Remember Week 4, Patriots fan?
After a victory in the season opener over the Houston Texans, the New England Patriots dropped back-to-back contests on the road. First in an AFC Championship Game rematch against the Jacksonville Jaguars, and then on a Sunday night in Detroit against Matt Patricia and the Lions. While New England was losing two straight, the Miami Dolphins started their season with three straight victories, and looked to improve to 4-0 with a victory over the Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Week 4.
That’s right. The Patriots faced the prospect of going down three games in the AFC East back in Week 4.
Thankfully for New England and their fans, the Patriots returned to form in that contest, topping the Dolphins 38-7. The home team raced out to an early lead and were up 24-0 at the halftime break, with the Miami offense struggling to get going and the Patriots’ showing an ability to run the ball with rookie running back Sony Michel.
However, one of the biggest plays of the contest was a touchdown strike from Tom Brady to James White. In a season that led some to question whether Brady was still an elite quarterback, plays like this from the veteran passer demonstrate that despite what some want to believe, Brady is still among the best in the game.
With under seven minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Patriots faced a 3rd and four on the Dolphins’ 14-yard line. The New England offense broke the huddle with 11 offensive personnel on the field, with Dwayne Allen (#83) as the single tight end. They lined up with Brady (#12) in the shotgun and two receivers to each side of the formation. Allen aligned in a wing to the right with Cordarelle Patterson (#84) just outside of him, in a tight alignment. Phillip Dorsett (#13) and Chris Hogan (#15) aligned in a slot formation on the left side of the offense. White (#28) aligned in the backfield to the left of the quarterback:
Here is the route design New England implements on this play:
Allen stays in to block on this play, while Patterson runs an Under route working from right to left. From the slot, Dorsett and Hogan run a Tosser concept, with both receivers running slant routes. White is not involved in the protection and has a free release on this play, and he runs a route breaking to the outside.
Looking at the Miami defense gives us a glimpse of the information available to Brady before the snap. They align with a single-high safety, and with the cornerbacks down near the line of scrimmage. Xavien Howard (#25) is in press alignment over Dorsett on the left side of the offense. Given these alignments, the Patriots’ QB would be justified in thinking the Dolphins were in some variation of Cover 1, or potentially a Cover 3 variation.
Miami did run a Cover 3 variant, dropping into a pattern match Cover 3:
The matching portion of this coverage relates to the defender over Hogan. He stays on the Patriots’ receiver as he crosses the formation on his inside slant route. The rest of the defenders are tasked with dropping into the Cover 3 look.
As the play unfolds, two critical developments take place that lead to the final result. First, Howard stays on Dorsett’s slant route well into the play, and this opens up the back corner of the end zone:
Second, Trent Brown (#77) is beaten on an inside swim move by Robert Quinn (#94). Once the defensive end gets past the big left tackle, there is no one between him and Brady, since White has been given a free release out of the backfield and into his route.
But this brings us to the brilliance of Brady. Even with Quinn bearing down on him with a free shot, he knows that White will break free in the back corner of the end zone against this coverage, especially with Howard being pulled out of position by Dorsett’s slant route. Additionally, Brady has to trust that the underneath defender will pull off White to cover Patterson as he comes across the field.
Of course, that is exactly what happens. The veteran quarterback makes a perfect anticipation throw - releasing this when White is still on the six-yard line and yet to make his break - that leads to the score:
For added emphasis, look at the state of play when Brady releases this pass:
Anticipation throws are some of the more difficult things a quarterback is tasked to do, and some quarterbacks (even some good ones) struggle in this area. But the ability to pull the trigger before you see a receiver break open, trusting in your read of the play and the players around you, separates the great ones from the good ones.
Tom Brady is a great one.
Here’s one more look at this play, from the end zone angle:
With the victory the Patriots evened their record at 2-2, and gave their fans a reason to breathe easy after what had been a difficult two weeks. In addition, the return of Julian Edelman loomed as yet one more reason to be positive about the passing offense. However, as long as this offense had #12 pulling the strings, and making anticipation throws like this one, they would remain a threat in the AFC and perhaps beyond.