The Green Bay Packers have one of the NFL’s better pass defenses with its combination of creative pressure packages and tight man-coverage schemes. Despite that, however, the New England Patriots were able to move the football well through the air during their 31-17 victory over the Packers: the team finished the day with 310 net yards passing and one touchdown on a total of 36 attempts (coming off 38 drop-backs).
Part of this success was the simple execution by the men on the field, part of it also was the play calling by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. In order to get his unit moving, McDaniels often used deception — ranging from misdirection plays like play-action passes and end-around runs to more elaborate trick concepts. Let’s take a look at the latter group to find out how New England employed them to defeat the Packers.
1-10-GB 43 (14:32) T.Brady pass deep left to J.Edelman pushed ob at GB 10 for 33 yards (T.Williams). flea flicker with 28-White
New England’s first trick play of the night came in the early second quarter, with the team up 7-3. After a 29-yard completion from Tom Brady to wide receiver Josh Gordon, the team finds itself in a 1st down situation at the Green Bay 43-yard line. New England’s offense attacks the down in an 11-personnel group aligned in a 1x3 formation with Brady (#12) under center and running back James White (#28) behind him:
The Packers have a dime package (six defensive backs) on the field and align in a 5-1 man-coverage look with safety Jermaine Whitehead (#35) on the line of scrimmage to follow White as a ball carrier or potential passing target. Naturally, the defensive back moves towards his assignment once Brady drops back to hand the football off to his running back. Linebacker Blake Martinez (#50) is less aggressive but still stays close to the pocket at the snap:
Meanwhile, the Patriots sell the run well: the offensive line and tight end Dwayne Allen (#83) proactively try to create a forward push, while wide receivers Julian Edelman (#11) and Chris Hogan (#15) enter their routes rather slowly as if ready to block the defensive backs lining up across them. On the other side of the formation, Josh Gordon (#10) runs full speed up the sideline on a go-route.
All those little parts mixed together with White even making a small outside cut to further give the impression of running the ball make the flea flicker pass that follows possible. When White turns around to toss the football back to Brady, the strong-side receivers — perfectly timed in the grand scheme of the play — are already accelerating into their respective routes: Edelman runs a crosser behind Martinez, while Hogan goes on a comeback up the right-side seam:
Brady decides to go to Edelman, who is wide open thanks to three factors: 1) Martinez is held in his Mike-linebacker spot due to the run threat and when he turns around is already too far behind to make an impact. 2) Strong safety Josh Jones (#23) and cornerback Jaire Alexander (#23) play the run too aggressively, which in turn leaves cornerback Kevin King (#20) with two players on his side; he chooses to cover the outside receiver (Hogan). 3) Deep safety Tramon Williams (#38) does not pay attention to Edelman and instead turns back to help prevent the home run and cover Gordon deep.
Brady, as he has shown time and again over his career, takes what the defense gives him and quickly fires a pass to Edelman. With nobody in his vicinity, the veteran wide receiver takes the football 33 yards to ultimately help set up a field goal to give New England a one-touchdown lead. While the result of the drive was not the desired seven points, the flea flicker was still perfectly executed by the Patriots offense.
2-6-GB 39 (11:44) (No Huddle, Shotgun) J.Edelman pass short left to J.White to GB 2 for 37 yards (A.Morrison). backwards pass Brady to Edelman
With the game tied at 17 in the early fourth quarter, the Patriots received an extra possession thanks to a takeaway by the team’s defense. New England’s offense moved the football well off the turnover and found itself on the edge of Stephen Gostkowski’s field goal range when it encountered a 2nd and 6 situation.
The unit again uses an 11-personnel package but Brady (#12) was in shotgun this time with White (#28) to his right side. The other skill position players align in a 1x3 formation with Dwayne Allen (#83) in a blocking stance to the left and a trips look on the weak side to the right. Just before the snap, Julian Edelman (#11) moves inside from his far right spot:
The Packers use a nickel zone defense to defend against the Patriots’ personnel, showing pressure before the football is snapped. A key player from New England’s perspective is linebacker Antonio Morrison (#44), who is in guarding the underneath area of the field and who has to be moved off his spot for the play to work as perfectly as it ultimately did: him reacting hard to the quick pass to Edelman gave Allen space to work down the field and draw the coverage with him.
As was the case on the flea flicker, New England’s offense does not give away the play call prematurely and does a good job of setting up the double pass: Josh Gordon (#10) and Chris Hogan (#15) immediately start blocking after the snap, while the aforementioned Allen works his way up the field on a crossing route. The tight end plays a big role on the play, serving as a decoy to pull attention away from the other side of the formation:
Once Edelman starts looking to the original strong side of the formation to make the cross-field screen pass, the Patriots have a clear numbers advantage in this portion of the field: when White catches the ball, he has four offensive linemen in front of him — all of which showing tremendous vision and athleticism in the process of the play. After all, they need to identify their targets on the fly for the play to succeed:
Tom Brady also does not play a small role as he gets in the way of defensive lineman Montravius Adams (#90), which in turn allows White to outrun him. In the meantime, the four blockers do a great job of clearing a path for the ball carrier: David Andrews (#60) and Ted Karras (#75) takes out linebackers Reggie Gilbert (#93) and Nick Perry (#53), while Trent Brown (#77) blocks cornerback Jaire Alexander (#23). This, in turn, frees up Joe Thuney (#62) as the lead blocker:
With Thuney taking out free safety Tramon Williams (#38), White is able to get all the way down to the 2-yard line before the aforementioned Antonio Morrison tackles him. And while the play did not result in a touchdown, it did set up New England with a 1st and goal. Three plays later, White was in the end zone to give the Patriots a 24-17 lead.