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Pats Playbook: How New England’s offense attacks man coverage

A closer look at the concepts behind the Patriots’ offensive attack.

NFL: AFC Championship Game-New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs Mark Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

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:

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.

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.

Halfback Option

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.

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.

Shield Screen

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.

Jet Sweep

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.

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.

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 an awesome video from former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky on how this running back rub play works.

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:

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.

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.

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!