Gallons of ink (both real and virtual) has been spilled trying to tell the story of the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady-era New England Patriots. From their adages on the defensive side of the football, such as “taking away what you do best,” to their offensive philosophy of playing matchups and having flexibility with their personnel.
But there is another adage that runs through each of the teams from those years: Finding out what they do best early in the season, and then playing their best late in the season.
As the Patriots enjoy their bye week — as best as they can coming off their first loss of the season — there are signs that their offense might finally be figuring out what it is they do best. Partly due to game script and partly be design, the Patriots offense tapped into something during the middle half of their loss to the Baltimore Ravens with their up-tempo, no huddle approach.
These three plays from a touchdown drive highlight just what their identity as an offense could look like down the stretch, and should give some reasons for optimism about this offense..
Following the Julian Edelman fumble which was returned for a touchdown, the Patriots faced an 11-point deficit and needed to get back on the field and put together a scoring drive. Early on in that drive they faced a 1st and 10 on their own 37-yard line. They line up with Brady (#12) under center and 11 offensive personnel in the game, in a 2x2 alignment with tight end Benjamin Watson (#84) on the right:
After surveying the defense, Brady sees something and makes an adjustment:
What the actual adjustment he makes is unclear, but the Patriots run a quick passing concept that is a staple of their offense: D-Slant Hook. To the left side of the formation they run D-Slant, which is a slant/flat combination. Edelman (#11) runs the flat while Philip Dorsett II (#13) runs a three-step slant route. To the right side of the formation Watson runs the option/hook route, while Mohamed Sanu (#14) runs a speed out, which would convert to a fade route against press or rolled coverage.
The adjustment Brady likely makes is to this quick game concept using six-man protection, because the Ravens come with a zero blitz. But the quarterback is protected well and gets the ball out on time and rhythm to Sanu to move the chains:
Part of the reason he has the time to make this throw is because he is protected well. Two players that play a bit part in that are right tackle Marcus Cannon (#61) and left tackle Marshall Newhouse (#72). Both tackles face blitzers off the edge, and both of them employ cut blocks to keep their QB clean:
Cannon’s cut block in particular plays a big role, because the defender tries to use his hands to avoid the right tackle’s diving attempt at his legs. That prevents him from a chance at knocking this ball down.
New England immediately aligns again, eschewing a huddle. They line up in the same exact formation, Brady under center and a 2x2 alignment with the slot look on the left with Edelman and Dorsett:
This is the route combination New England dials up, working off play-action:
To the slot side they run Peel, with Dorsett running a post pattern while Edelman runs a wheel route along the sideline. Backside they run Watson on a crossing route with Sanu on a deep curl.
Also on this play left guard Joe Thuney (#62) pulls to the right edge to pick up the edge rusher, but as we will see that messes with the read for the inside linebacker.
Brady comes out of the fake and sees Baltimore dropping into a Cover 3 scheme, and Watson working against an inside linebacker who is late getting into his coverage zone. Brady goes right to his tight end with the football:
During the telecast of this game Cris Collinsworth made the point that play-action plays do not a successful rushing attack to work. At this point in the game — midway through the third quarter — the Patriots are down by 11 and need to score in a hurry. But the play fake works to get the linebacker guessing. Thuney’s pull is a huge reason why. Once the linebacker sees the guard’s helmet up and moving to the edge, he instantly thinks run:
That slight step and hesitation is all New England needs to complete this throw.
Now the very next play, and the last play to discuss. Again, the goal here is to highlight what this offense can be through an optimistic lens. After two straight passes, they go back to the ground here with a simple outside zone running play to the left with James White (#28) who came into the game on the previous play to replace Rex Burkhead:
The Patriots are lucky in a sense, as they get to attack a post-snap bubble. It starts pre-snap. Watson initially aligns on the left side of the offense, but comes in motion across the formation. That changes the run strength of the offensive formation, and the Ravens respond by flipping their second level defenders. Linebacker Patrick Onwuasor (#48) trades places with strong safety Chuck Clark (#36), and as you will see in the next clip, they are not set when the ball is snapped.
In addition, the defensive tackle slants inside into the A-Gap between Thuney and center Ted Karras (#75). That allows the guard to immediately flow to the second level — and block a strong safety — while Karras does a good job at sealing the defensive tackle to the inside and away from the ball carrier. Newhouse gets a tremendous push on the edge, and White is into the secondary before contact:
I talk often on The Scho Show about how pre-snap movement and motion from the Patriots’ offense helps Brady. Well here it helps the running game as well. New England gets to run down hill against a post-snap bubble look from the defense, and right at a strong safety instead of a linebacker.
A few plays later the Patriots would be back in the end zone, cutting the Baltimore lead to four once more.
Following the bye week, the true meat of New England’s schedule begins. They will face their toughest stretch of the season over the next month or so, with games against the Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys, Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs. Come mid-December, we will all know whether the Patriots have finally found their offensive identity for the stretch run, as they have so many seasons before. What their offense tapped into on Sunday night, as exemplified by these three plays, could be the roadmap.
See, don’t you feel better already?