This is a new series I’ll be doing here called Pats Playbook in which I break down specific concepts the New England Patriots run. I’ve already gone over a bit on how New England combats zone coverage here and I’m going to do some more posts on that, but today I want to take a look at what New England does to defeat man coverage.
In order to chart these concepts, I watched every game from the 2018 season and a bunch of games from previous years.
Just to note, these concepts are not owned by New England; most teams in the NFL use these plays. The point of this series, is to give you guys a list of consistent plays New England runs for certain situations and show you how they do it.
(Most of the videos have abbreviations, so here’s a list of what I might be referring to in the text bubbles, just in case it gets confusing: RB = Running Back, WR = Wide Receiver, OL = Offensive Line, TE = Tight End, DE = Defensive End, LB = Linebacker, DB = Defensive Back, CB = Cornerback, SS = Strong Safety, FS = Free Safety)
The first way New England often beats man coverage is very simple and common. They motion their tight end or running back out wide and see who’s over him. If a cornerback is over him, it’s zone coverage, but if a linebacker/safety is over him, it’s man coverage and that LB/safety has to guard a stud athlete like Rob Gronkowski, Dion Lewis, James White, etc. where they’re not comfortable. New England forces the defenders to play out of position and Tom Brady and company win the one-on-one matchups consistently because of that.
Tight End Iso
The result has been Gronkowski abusing linebackers and safeties countless times on just a few routes: slant, back shoulder, hitch, jump ball fade. The Patriots would line the tight end up out wide and beat most guys who make the trip out there to cover him. Because Gronkowski is a great run blocker, teams couldn’t put a cornerback in one-on-one coverage on him because New England could just motion him back into the box and run the ball at the light box.
Here are some clips of Gronkowski winning one-on-ones vs man coverage out wide:
This one's real obvious, but a tribute to @RobGronkowski— HP Football (@HPFootball3) May 25, 2019
For most of his career, lining up Gronk out wide and having him run slants, fades + back shoulders was a frequent/effective counter to man coverage. Safeties and Linebackers could never handle his size and WR-like skills pic.twitter.com/INmKwBQAOC
Running Back Iso
New England will also line one of their backs up out wide and win that one-on-one versus a linebacker or safety on slants, fades, whips, hitches, double moves. Again, putting a cornerback on a running back solves the passing problem, but weakens the box.
Same idea here: put a RB out wide and win the 1 on 1 vs a linebacker with slants, fades, whips, hitches.— HP Football (@HPFootball3) May 25, 2019
If a cornerback is over the back, that indicates zone coverage.
If a quick covering safety is over the back, motion the back into the formation and run it at the light box pic.twitter.com/Xc6epHIAyo
Counter to Running Back Iso
Because everyone knows the Patriots line their running backs up out wide to get a read on the coverage, they will motion him back into the backfield to toss the football to him. This works specifically well against man coverage because the linebacker covering the back typically isn’t expecting a quick pitch in motion, so he will usually trail the back and thus not be in good position to stop him from getting to the edge; the Pats will run a toss running concept to take care of the rest of the defenders.
But in zone coverage also, you’ll see the defense in these clips reset as the back goes into the box and not be ready for such a quick snap in motion, resulting in the offense getting to the edge very quickly before the defense can; the Pats will run wide zone in the opposite direction of the toss versus zone coverage to put themselves in a favorable position against the rest of the defenders.
NE will also motion the RB into the backfield and quickly pitch it to him— HP Football (@HPFootball3) May 25, 2019
Vs man, the RB can usually easily beat the LB on him to the edge and the running concept takes care of the rest of the DEF
Vs zone, the RB can still get the edge as the DEF is not expecting a quick toss pic.twitter.com/CZyH3hfUnP
Another common way the Patriots beat Man Coverage is through their backs in the backfield, again one-on-one with a linebacker or safety. The back will run straight up the field and either break out or break in, depending on the leverage of the defender.
Here's some clips of New England running their popular option routes with their running backs out of the backfield. The back runs straight up the field and breaks out or in, depending on the leverage of the defender. pic.twitter.com/YphLMGhG1z— HP Football (@HPFootball3) May 25, 2019
Halfback Option Counters
To account for the defense knowing this halfback option route is coming, the Patriots will run other routes with very similar stems, but ultimately different results.
Here are some counters to that halfback option route concept— HP Football (@HPFootball3) May 25, 2019
Only saw this twice but a really cool route where the back breaks out but then wheels up the field and stops for a back shoulder throw
They also sometimes have their backs stutter on the option and then run a fade pic.twitter.com/MOoFG4nHd7
Here’s a man coverage beater that New England goes to in short yardage situations or on the goal line. The play starts off in a stack formation, but the outside receiver will motion into the stack, creating a bunch formation and forcing the outside corner to back up a few steps in order to avoid a pick (it’s a general rule to never be that close vertically to another defensive back in man coverage).
This opens up a quick throwing window where the outside receiver can catch a quick pass in the flat and run behind the two lead blockers in the stack for a first down or a touchdown.
Thx to @NoahRiley21 for the Shield Screen name— HP Football (@HPFootball3) May 25, 2019
Here's a concept the Pats run in short yardage. They motion the outside receiver in to form a bunch formation and then quickly throw it to him. He can usually get a few yards behind the WR blocks bc the CB guarding him has to back up pic.twitter.com/6csJpCrhxC
A cool way New England beats man coverage is by having one of its receivers beat their man in a sprint across the field. The Pats will often motion a receiver across the formation first to make sure that they are indeed facing man coverage. Then, they will motion another receiver across the formation and hand it off to him on a jet sweep. The defender covering the receiver on the jet sweep must keep up with his speed or he will get beat to the outside.
New England will block wide zone to the opposite side the jet sweep is going, and leave the contain defender unblocked. This creates a one-on-one play for a receiver like Julian Edelman, Cordarrelle Patterson, or Phillip Dorsett to operate with lots of space.
The Patriots frequently go to the Jet Sweep to beat Man Coverage— HP Football (@HPFootball3) May 25, 2019
The play works because the receiver getting the jet sweep will typically beat his man in a sprint across the field. If not, it'll be a 1 on 1 with a guy like Edelman/ Patterson/Dorsett with lots of space to operate pic.twitter.com/J750s7jgBM
Jet Sweep Counters
New England also has some good play-action passes off of that jet sweep action. Because the sweep is such a threat to get to the edge against man coverage, these fakes can spring New England’s other receivers open.
Here are some fake jet sweep calls that I found that beat man coverage in different ways. The jet action will hold the eyes of the defenders, often allowing an open receiver to slip open. pic.twitter.com/QeSXkHx0Ow— HP Football (@HPFootball3) May 25, 2019
Slant Flat Rub (with a running back)
One of the more frequently used man coverage beaters and what I call rub wheel/rail or slant flat is a two-man passing concept that is simple but effective. A receiver, typically in a tight split close to the formation, will run right at the linebacker in coverage on the running back with the goal of forcing the backer to either bubble over him and give up the flat, slide under him and give up the wheel, or just try to go right through him, allowing the running back to beat him to the flat and get up field.
With this play, the defense has to live with the 5-yard gains in the flat because the alternative would mean trailing behind a wheel route; that’s where the big, chunk plays come from. As you’ll see here, most teams play it safe and make sure to stay over the top, but that still gives Tom Brady an easy throw and a consistent 4-5 yards.
Here's a rub play New England has run for years— HP Football (@HPFootball3) May 25, 2019
A tight split WR/TE will run at the Backer covering the running back, allowing an easy throw to the back in the flat in space. The LB must fight to stay over the top of the rub bc of the threat of the deep wheel route by the back pic.twitter.com/V5x4dHf4yx
Here’s an awesome video from former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky on how this running back rub play works.
@Eagles coach Doug P mastered cutting the fat off plays and giving his QB 1 or 2 man reads. Watch how he gives @NFoles_9 a layup and Foles makes the right read and perfect throw.. #itsarailnotawheel @InsideIggles @igglesblog @NBCSPhilly @MBarkannNBCS #FlyEagelsFly #SuperBowl pic.twitter.com/PcwEDnQd04— Dan Orlovsky (@danorlovsky7) February 6, 2018
Slant Flat Rub (with a receiver)
The Patriots run the same concept too, but with the two offensive players involved detached from the formation or box (no running back). The outside receiver will run at the defensive back in man coverage on the inside receiver. The goal is to force the defender to either bubble over or slide under the potential target. Again, with this play, the defense has to choose between taking away the deep wheel or taking away the quick throw to the flat.
On the last of the plays in the following reel, the Jacksonville Jaguars defense even tries to switch the pick, but that doesn’t work out well for them either:
And here's the rub play this time using two receivers detached from the formation.— HP Football (@HPFootball3) May 25, 2019
Same concept here: outside receiver runs at the defender covering the inside receiver, opening up the flat.
Jump the flat and the receiver can turn up the field for a deep wheel route. pic.twitter.com/1dqE26xb6Z
Extra ways to beat Man Coverage
Here are a couple more ways in which New England beats man coverage. There weren’t enough examples of these concepts to classify them as a main/common man-to-man beater, but they’ll maybe show up more next year.
Slot Fade Under Rub
This is another rub type of play: the inside receiver this time will run a fade right at the defender covering the outside receiver (a linebacker in off-man coverage covering a tight end or running back), creating a throwing window for the outside receiver on a short dig/under route.
And here's a not frequently used, but still interesting man coverage counter the Pats go to sometimes.— HP Football (@HPFootball3) May 25, 2019
The inside receiver will run right at the defender covering the outside receiver (typically a LB/Safety playing off man), opening up the outside receiver on a quick under route pic.twitter.com/EeWlnilQns
Attacking the Strong Safety in the C-Gap when covering the Tight End
Finally, here’s a couple concepts New England went to last year to combat strong safeties covering a tight end — Rob Gronkowski most of the time — in the C-gap. Many teams will move their defensive ends out wide to the D-gap and put the strong safety in the C to “choke” the tight end. However, this puts them at risk for creative play action concepts.
Last one here is how the Patriots handle a Safety guarding the tight end in a "Point" alignment or just whenever the Safety is guarding the TE in the C gap. Because the safety is in the box, these play action concepts can allow the offense to spring the tight end free. pic.twitter.com/Z8JEYeeiWq— HP Football (@HPFootball3) May 25, 2019
For years, the book on New England has been to play press man coverage and challenge the receivers at the line of scrimmage. As you can see, however, the Patriots have developed some creative ways to counter this defensive strategy. With the loss of Rob Gronkowski, one of these elements is now gone, but expect more and more creative man coverage counters as a result.
The Patriots still have lots of skill player weapons that can slice up man coverage in many different ways, so this aspect of the Patriots offense should remain strong.
Be sure to check out my upcoming Pats Playbook posts this summer to see how the running game/play action aspect of the 2019 Patriots offense will look! And please feel free to leave any Pats Playbook concept topics or any Patriots Xs and Os/Film Room topics that you guys are interested in in the comments and I’ll try to cover them!