Welcome to the Play of the Game, a weekly breakdown of the last game’s top play as voted on by you, the fans. Today, we will take a closer look at the New England Patriots’ 18-12 loss against the Denver Broncos and one of the few positive moments for an offense that otherwise struggled to generate much of a rhythm throughout the day.
The New England Patriots’ offense had a bad outing against the visiting Denver Broncos on Sunday. The unit, in large part because of an offensive line that was missing three starters for most of the game, failed to get into a rhythm and turned the football over three times while falling behind 18-3 at the end of the third quarter. The fourth period, however, would see Cam Newton and company show some signs of life.
The Patriots scored the game’s first touchdown and later was were able to add a field goal following a J.C. Jackson interception. After another pick — this time, Jonathan Jones was able to get a hand on the football — New England was in prime position to drive for its first lead of the day with 3:14 remaining in the game. In order to do that, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels dug deep into the playbook by using some trickery to move the football down the field.
Wide receiver Julian Edelman threw a pass to James White on a 2nd-and-10 earlier during the series, with McDaniels again calling on the veteran later during the drive. Let’s take a closer look at this particular play.
2-13-DEN 40 (1:27) (Shotgun) J.Edelman pass short right to C.Newton pushed ob at DEN 24 for 16 yards (J.Simmons).
After a pass to James White lost three yards on the previous first down play, the Patriots used an 11-personnel group on the field for the ensuing second down: White (#28) lined up next to quarterback Cam Newton (#1) in a shotgun formation; tight end Ryan Izzo (#85) played an in-line role on the left end of the offensive line; wide receivers Julian Edelman (#11), Damiere Byrd (#10) and N’Keal Harry (#15) aligned in a 2x1 set with the latter isolated on the right side of the formation.
Denver’s defense, meanwhile, countered with an off-man Cover 1 look out of what initially appeared to be a two-deep shell. The two units were therefore aligned as follows:
The play began with the Patriots’ offensive line moving to its left in a zone blocking scheme. With defenders reading their keys off the linemen, they flowed alongside to help prevent a stretch run to the left side of the offensive alignment. James White indeed received the handoff, but he quickly pitched the football back to Julian Edelman who crossed the formation after originally having aligned out on the left perimeter.
With most of the defense initially moving in the opposite direction, Edelman had some space to operate to the right. However, he too did not keep the ball and eventually ended up passing it to Cam Newton who had started to move to run a wheel route after the hand-off. Newton caught the ball, broke a tackle, and was forced out of bounds after a 16-yard gain:
As simple as the play looks and the description above makes it sound, the details is what makes the play work.
We already talked about the offensive line zone-blocking to its left to create the impression of a stretch run, but there are more intricacies to the play as well. For one, there was the element of selling the fake run. The left-side skill position players — Izzo and Byrd — both started to block as if trying to pave a way for White. Newton took a few slow steps to his right before taking off on his route, meanwhile, which left Broncos edge defender Bradley Chubb (#55) stuck in the proverbial no-man’s land and a step behind New England’s QB.
What also helped the play succeed was the route run by N’Keal Harry, which in turn drew his assigned cornerback — De’Vante Bausby (#41) — away from where Newton ended up. The Patriots’ quarterback also was given additional space because the initial hand-off forced safety Justin Simmons (#31) to move with the play: he first followed the flow of the offensive line before trying to get up the field to take on Edelman, leaving Newton open behind him.
The sideline view perfectly illustrates how the Patriots’ motions and Harry’s post route created space on the offensive right for the Edelman-to-Newton pass to work:
One additional part of the play that has not yet been discussed is the role of Julian Edelman. His abilities to pass the football are well known — he played quarterback at Kent State and now has completed seven of eight career passing attempts for a combined 179 yards and two touchdowns — but he is still doing a tremendous job on this play.
First off his ability to cleanly field the pitch from James White and position himself as a passer rather than a ball-carrier: he is throwing on the run, and placing the football well enough for Newton to quickly turn up the field again and gain additional yardage before breaking a tackle and later being forced out of bounds. Edelman’s head movements, however, also warrant some attention.
After receiving the pitch, he initially looked towards Newton but moved his head towards the left and N’Keal Harry deeper down the field. Whether or not Harry was a realistic target on the play or merely a decoy cannot be known without the play call — the latter seems more likely, though, given the difficulty of a pass like this from Edelman’s perspective — the quick head motion slowed down Denver cornerback Michael Ojemudia (#23) just enough for him to reach Newton a split-second late after the catch.
All in all, the play gaining 16 yards and a first down is the result of the offense across the board performing it very well. From the run-fakes to the design itself, it was a rare highlight on an otherwise bad day for the Patriots’ attack.