As NFL schemes continue to evolve, there are emerging trends that are being increasingly adopted by more teams. One trend that the New England Patriots were out ahead of most on is the use of pre-snap motion on offense.
Per Warren Sharp’s 2020 Football Review, NFL teams used pre-snap motion on 43% of all plays in the first three quarters of games in 2019. The San Francisco 49ers led the league with pre-snap motion on 66% of their passes, but the Patriots were right behind them, at 65%.
Pre-snap motion has been a staple of the New England offense for the majority of Tom Brady’s time with the Patriots, where the team would often motion running backs to the boundary to identify if the defense was in man or zone coverage.
With Cam Newton at quarterback now for New England, the team relied heavily on pre-snap motion once again, in helping identify coverages and get favorable matchups for the team’s skill players.
According to ESPN’s Seth Walder, the Patriots used the second-highest rate of motion at the snap in Week 1, using it on 27% of their offensive snaps. The only team that used more motion than New England was the Los Angeles Rams, who employed it 34% of the time.
With the New England offense taking on a new identity this year with Cam Newton as the starting quarterback, how the team uses pre-snap motion to create opportunities will be a fascinating chess match to watch unfold on a weekly basis between the Patriots and their opponents. Here is a look at how the team used pre-snap motion in Week 1 against the Miami Dolphins to put Newton and his teammates in position to secure the win.
Jet motion is a form of pre-snap motion that is used to identify coverages and cause confusion for the defense by using misdirection to distract the eyes of the defenders.
New England used a steady dose of jet motion during Sunday’s game, like here with N’Keal Harry on a classic single back power run scheme that is a Patriots staple:
Bringing Harry across the formation tells the offense that the Dolphins are in man coverage, and also causes some pause for Miami’s second-level defenders. At the snap, the Miami linebackers are moving laterally along the line of scrimmage, in case Harry gets the handoff instead of Sony Michel. That slight hesitation allows Isaiah Wynn to get to the second-level and open up a hole for Michel to get through, en route to a five-yard gain.
Jet motion can also be more than just a distraction. Here, Julian Edelman takes the handoff on a jet sweep, and shows how effective this play design can be when properly blocked. Because of Edelman’s pre-snap motion, he has a step on his defender who is running across the formation to try and stick with him in man coverage. N’Keal Harry, at the top of the picture, runs a dummy “slant” route. This takes his defender away from the flow of the play, and effectively serves as a pick on Edelman’s man, who is trying to cut through the traffic to stay with Edelman.
A variation of jet motion, where a player on one side of the formation runs to the other side, except here, he takes a wider path — one that places them behind the deepest player in the formation, usually the quarterback or running back.
The above play is a designed screen play for Harry, who runs an orbit motion to the left side of the formation. The play is an RPO, as Newton fakes a handoff to Rex Burkhead initially, before pulling and hitting Harry, who is five yards behind the line of scrimmage when he catches the ball. With the Dolphins loading up the box with eight defenders, the play is meant to give Harry a full head of steam in a 3-on-3 situation outside the left hashmarks. Newton knows he will get this 3-on-3 matchup on the strong side of the field because Harry’s man follows him as he runs in motion, signaling Miami’s man coverage on this play. Edelman and Damiere Byrd block their defenders, allowing Harry to grab six yards on the play.
As discussed earlier, the Patriots love to send their running backs out wide to diagnose coverage, or start their running backs out wide, and bring them back in to the formation before the snap, for the same purpose.
Against Miami, the Patriots used pre-snap motion for its running backs to open things up for Newton’s running ability, using Rocket/Laser motion. Depending on which direction the running back goes, the running back motions to the left or right of the formation, moving laterally from the quarterback.
On this play, Rex Burkhead is used as a decoy to get the ball to Julian Edelman, running left-to-right on a low crosser.
With Newton in shotgun formation and Burkhead split offset to Newton’s left, Burkhead runs left to right behind Newton before the ball is snapped.
At the same time, N’Keal Harry and Ryan Izzo, on the right side of the formation, run identical crossing routes going the other way.
Burkhead’s rocket motion, and ensuing wheel route, does two things: show the Dolphins in man coverage, and takes his defender out of the play, opening up the field for Edelman, who loses his man thanks to the “routes” (cough, picks) set by Izzo and Harry.
Here, facing 3rd-and-5 to start the second quarter, the Patriots run a designed QB draw for Newton, with with trips formation on the right in a 3x1 set, and James White running a laser motion pre-snap.
This is an example of how pre-snap motion helps manipulate numbers on the field for the Patriots. The Dolphins are in dime coverage to combat the Patriots’ four-receiver set, meaning before White’s motion, they have five players in the box.
The lone Miami linebacker on this play is responsible for White in man coverage, which New England sniffs out when White motions out wide. With the linebacker out of the picture, New England has five offensive linemen blocking four Miami defensive linemen, which is nearly automatic when you have Cam Newton running the football behind those numbers.
On Newton’s first touchdown of his Patriots career, the offense puts the running back, James White here, in motion to diagnose coverage, and also determine blocking assignments.
White brings the single high safety with him as he motions to the left, leaving a 3-on-2 advantage on the QB sweep for Newton. Ryan Izzo blocks down the line to seal off one linebacker, and Jermaine Eluemunor kicks out to the right to wipe out the poor defensive back who is left on an island to try and stop Newton from waltzing in the end zone.
If White had stayed in the backfield here, the safety that follows White would have been in position to come down and make the tackle on Newton, potentially. But Josh McDaniels used pre-snap position to give his offense a numbers advantage, which led to Newton’s easy touchdown.