The New England Patriots’ offense may have come up one yard short against the Seattle Seahawks last Sunday night, but the unit did play an encouraging game up until that point: Cam Newton and company moved the ball well after falling behind in the second half, and showed some progress in the passing game after relying mostly on the run to get the job done in Week 1.
With the Las Vegas Raiders coming to town this week, the unit will need to show that it can sustain the success it found in Seattle against a defense that has had its ups and downs. Despite the team being 2-0 heading into its game against the Patriots, the Raiders rank just 20th in the league in points allowed (27.0 per game), 30th in defensive DVOA (+18.8%) and quarterback pressure percentage (13%), and last in defensive third down success rate (41.7%).
New England will likely get its opportunities to move the football against coordinator Paul Guenther’s unit, so let’s find out what the team needs to come up with to take advantage of them.
When looking at the statistics, Las Vegas’ pass defense does not stand out. Only three teams have given up more passing yards than the 571 the unit surrendered, and only five have posted more net yards surrendered per passing attempt (7.8). In short, teams have found success going against the Raiders’ secondary — which is why it is no surprise that Cam Mellor of Pats Pulpit’s sister site Silver and Black Pride also suggested challenging the team deep.
“I would attack this Raiders defense vertically,” he said earlier this week when asked about going up against Las Vegas’ defense. “They haven’t been tested much in a vertical passing game (thanks likely in part to the short-area game plan from the New Orleans Saints re: the Drew Brees drama this week) but when they have, they’ve struggled to stop much vertically. There are lapses in coverage and they seem to be beatable on such throws, if tested.”
This mode attack seems to favor a Patriots offense that moved the ball with plenty of success against the Seahawks last week, and also was not afraid of going deep: New England had 13 pass plays of more than 15 yards on Sunday, after having just three of them versus the Miami Dolphins one week before.
Building on this would not just target one of the Raiders’ defensive weaknesses but also play to New England’s strengths. The team’s pass catchers have been inconsistent when it comes to getting open quickly, especially when challenged in man-to-man coverage, but have had success in the deeper portions of the field and on longer-developing patterns. The fact that the Patriots’ offensive line has looked good in pass protection, and that Newton’s arm has been impressive as well, only adds to this.
New England, to borrow form a recent Seahawks battle cry, #LetCamCook on Sunday and could therefore do it again this week.
Find weak spots in the Raiders’ coverages
Game plans are not fixed structures but rather a basis to build off each play and possibly find and exploit tendencies. To find out how the Patriots’ vertical game plan can look like, we therefore first have to take a look at the unit’s coverage tendencies.
As opposed to the Seahawks last week, Las Vegas does not rely on one predominant coverage — Cover 3, in Seattle’s case — to get the job done. Instead, Guenther will mix things up more frequently by including plenty of zone looks but the occasional man-to-man coverage as well. This is best exemplified by the team’s use of Cover 6, which was played on a team-high 17 percent of pass plays last season and is still a staple of the Raiders’ defense.
In its essence, Cover 6 mixes two coverage concepts together: Cover 2 on one side of the field, and Cover 4 on the other. Speaking strictly in schematic terms, it basically looks like this:
Cover 6 presents a challenge for the offense because of its multi-faceted nature: two different coverage systems being used, with one possibly being both a man or a zone call, puts pressure on an offense like the Patriots’ to have players read the defense the same way. New England’s offense, after all, is built around quarterback and receiver assessing coverages the same way and reacting accordingly.
That said, as with every coverage, there are some openings. Just look at this play from the Raiders’ opening week game against the Carolina Panthers:
With the defensive backs on the Cover 4 side both responsible for the deep portions of the field, they are playing off and giving the receivers some space to work with underneath — something Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (#5) knows and which makes for an easy completion to wide receiver D.J. Moore (#12) on a simple curl route. If plays like this are repeated, the defensive backs will sooner or later become more aggressive.
In turn, the Patriots’ pass catchers could do what Julian Edelman did on Sunday against the Seahawks: use this aggressiveness against the defense. Edelman faked a crosser before going deep against Seattle safety Jamal Adams and was able to get open for a 49-yard gain — the biggest play of the day. The deep passing game mentioned above could therefore be built on a foundation of underneath attacks aimed at forcing the defenders to react.
If New England can recognize similar replies to its Cover 6 beaters, don’t be surprised to see counter plays like the stop-and-go be employed as well.
What the team could also do is go after the structural weaknesses of Cover 6 by challenging the Raiders’ defensive communication. With first-round rookie Damon Arnette projected to see considerable playing time, the Patriots could try to throw different looks at him and make him react quickly. When it comes to the split coverage that is Cover 6, for example, New England could opt to frequently move the player that dictates the coverage — mostly the off-the-ball Z-receiver — to make Las Vegas’ defensive backs react.
Like they did in Weeks 1 and 2, Guenther and his defense will likely use a variety of coverages again versus the Patriots. The key is to recognizing them and finding its week spots. This is especially important when it comes to a comparatively exotic coverage such as Las Vegas’ favorite, Cover 6.
Shorten the game
Football is a complementary game in that all three units have to play in unison for a team to be successful. The Raiders are a good example of that in that they are consistently winning the time-of-possession battle: on average, the team’s offense holds the ball for 3:45 per drive. In order to move the unit out of its comfort zone, the Patriots will need to take a page out of the playbook of Bill Belichick’s old friend Sun Tzu:
Attack is the secret of defense; defense is the planning of an attack.
What does this quote have to do with New England’s offense? If the team wants to successfully defend one of the most productive offenses in football, it needs its own offense to play a part as well. The best way to do that is by shortening the contest through the use of the running game.
New England has shown that it can successfully run the football, by gaining 217 yards on the ground versus Miami and controlling time of possession throughout the contest. The Raiders’ defense presents an opportunity to do that same again given that it has had its fair share of ups and downs in the ground game thus far: Las Vegas ranks just 28th in run defense DVOA (+9.4%) and is giving up 4.9 yards per carry (24th).
The main problem for the Raiders’ run defense is on the edge. 25 runs this season have gone either either behind or around the opponents’ offensive tackles this season, and they have gained an average of 5.6 yards per attempt.
On Monday night, the New Orleans Saints also found success attacking Las Vegas’ edges as the following 21-yard run by Alvin Kamara (#41) illustrates:
As can be seen, the Saints are opting to double-team strong-side edge defender Clelin Ferrell (#96) and are successfully able to move him towards the middle of the field. Add Erik Harris (#25) going nowhere on his blitz and fellow safety Lamarcus Joyner (#29) being blocked down the field and you get plenty of space for Kamara to work with.
One example is not indicative of a defensive weakness, but the numbers support that New England could find success around the edge — something they already have done: the team’s 17 runs behind or around the offensive tackles this season have gained an average of 5.9 yards per attempt. The Patriots’ run blocking versus Las Vegas’ up-and-down run defense could therefore very well be a case of a force being difficult to stop meeting a very movable object.
Make the linebackers think
The Raiders invested in their linebacker corps this season by signing both Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski in free agency. While the latter has played only 22 defensive snaps so far because of a pectoral injury that also kept him out of Wednesday’s practice, Littleton has yet to leave the field: the former Ram has played all 127 of Las Vegas’ defensive snaps so far and has taken on an integral role within his new team’s defense.
That said, Littleton has been a mixed bag so far while having to adapt to a 4-3 defense for the first time in his career. New England could therefore very much try to attack Littleton and fellow de fact starting linebacker Nicholas Morrow by further challenging their understanding of the defense and communication within each other and the rest of the unit.
How could they do it? Misdirection. With the running game likely playing a big part in the attack plan this week, the Patriots could include plenty of misdirection concepts to make Littleton and company think — from the straight forward such as play-action, to run-pass option concepts or reverse and jet sweep runs, the more New England is throwing at the Raiders, the bigger the chances the team will find success against this linebacker group.