Film Room: Patriots' Flexibility
by Cian Fahey
A clash of contrasts is set to take place in Foxborough this weekend.
After dismantling the Denver Broncos in the Divisional round of the AFC bracket, the Indianapolis Colts will travel to face the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. Most of the attention in this game will be focused on Andrew Luck and Tom Brady. Brady is playing the role of the old, proven star who is trying to win one last championship, while Luck has been cast as the emerging talent hoping to get a head start on what is expected to be a career of consistent success. The stark contrast between these two players is obvious.
One is 25 years of age, was the first overall pick during his draft, is a freak athlete who has started from the moment he stepped in the NFL. The other is 37, fell to the sixth round of his draft, has never been an impressive athlete, and was made to wait for injury ahead of him to get on the field. During the regular season, Luck threw for 652 more passing yards, ran for 216 more rushing yards, and accounted for 10 more touchdowns -- as well as 14 more interceptions and fumbles. Luck attempted 34 more passes, was sacked six more times and had 28 more rushing attempts. In short, their seasons were very different this year.
While Luck and Brady are very different players, the contrast they create is reflective of the contrast between each player's offense as a whole. The Colts rely on Luck to carry their offense more than any team should rely on its quarterback. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton eventually abandoned his failing run-first, heavy-set philosophy, and asked Luck to consistently carry the offense from the start of games. That allowed Luck to have a greater impact, but it also stressed his ability to mitigate heavy pressure in the pocket while making difficult downfield throws.
On the other hand, Brady has played in the most versatile offense in the NFL. There have been times when the Patriots have asked him to carry the offense, last week's game against the Baltimore Ravens being the best and most recent example. In that game, the Patriots didn't give any of their running backs a carry in the third or fourth quarter, instead relying on trick plays to create some element of balance. While the Patriots have regularly relied on Brady and the passing game, they have also shown off the ability to exploit teams by running the ball a lot.
The best example of that came in Week 11 of the regular season, the last meeting between these two teams.
Jonas Gray's name will be familiar this week. When these sides last met, Gray rushed for 201 yards on 37 attempts. He promptly disappeared back to the bench, finishing the season with 89 total carries for 412 yards and five touchdowns. Four of those touchdowns came against the Colts. Gray was impressive against Indianapolis, but the bulk of his production came from the offensive line rather than the running back.
Throughout this game, the Patriots ran the ball in different ways. However, they had their most success by pulling offensive linemen from tight formations to create space between the tackles. A lot of that success came early in the game and set the defensive front up for hesitation later in the game.
On this play, the Patriots come out with a very tight formation because they have a tight end on either side of the offensive line. However, only one of those tight ends is actually a tight end. That would be Rob Gronkowski, who is lined up to the right of the formation; the other is offensive tackle Cameron Fleming.
Tackle-eligible teams formations typically bring a more aggressive response from the defense, but Gronkowski's presence will always prevent teams from selling out to stop the run completely. The Colts do drop a safety into the box on this play.
Brady and Gray are carrying out a counter motion in the backfield, while their right guard pulls towards the team's left tackle at the snap. That left tackle is doubling down inside with the left guard to create a double team at the line of scrimmage. Outside of him, Fleming has established inside position against the edge defender.
Meanwhile, on the backside of the play, Gronkowski, the right tackle and the center have all shifted to their left so they can gain inside positioning against their assignments.
The right tackle, Sebastian Vollmer, is beaten in his block, but it doesn't matter because he is so far away from the where the running back is going. The running back is attacking the running lane inside of Fleming on the other side of the field. Fleming has perfectly executed his block to seal the outside, but Nate Solder, the left tackle, has been outmuscled at the point of attack. Solder allows his man to penetrate the line of scrimmage, which means he hits the pulling right guard. At this point of the play, it appears that Gray is going to be met in the hole by the free linebacker because of Solder's inability to hold off his assignment.
The pulling right guard is Ryan Wendell. He makes an exceptional play while on the move. He hits Solder's defensive tackle, but doesn't engage him. This allows Solder to get back in a favorable position so he can push the defensive tackle away from Gray. As Solder recovers, Wendell continues moving and hits the linebacker who was waiting in the hole. This gives Gray the chance to run clean into the secondary. Importantly, the left guard who had initially been part of the double-team with Solder has advanced to the second level to prevent the other inside linebacker from coming across to meet Gray.
When Wendell was initially working across the field, the linebacker needed to shoot the gap so he could meet Gray behind the line of scrimmage. However, the movement in front of him caused him to hesitate.
There were many examples of these types of plays to pick from in this game. This one came against a similar front, with Gronkowski on the left side of the formation and Fleming lined up as a tight end to the other side. Predictably, the Colts drop an extra defender into the box, but importantly, that safety is to Gronkowski's side of the field. On the previous play, the Patriots pulled their right guard across the formation to Fleming's side of the field.
On this occasion, they will pull their left guard towards Fleming.
The whole right side of the Patriots offensive line, including the center, blocks down except for right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. Vollmer is immediately advancing to the second level so he can locate a linebacker in space. On the left side, Gronkowski and Solder are simply holding inside position, while left guard Dan Connolly works his way towards the right side of the formation.
Gray makes an important cut just before the line of scrimmage. He strafes outside of Fleming, who is pushing his assignment further infield. It's important that Gray makes this cut and makes it quickly to attack the outside running lane, which is being created by the pulling Connolly and Vollmer, who has made an excellent block in space on the second level. Every defender is accounted for on the right side, while the safety who dropped into the box is too far away to prevent the running back from running deep into the secondary.
Once again, Gray is completely untouched before getting to the second level.
When the defense is struggling to contain counter runs or other kinds of misdirection plays from tight formations, simpler runs become tougher to react to. It's tough to be aggressive as a defender if you're concerned that the offense is going to use your aggression against you to spring its backs into the second level.
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On this play, Gray takes a simple handoff up the middle. The Patriots double down on the nose tackle over the middle of the field, but the important moves come outside. Each edge defender aggressively sets the edge, while the interior defensive tackle penetrates down the field, followed by a linebacker. This creates a pocket of space for Gray to run through, so he is once again untouched en route to the second level of the defense.
During the first play that was broken down in this article, the outside linebacker needed to shoot the gap quickly to get to Gray before the pulling guard. On this occasion, the linebacker was aggressive, but the Patriots weren't pulling a guard across the field. This is how Gray was able to run for more than 200 yards in this game. The Colts defenders were constantly being pulled in different directions.
It wasn't just Gray though. To further diversify their rushing attack, the Patriots made use of Julian Edelman and Shane Vereen. The duo combined for just three carries, but those carries went for 49 yards.
While Gray typically carried the ball from tight formations while lining up behind his quarterback, Vereen predictably saw his only carry in the game from the shotgun. The Patriots are the best team in the league at exploiting the opposition's alignment or personnel package on a given play. With Gronkowski in their lineup, they have a significant advantage to turn the numbers game in their favor. Much of running the ball is simply about the number of blockers available to account for the number of immediate defenders.
As the above image shows, on this occasion the Colts have a light front with just six defenders in the box. The Patriots have six immediate blockers to use against them.
At the snap, the Patriots offensive line slides to the left, leaving the Colts' edge defender on the opposite side unblocked. Gronkowski is working back across the formation in the opposite direction. The Colts defensive line mostly works with the momentum of the Patriots offensive line, but both linebackers on the second level have their eyes on Vereen in the backfield and are in good position to react to any run through the middle of the defense.
This is a designed cutback run for Vereen. He is going to follow Gronkowski back across the formation so he is working away from the momentum of his offensive line. Gronkowski is working as part of a trio with Vollmer, the right tackle, and Wendell, the right guard. Vollmer has completely ignored the edge defender to advance forward at an angle towards the initial inside linebacker. He is in perfect position to seal an outside running lane because of where he began the play. Wendell also began the play from an advantageous position, so he only needs to push the defensive tackle downfield as he attempts to penetrate towards Vereen.
For most teams, a tight end pulling against an outside linebacker isn't an obvious matchup advantage. For a team with Gronkowski, it's an ideal situation. Erik Walden, the Colts' outside linebacker, doesn't even attempt to fight through Gronkowski's block. Instead he attempts to protect himself as Gronkowski locates, engages, and drives him away from Vereen. With Vollmer mauling the linebacker to the inside, Vereen has a wide running lane to work his way through at speed. From there, he is able to extend the play deep into the defense for an 18-yard gain.
This wasn't a trick play, but it did use misdirection and feature a key block from someone who would typically be considered an unlikely source for most teams.
Gronkowski is a freak. A physical freak, but also a technical freak. He causes defensive coordinators nightmares as a receiver alone, but his value is multiplied by his ability as a blocker. The Patriots make use of the eligible receiver role to add an extra offensive linemen to their running game at times, but when they do that they aren't just adding a sixth talented run blocker. Gronkowski doesn't need to be made eligible before plays because he is a tight end, but he still blocks as well as most offensive linemen in the NFL. He can overpower bigger defensive linemen in tight or be a lead blocker in space.
Gronkowski was the lead blocker on Edelman's 25-yard run against the Colts.
Edelman had two carries for 31 yards in this game. This end-around gave him 25 yards. He initially lines up in the slot to the left with Gronkowski close to him as a tight end. Gronkowski motions sideways at the snap and releases across the formation so he is out in front of Edelman, who takes the ball from Brady. Significantly, Gronkowski is met behind the line of scrimmage by a defender, but he has the awareness to avoid engaging him. Instead he just slows him for a moment before continuing into the flat.
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Gronkowski shows off his athleticism to stay out in front of Edelman, but it's his ability to locate a defender in space before sustaining his block through the end of the play that really stands out.
After Tom Brady threw the ball 50 times last week, it won't be a surprise if the Patriots simply look to run the ball down the throats of the Colts this week. That flexibility and versatility is a luxury that few teams in the NFL have. It's an understated aspect of the unit, but an aspect at which we should marvel. It's something that Andrew Luck would desperately wish to have on his offense when facing the Patriots talented defense this weekend.