Film Room
Analysis beyond the numbers

Film Room: New England's Offense

Film Room: New England's Offense
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Derrik Klassen It was not Patrick Mahomes who carried the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round. A press-heavy Chiefs' defense posted a stunning performance by holding the Indianapolis Colts' offense to six points, with the Colts only finding the end zone late in the fourth quarter. Though Mahomes could have carried the team if need be, the defense enabled the offense to coast through the second half and toward a victory. In short, the Colts were not equipped to present a diverse threat to the Chiefs defense. From Week 12 and on, when Jack Doyle left the lineup for the second time, the Colts ran 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) 81 percent of the time, third-highest behind Green Bay and Atlanta, according to Sharp Football. Aside from T.Y. Hilton, however, there was not enough wide receiver talent on the Colts roster to be an 11 personnel offense. In turn, the Chiefs' cornerbacks played press coverage for much of the game and bullied the Colts' poor receivers out of countless passing routes. Rookie head coach Frank Reich made precious few adjustments and stayed in 11 personnel 96 percent of the game, playing right into the hands of a mediocre Chiefs' defense. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady present a different set of problems, though. The Patriots are not an 11 personnel offense, and they will make it difficult for you to press their wide receivers, even if they only have one truly good one in Julian Edelman. Since Week 12, the Patriots have operated out of 11 personnel just 52 percent of the time. Only the San Francisco 49ers played out of 11 personnel less often over that span, clocking in at 37 percent. In that time, the Patriots sport the second-highest rate of 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end), again only outdone by the 49ers. The Patriots' use of running backs, particularly in the passing game, will be Kansas City's first hurdle. The Colts did not target a running back even once in 36 attempts during the divisional round against the Chiefs. By comparison, 19 of Brady's 44 attempts in the divisional round versus the Los Angeles Chargers went to running backs, and 17 of those attempts were completed. One of the only two incompletions to a running back was a blatant drop by James White on a screen. The two following plays from split-back 21 personnel feature the outermost running back heading to the boundary to zip up the field, while the opposite running back crosses the formation.

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The first example, which was New England's first play of the game, has Rex Burkhead (right) and James White (left) in the backfield. Burkhead books it up the sideline to clear out the area and White takes a deep path across the formation to catch a pass 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage. With safety Derwin James (33) matching Burkhead and safety Adrian Phillips (31) backing up to the first-down marker, White is able to roam free. In the second example, the Patriots open with the same routes from the backs, but instead of getting the ball to White on a swing route, the offensive line leaks out for a screen. A dominant Patriots offensive line is able to move the Chargers' defensive front with ease and give White enough room to bob and weave for a 25-yard gain. Oddly enough, the Chargers favored safeties over linebackers to help deal with short, YAC-focused throws such as these, but New England's understanding of how to clear and generate space put those players in a bind. The Chiefs will not be able to press these running backs the way they did the Colts' receivers, and with a terribly unathletic linebacker corps trying to cover that space, things could get ugly on the perimeter for Kansas City. The Patriots can also dissuade press coverage by stacking wide receivers behind or close to each other, often closer to the formation than to the sideline. Edelman, in particular, can commonly be seen motioning out of the backfield, across the formation, or from outside the numbers into the slot in order to create a look like this.

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In this first-quarter play, Edelman starts in the backfield with Brady, while a running back is split far outside the numbers to the left of the formation. As Chargers defenders are scrambling to get into proper assignments versus New England's unorthodox pre-snap set up, Edelman is motioned out to the right behind Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski pushes up the field to cut off cornerback Desmond King's (20) angle on the out route that Edelman runs from the slot. Because Edelman started in the backfield and motioned to a slot position off the line of scrimmage, the Chargers never got a chance to get close to Edelman the way they wanted to, resulting in an easy completion.

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This time in the red zone, the Patriots motion Edelman from out wide to a stacked position with Phillip Dorsett. The Chargers could not have pressed both receivers from this position if they wanted to, especially with Brady snapping the ball before Edelman got set. As the smash concept unfolds, both Chargers defenders over the stack key on Edelman, who runs the quick out route. Dorsett is then left free to win over the top for the score. Belichick's calling card as a coach has always been deception. For the better part of two decades, Belichick has duped defenses into thinking one thing is coming, then beating them with another. It is a rudimentary idea on paper, but few coaches actually pull it off consistently well versus a wide range of opponents. Belichick is in a tier of his own in that regard. Some of what he cooked up against Los Angeles is just another reminder of that.

via Gfycat

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Edelman and Gronkowski are on the right side of the formation, with Dorsett and Chris Hogan (15, in the slot) to the left. Upon the snap, Edelman and Gronkowski shuffle forward as if they were blocking to help sell the play action. Edelman continues with the bluff until James (33) passes him off as a non-threat, and Edelman uses that lapse in judgement to dart into the flat and force the Chargers' deep-third defender to come down to tackle him. This play is not genius in itself, but what it allows for later, is.

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On New England's second go at this concept, Cordarrelle Patterson replaces Edelman on the right side and Gronkowski is motioned from left to right. To the left of the formation, Hogan is now on the outside and Edelman is slotted inside of him. The two Patriots to the right bluff run-blocking assignments just like the last time, again with the receiver shooting back outside to the flat. This time, however, Los Angeles' deep-third defender bites on the flat receiver and the entire second level of the defense gets sucked into the play-action fake. So many Chargers defenders being tied up near the line of scrimmage gives Edelman just enough time to beat them over the top and put the Patriots in the red zone again. For a Chiefs' defense that experienced a fluky shutout last weekend, facing a Patriots offense that is much better equipped to get around their style of play should be a concern. The makeup of the Colts offense in that game is nothing like what the Patriots will show in terms of personnel, diversity, and deception. They are a different beast. Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton will not be able to just line defensive backs up in press coverage across the board again. The Patriots' offense will demand more, both heading into the game and with in-game adjustments over the course of the action. Mahomes and the offense may grant the defense a sizeable cushion, but as we have all seen before, no lead is safe from the Patriots offense, and no one defensive plan will keep them quiet.


21 comments, Last at 20 Jan 2019, 2:33pm

1 Re: Film Room: New England's Offense

I mean, there was the one TD to TY. But, trust me, I don't blame you for forgetting that. It certainly felt like a shutout.

3 Re: Film Room: New England's Offense

I am confused why you are crediting BB with the offensive scheme planning. He may well be a genius when it comes to defensive planning, but I have never read anything about him being an offensive mastermind.

14 Re: Film Room: New England's Offense

Because the offense has been essentially dominant with two different offensive coordinators in Bill O'Brien and McDaniels. Hell, it was pretty good before that with Charlie Weiss at the helm.

And considering the fact that neither McDaniels nor O'Brien nor Charlie Weiss appears to have carried that magic outside of NE - remember, McDaniels had a brief stop over as offensive coordinator for the rams during their offensive dark ages - it leads to outsiders parsing credit at the feet of Brady, Dante, and Belichick himself.

Seeing those gifs above confirms something that I've been convinced for a long time - pair a smart scheme with a brilliant quarterback and you can put together terrific offenses even with mediocre talent. In fact, its the best way to mitigate an aging qb as well.

4 Re: Film Room: New England's Offense

I remember when the NFL didn't allow a back to be going forward at the snap. That call seems to be as dead as traveling in the NBA.

20 Re: Film Room: New England's Offense

That is incorrect. The ball is snapped at 1.25 in the gif. From his position at .8, to his position at 1.25 Edelman, is one yard further upfield. I'm not sure how you can claim that it is 'clear there's no forward motion'. Was there some kind of space time discontinuim?

5 Re: Film Room: New England's Offense

Great article. I enjoyed reading the tactical analysis tremendously. (I wish the broadcasts were half this insightful!)

6 Re: Film Room: New England's Offense

On that second gif with the big gain by White, sure looked to me like Thuney (62) was more than 1 yd past the LOS when the ball was caught. Just the kind of borderline play that home cooking works for.

9 Re: Film Room: New England's Offense

Limit is 1 yd downfield until ball leaves passer's hand. (Some exceptions such as continuing block initiated legally.)

May move downfield but may not block while ball's in the air.

I think #62 is legal, and this isn't usually called if it's close.

8 Re: Film Room: New England's Offense

re: Oddly enough, the Chargers favored safeties over linebackers to help deal with short, YAC-focused throws such as these.

Not at OLB. We played our usual OLB's, Ingram #54 and Nwosu #42. Nwosu's got a safety-ish looking number (okay, it IS a safety number) but he's an edge rusher, college and pros, 250lbs. Ingram of course is either a DE or OLB depending on whether you call us a 3-4 or 4-3, technically we're the latter but it's just semantics (and he's 250lbs, with some coverage skills.) Basically, Nwosu's #42 looks like one more SS than there really is.

ILB: yep. We lost our two starting ILB's to late-season injuries, Perryman and Brown, and were left with two backups without strong coverage skills. (Perryman otoh was our #2 team tackler w/an INT etc, while Brown was our best coverage ILB.) Their replacements are liabilities against NE's short passing game. Chargers were left with a choice of starting either lesser (backup ILB) or undersized (SS) players, with the expectation NE would switch play at LOS to exploit whichever, and just go 2,2 to run us out of dime.

Basically it's an empty-cupboard decision.

About the film study - Note that these short plays aren't wins if the defense tackles. Entropy's the defense's ally on 3-5 yard passing plays. Sooner or later something breaks. (Or somebody holds, etc.) Question is whether that happens before D gives up a long one. So, as in the first example play, if the D tackles at first contact for a 3yd gain, it's a push.

10 Re: Film Room: New England's Offense

You're right about the defense tackling, but the design of these flare routes is to get White in space where he has shown he can elude tacklers. It's not some revolutionary thing, but it's effective more often than not.

12 Re: Film Room: New England's Offense

It's hard to overstate how difficult it is to win trying to rally & tackle out of a zone like that against the Pat's short options routes. At a fundamentals level the Pats take very few penalties, have almost no outright blocking breakdowns, and use pre-snap motion very well to identify most favorable opposing zone to get one of their scat back/receivers on. At the matchup level they almost always have two options to attack the zone (RB & Edelman), in either case they're likely to find a ~5'9'' ~180lb player in a matchup with a 6'+ 210lb+ player in a contest of short-space quickness to turn a 4 yard gain into a 10 yard gain. This game really only breaks down when the Pat's have personal problems (since learning option routes is hard), or when the opponent gets HOF level LB/SS play (e.g. 2016 Denver Bronco wk 15, 11-23 for 108yds and a fumble to White, Edelman, & Lewis).

15 Re: Film Room: New England's Offense

The error avoidance thing is the key. I'm agnostic re: zone vs. man, get back to me in a few years after Chargers use this scheme a bit longer. :) I wish Patriots were in Chargers div, I'd learn more. They can have DEN, playing them good or bad always causes injuries. checking.. neh, we don't play y'all again for a while.

If you ARE using this scheme tho, you'd like a stout front with fast backers with a better chance of tackling White-like buggers. Brown and Perryman are both 5' 11" ~230lb and active.

16 Re: Film Room: New England's Offense

The issue is LB quickness. If your ~230lb it's just about physically impossible for you to chase & tackle a 180lb rb/wr if you weren't able to close the distance while the ball was in the air. The issue is that the lighter & shorter man can change direction much more quickly and at least get a favorable tackle resulting in a 2-4 YAC (assuming comparable athleticism). There is a tiny list of LB's so exceptionally athletic that they are able to compensate for this, but typically the offense can just throw away from them.

What makes man more effective against this approach is that the ~230lb LB gets to use his size advantage early in the route. This is still really difficult (especially on the backfield releases, bunches, and stacks) but at least the defender has a chance has a chance. Don't get me wrong zone defense is a great invention, it's just that it's weakness corresponds directly with the offense Brady is best at running as well as the best other non-Gronk personal the Pat's have.

17 Re: Film Room: New England's Offense

The pats just smartly know how to attack any schematic style you employ. Try to cloud the middle of the field with a bunch of sure tackling linebackers, and they go spread and force them to cover one on one against running backs and tight ends out wide. Play a bunch of DBs like Buffalo did once and the Pats will just trample you on the ground. You really need to either a) catch the Patriots on an off day where their execution is bad, b) lull them into short patterns but have your imperfect personnel hold up anyways. That and hope Brady just misses his deep routes because thats not his strong suit.

You look at their talent and wonder - why can't other teams copy it. Not having Tom Brady is part of it, but its an incomplete answer. I think you need to have a very consistent and capable offensive line and smart wide receivers to run it. Ochocinco's famous flameout was a prime example.

11 Re: Film Room: New England's Offense

I'm sorry I failed to get the memo ... I thought this was the Colt's team nobody wanted to face, hottest team in football with an offense that was going to run the ball down the Chiefs throat and use the short passing game brilliance of MVP Andrew Luck to nullify the Chiefs pass rush.