If you are a defense facing Tom Brady, there are two cardinal sins that you cannot commit. First, you cannot let him know before the play exactly what defense you are running, especially in the secondary. Second, you cannot simply spot drop into zone coverage in the secondary unless you have a means of pressuring him or putting him under duress in another manner.
Perhaps a third would be this: You cannot, under any circumstances, do both on the same play.
The Minnesota Vikings tried that and it failed.
Following a Week 12 victory over the New York Jets coming off their bye week, the Patriots hosted the Minnesota Vikings in a very interesting non-conference matchup. New England entered the game with an 8-3 record but there were some lingering doubts about the team after the Week 10 disaster in Nashville. The Vikings traveled east with a 6-4-1 mark, looking to try and keep pace in the NFC North.
New England moved to an early 10-0 lead, but the visitors clawed back into the contest, and with the third quarter ticking away the score was knotted at ten. That was when quarterback Tom Brady connected with Josh Gordon for a 24-yard scoring strike that eased tensions on the Patriots’ sidelines.
Before breaking down this play we can take a moment to talk naming conventions. It is often discussed each season how the Patriots’ offense can be difficult to learn. Part of that stems from the playbook itself and the naming structure of concepts. In other systems a play call might contain a ton of information and numbers that spells out exactly what route each receiver is going to run. For example, a play call could contain “617 F-Wheel,” and as long as you know the formation and where to align, you know what route to run. Staying with this example the first receiver on the left runs the 6 route, or the dig. Then the next receiver (so long as he is not the F receiver) runs a quick out (the 1 route), then the last receiver runs the 7, or corner, and the F receiver runs the wheel route.
In Patriots’ parlance, that same combination could be termed “Win” and “D-Pivot.” So now the receivers (and the QB of course) have to know their route based on remembering alignment and what Win or D-Pivot means. Here’s Win:
Now here is D-Pivot:
As you might have guessed by now, the route concept on the Gordon touchdown was Win and D-Pivot.
Looking at this play let us first get into Brady’s head before the snap. The teams line up for this 1st and 10 with Brady (#12) in the huddle and three receivers to his left. Gordon (#10) is the outside receiver with Chris Hogan (#15) in the slot and Julian Edelman (#11) aligned on the wing. New England starts this play with a Y-Iso alignment, putting tight end Rob Gronkowski (#87) alone on the right:
Before the continue look at the Vikings’ defense. You see both safeties deep, which tells Brady at this point that Minnesota is perhaps in a two-deep coverage, whether Cover 2 or Cover 4. But as Josh McDaniels so often does, he uses presnap movement to get his quarterback more information, as well as getting one of his receivers an easier release. Edelman comes in motion from the left into a stack alignment behind Gronkowski. As he moves, watch what the defense does:
Instead of a defender trailing Edelman as he crosses the formation, Minnesota responds by simply sliding linebacker Anthony Barr (#55) to the outside. At this point Brady can be almost certain that Minnesota is dropping into a zone coverage look. Unless they want to have a linebacker cover Edelman one-on-one…
Here is the route concept:
To the left Gordon and Hogan run a dig/wheel combination, termed Win in the playbook. Gordon runs the dig while Hogan takes off on a wheel route to the outside. On the right side Gronkowski and Edelman run D-Pivot. The wide receiver takes off for the flat while Gronkowski runs a convertable route based on the coverage. He will either run a deep curl, a deep out or a corner route depending on what he sees from the secondary.
What does he, and more importantly Brady, see? Minnesota spot drop into a standard Cover 2 look:
This is going to be easy pickings for Brady. By not disguising their look, the quarterback can simply confirm at the start of the play his presnap expectations, and execute accordingly. Here, Gordon runs his dig route in front of the two safeties and behind the linebackers, and is wide open for the throw:
Now look, playing quarterback is a hard job. But on this play Brady’s task is a bit easier thanks to the presnap movement and the fact that Minnesota’s secondary simply spot drops into their assigned zones. Now, the Vikings might have thought that pressure up front would have forced Brady off his spot and into a mistake, but as we have seen so often from the veteran quarterback, his ability to use footwork in the pocket to slide or climb away from pressure stands out again. Watching this play from the replay angle you can see how pressure starts to build off the left edge, but Brady so adroitly clicks and climbs in the pocket before delivering the strike to Gordon:
There are rules when playing a quarterback of Brady’s level, and we outlined the two big ones at the start of this piece. Minnesota broke both of them on this touchdown pass, and in doing so made life that much easier for a player who will end up on the Mount Rushmore of quarterbacks.