important thing [...] is that our guys know what to do and they can execute their assignments and be aggressive and play physical and fundamentally sound,” McDaniels said. “As long as they’re doing that, I think we feel like we give ourselves a good chance to have some success on that play.”