The Sunday night affair in Week 6 between the Kansas City Chiefs and the New England Patriots provided one of the league’s top games of the entire 2018-2019 season. The visiting Chiefs entered the contest riding high, having won their first five games thanks to the incredibly hot hand of young gunslinger Patrick Mahomes. By contrast, the Patriots entered the game with a 3-2 record, thanks to a two-game losing streak back in Weeks 2 and 3 of the season.
New England got out to an early lead in this game, capitalizing on an early Mahomes interception from Dont’a Hightower and limiting the explosive Chiefs’ offense to just three field goals in the first half. However, their 24-9 halftime lead would soon be erased, as the Kansas City offense came to life in the second half. It would take some big plays from the Patriots’ offense to hold off the Chiefs, and that’s exactly what Tom Brady and company were able to do, getting a field goal from Stephen Gostkowski on the game’s final play to squeak out the 43-40 victory.
Two of the biggest plays in the fourth quarter from the Patriots? Seam routes along the right side of the field. On both snaps the New England offense combined formation, personnel, route design and execution from the quarterback to convert huge plays in the passing game.
The first play came with 7:20 left in the game. The home team trails 33-30, and face a 3rd and 1 on their own 34-yard line. The Patriots break the huddle with 10 offensive personnel - one tight end and four wide receivers - and put Brady (#12) in the shotgun alone:
As you can see from the notations, New England puts Julian Edelman (#11) along the boundary to the left with Josh Gordon (#10) inside of him in the slot. To the right side of the formation the lone tight end Rob Gronkowski (#87) aligns as the inside trips receiver while Chris Hogan (#15) and Phillip Dorsett (#13) complete the three-receiver set working inside to outside.
Kansas City responds with a 4-1-6 dime package, putting four defenders on the line of scrimmage. In addition, they show press coverage in the secondary with one safety deep: Ron Parker (#38):
Here is the route concept New England dials up on this play:
Prior to the snap Edelman motions towards the football to align in a stack-slot before the play. He will run a route to the flat, while Gordon releases vertically and carries up the seam. To the three-receiver side of the formation, both the inside receiver (Gronkowski) and the outside receiver (Dorsett) run routes breaking to the inside (although, Gronkowski’s route is a guess given his release, as he falls down due to contact coming off the line of scrimmage).
This is one of New England’s basic rub route concepts, as the middle receiver, Hogan, releases vertically up the seam as well. His route and Dorsett’s converge, creating a rub between the two defenders.
Kansas City does indeed run a Cover 1 scheme on this play, with some extra attention paid to Gronkowski:
At this point it is important to cover the Cover 1 rules for a free safety. I checked with Matt Brown, who covers the Seattle Seahawks for Field Gulls and and is also a secondary coach for his University. As he confirmed for me, a FS in this scheme is still a “middle of the field” defender who will work from seam routes to post routes to crossing routes.
As this play unfolds, Parker first sees the underneath crossing route coming from Gronkowski and his eyes are drawn there. However, when the big tight end goes down, Parker then catches something else: Brady’s eyes:
The quarterback has trained his eyes to the left side of the offensive formation, and the seam route from Gordon. That causes Parker to take his next steps in that direction. This is, of course, a bait. A ruse. Brady immediately comes off Gordon and works to the other seam route, from Hogan:
The veteran QB drops in a perfect throw and Hogan makes the reception, in spite of the defensive pass interference flag. Looking at this play from the end zone camera illustrates how Brady is able to get Parker working towards Gordon, creating space for the vertical route to Hogan:
New England would cap off this possession with a touchdown run from Brady, giving them a (short-lived) 37-33 lead.
Fast forward to the game’s final moments. After Mahomes hit Tyreek Hill for a 75-yard touchdown to knot the game at 40, the Patriots had one final possession to pull out the victory. Thanks to a Brady completion to James White for 16-yards, New England faced a 1st and 10 at the Chiefs’ 48-yard line with under a minute remaining. They were just outside of Gostkowski’s range, but needed one more play.
They turned to a very similar design.
New England broke the huddle, this time with 11 offensive personnel, and put Brady in the shotgun formation with White (#28) standing to the left of the quarterback. Gordon aligned as the single receiver to the left side of the field. On the right side of the formation, New England again used a three-receiver set, only this time it was Gronkowski in the middle alignment, the spot occupied by Hogan on the previous example:
Using different personnel and alignments, the Patriots get into the same route design:
Gordon’s vertical route takes him toward the boundary, and White replaces the previous flat route from Edelman by coming out of the backfield. Edelman runs the inside crosser while Hogan runs the outside crosser, creating the rub for Gronkowski’s seam route.
Again, the Chiefs run a Cover 1 scheme with Parker again as the middle of the field safety. Here, with Edelman able to get a release off the line of scrimmage, his crossing route occupies Parker’s attention, and the rub on the outside gives Gronkowski the space he needs on his seam route:
Once more, the end zone angle illustrates how the route design as well as the eyes of the quarterback hold the free safety:
The 39-yard gain gave the Patriots a first down inside the Chiefs’ 10-yard line, well in Gostowski’s range. After Brady took a one-yard loss to run some more clock, the New England kicker split the uprights with the game-winning field goal.
Both of these plays encapsulate the New England offensive approach. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels does a great job of using personnel, formation and route design to create opportunities in the passing game. In addition, having a quarterback like Brady, with the ability to use his eyes to influence defenders, makes this combination all the more dangerous for any defense to face.