The Passing Game
Of course, when you are able to run the ball effectively, and especially when you are able to do so out of heavier formations which naturally compact the defense, that then opens the door to an effective play-action game – especially when operating under center, this has been a significant part of the Patriots’ passing attack.
A good example of this is the following play:
Here, the Bengals are in man coverage and have an extra man in the box to defend the run – by running a hard run fake with an extra blocker in to pick up the impending blitz, the Patriots are able to isolate their receivers against man with just one deep zone defender able to affect the play, as having been drawn down by the run, the extra run defender is then unable to get back deep enough to impact the intermediate and deep crossers. The actual route combination can best be seen in the following way:
Against the man coverage they are facing, the outside go route on the far side of the field works to draw the corner up and out, creating enough space between the deep safety and the line of scrimmage for the two crossing routes to work. These both force the two cornerbacks to run with their receivers over the full distance of the route, but also act as a natural pick 30 yards downfield; the safety is then forced to pick between the two routes, with the quarterback able to go with the other. The receiver at the top of the screen also has a chance to win deep, giving the quarterback a chance to hit a deep ball if he sees it is open early.
Against zone, the crossing route from the slot works to hold the centerfield safety away from the far side of the play, while the flat route by the running back, the intermediate crosser from the far side of the field and the go route work to stretch the zone coverage on the far side of the field vertically allowing the quarterback to easily find which of the three routes has been left uncovered. Additionally, if the Bengals did come on an all-out blitz, the running back going to the flat has a chance to catch them out for a big play.
This isn’t the most complicated play in the world, but it certainly is effective if the quarterback doesn’t miss the throw.
Of course, not everything can be based purely off play-action if you are going to be able to be effective consistently – while Brady is clearly beginning to decline, the Patriots have still shown the ability this year to be effective when working out of the shotgun, often doing so while working out of empty sets. While the pass here was ultimately dropped, this is a good example of how the Patriots have been able to so consistently work short areas of the field over the past decade:
Again, this is far from the most complicated route combination going:
What this does, first and foremost, is it expands the Washington defense, as there are only six defenders in the box and two of those are tasked with covering defenders to either side of the offensive line. This makes is much easier to operate against the blitz – by spreading the defense out, the Patriots limit the number of blitzers the quarterback needs to be immediately aware of post snap and forces any extra defenders to come from further away. Washington is in a two-high safety look here in a clear attempt to stop the pass, but even if they brought an extra safety down into the box, the job is still much easier than if the Patriots were operating out of the heavy formations they were using on the above plays.
On the far side of the field, the Patriots are running a fairly standard stick concept, with the outside go route pushing the outside corner up the field and the combination of out-breaking inside routes giving Brady a simple man/zone read allowing him to either throw away from the defender against man or hit the inside receiver in a space in the zone. On the near side of the field, the inside receiver runs vertically to hold the safety deep and the outside receiver offers a short route against either man or Cover-3.
Here, Washington is in what looks to be a Cover-4 variant, and Brady is able to quickly recognize this and hit the tight end breaking outside with good leverage. This is the kind of play that a lot of teams run all the time – the stick concept is an extremely common one to start with – but how the Patriots have been able to build a huge amount of their passing attack around getting the ball out quickly while also continuing deep options to force the defense to defend the whole field is a major part of their success under McDaniels.
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