The Patriots offense in Tom Brady’s last season on the team was one of New England’s worst units during the Brady-Belichick era.
New England finished outside the top ten in Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) metric for the first time since 2003, while averaging only 23.1 offensive points per game (11th in NFL, lowest since 2005).
Brady is now a Buccaneer with Rob Gronkowski joining him after a year off from football after a rocky end to their Patriots careers, leaving the Pats in a transition away from two of the best ever to play their respective positions.
After an underwhelming 2019 season and with second-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham now under center, Bill Belichick went searching this offseason for fresh ideas on the coaching staff.
Belichick and former NFL head coach Mike Shanahan have a longstanding friendship and mutual admiration for their football prowess dating back to battles as coordinators in the 1980s.
The friendship is now trickling down to Shanahan’s coach tree, mainly son Kyle (head coach of the 49ers) and Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay, who were together on the elder Shanahan’s staff in Washington along with Packers coach Matt LaFleur in the early 2010s.
The Patriots football czar is no longer applauding the Shanahan scheme from afar, adding his own Shanahan disciple to the staff in new quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch.
The 44-year-old Fisch has experience coaching mainly quarterbacks and wide receivers at the NFL level and in major college football since 1999 and is seen by many as a rising star.
The Shanahan’s helped Fisch break into the pros, and he was on Mike’s Broncos staff in 2008. Most recently, Fisch worked the last two seasons under McVay with the Rams and was tabbed assistant offensive coordinator in 2019.
Fisch gets credit for his work with Rams quarterback Jared Goff, and in the college ranks, current Dolphins quarterback Josh Rosen as the offensive coordinator at UCLA in 2017.
The Pats quarterbacks coach will now aid Josh McDaniels in developing Stidham and could provide new thinking schematically borrowing from his knowledge of the Shanahan system.
Along with Fisch’s presence on the staff, Stidham worked successfully in Kyle Shanahan’s scheme, who was his coach in Mobile, at the Senior Bowl before the 2019 NFL Draft and raved about his fit in the offense.
Quarterback guru Mark Schofield of USA Today said after spending the week down in Mobile with Stidham that, “when I got a chance to talk to him, I asked him what his favorite offense was, in the ones he’d run, and he said, ‘everything this week.’”
Stidham felt at home in Shanahan’s system after spending his collegiate career in Gus Malzahn (Auburn) and Art Briles’s (Baylor) unique spread offenses with a heavy focus option concepts (RPOs) and vertical passing.
Stidham was Offensive Practice Player of the Week at the Senior Bowl after a stellar week in a pro-style offense, and with the addition of Fisch, many believe the Pats will adopt schemes from the Shanahan tree this season.
The Shanahan coaching tree builds their offense around a potent wide (outside) zone rushing attack that perfectly merges with their play-action passing concepts.
I randomly think about how flawlessly the #Patriots OL blocked one-back power on the clock-killing drive late in the Super Bowl once a week, maybe more. Cannon combo block with the double on Donald w/Shaq then climb to the LB, Andrews reaching Suh, Thuney pulling. It's beautiful. pic.twitter.com/yr6ENDRV41
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) June 25, 2019
The Patriots mix it up but incorporate more man or gap-blocking, with power, counter, and lead ISO as go-to running plays. But saw an uptick in zone runs over the last two seasons, calling outside zone (20%) or inside zone (12%) on 32 percent of their rushes in 2019, per Pro Football Focus.
In Los Angeles, Fisch and McVay were among the league-leaders ranking fourth in the NFL by running outside zone on 37 percent of their runs.
Similarly, Kyle Shanahan’s Niners offense averaged a terrific 5.2 yards per rush on outside zone while dialing it up on 33.2 percent of their running plays (sixth-most in NFL).
McVay and Shanahan coach outside zone similarly, but run it from different personnel groupings. McVay relies heavily on three-wide receiver sets and condensed splits while Shanahan is more of a two-back coach that uses a fullback and multiple tight ends in heavy packages.
Last season, San Francisco was in either two-back 21 personnel or two-tight end 12 personnel on 46 percent of their offensive plays, the third-highest mark in the NFL.
Asked #49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan about the schematic advantages of using a fullback. He said he will always use a fullback. #Patriots and #49ers share a similar belief in the position. pic.twitter.com/oUwFENEcOK
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) February 27, 2019
Furthermore, a league-high 43 percent of the Niners’ running plays came out of the I-Formation with fullback Kyle Juszczyk leading the way for the San Fran running backs.
Based on their current roster, which includes two rookie tight ends, and their past reliance on a fullback and heavy personnel, the Patriots will probably mirror the Niners more than the Rams.
In outside zone, the goal is to get the running back on the edge and downhill to either explode around the corner or cut back as blockers sprint towards the sideline and wash down defenders.
From there, the running back has three options: “bounce” outside, “bang” a cut upfield between the blockers or “bend” on a cutback across the formation based on the positioning of the defenders labeled “number one” and “number two” in the image above.
If the defender at the end of the line, or the EMLOS, is hooked inside, the running back bounces outside. If the EMLOS sets the edge and number two is sealed inside, the back will “bang” it between the two defenders. If numbers one and two are both outside, it’s a “bend” read.
Here’s a Shanahan staple on an outside zone toss in the I-Formation out of 21-personnel. Niners running back Raheem Mostert’s aim point is at the outside hip of tight end George Kittle. As the play rolls, Kittle kicks out the EMLOS, and the combination block seals the B-Gap defender (no. 90) inside, so Mostert “bangs” a cut upfield and breaks off a huge gain.
Just a beautiful display of blocking. To go untouched from ten yards out on 4th and 1? Damn. Believe its outside zone. Cannon with a perfect “slingshot” block gets three (!) #Chiefs with one. Gronk kicks out Houston, Develin leads. Sony walks it in. #Patriots pic.twitter.com/nEwZjDJYwz
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) January 24, 2019
The Patriots ran an outside zone handoff with fullback James Develin as the lead blocker with similar principles to the Shanahan toss play for a late score in the 2018 AFC title game.
Shanahan will also mess with opposing defenses by running outside zone to the weak side of the formation (opposite the tight end). This time, Mostert does a great job of setting up his blocks by peeking inside to help the left tackle hook the EMLOS. Once the EMLOS loses the edge, Mostert bounces outside and runs in for a touchdown.
#Patriots film: Pats running wide zone weak here. Weak because they go opposite the tight end. Great seals by Thuney and Wynn to turn defenders outside of them back inside, not easy. Roberts kicks out the force. Pats love this play call. pic.twitter.com/F8uwmA2raC
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) January 1, 2020
Here, the Pats also run outside zone weak with Michel “banging” the run between the kick out by fullback Elandon Roberts and a seal by left tackle Isaiah Wynn.
With an outside zone base, Shanahan will then start to change things up. Now, the Niners run outside zone from the gun with Mostert “bending” upfield with the defense all outside of the blockers. Shanahan also adds a bubble screen at the top to pull Packers linebacker Blake Martinez (no. 50) out of the box to create the running lane for Mostert up the middle.
When the defense doesn’t respect the bubble screen, Jimmy G has the option to flip the ball out to his receiver and let, in this case, George Kittle, run to space on the perimeter, something the Patriots could do with Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry or either rookie tight end.
Along with packaged plays, the Niners will mimic their outside zone scheme and flip the ball on reverses in the other direction to gash defenses, another strategy the Pats use as well.
Finally, Shanahan compliments his outside zone rushing attack with both tight zone schemes and gap schemes, but let’s focus on tight zone since it will come up again later.
Here, the Niners run tight zone with a “sift” block from the tight end and an orbit motion to get the defense flowing to the quarterbacks left. With the defense keying on the motion, it leaves an open A-Gap for the running back to churn out yards up the middle.
asked isaiah wynn about his blocking scheme preferences pic.twitter.com/M7hN2Gepxd
— charles (#1 social distancing fan) mcdonald (@FourVerts) March 1, 2018
The Patriots aren’t a big tight or inside zone team, calling the scheme on only 12 percent of their runs. But it was the main rushing concept for Georgia products Isaiah Wynn and Sony Michel in college, as Wynn told Charles McDonald of the New York Daily News at the 2017 combine.
And Michel, the Pats’ lead back for the last two seasons, was very productive on inside zone runs during his time at Georgia.
The Pats running backs don’t have the ideal speed for a wide zone rushing attack. 49ers lead back Raheem Mostert is a former track star with a 4.32-second 40-yard dash, and the Rams’ wide zone scheme thrived with a healthy Todd Gurley.
However, Michel’s one-cut ability and decisiveness between the tackles should allow him to carve up defenses for chunk yardage as more of a slasher type.
Plus, a heavier emphasis on zone runs will allow New England to get their fullbacks and tight ends involved in the passing game by marrying their play-action concepts to their rushing attack.
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is already one of the best at mirroring his run-blocking schemes with his play-action concepts.
The play Brady talks about here is a play-action concept where the #Patriots typically pull the backside guard. They’ll either the TE on the seam or now without Gronk it’s become more the slot WR on an over/crosser. Unreal that play came from Peyton. pic.twitter.com/67xD1qjmGL
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) December 28, 2019
Brady, Gronk, and Edelman feasted off of play-action by mimicking power plays with pulling guards or fullback leads to pull linebackers out of position and create voids of space over the middle.
However, one of the few play-callers that might do better than McDaniels is Shanahan, who uses bootleg concepts off of outsize zone to torment defenses with false keys and misdirection.
Unlike gap play-action concepts, outside zone actions allow the offense to move the pocket and change the point of attack by getting the defense to flow with the offensive line movement keeping the quarterback protected.
2019 49ers Outside Zone= -.020 EPA/play
2019 49ers play action off their outside zone= +.553 EPA/play
— Seth Galina (@pff_seth) May 12, 2020
The Niners averaged a ridiculous 0.553 expected points added per play (EPA) while using play-action off of outside zone last season.
San Francisco also led the NFL by using pre-snap motion on 75 percent of their offensive plays. Motion causes the defense to realign at the last-second and gives the quarterback a man or zone coverage indicator.
Here’s a perfect example of pre-snap motion and outside zone play-action coming together in the 49ers’ loss to the Chiefs in the Super Bowl last February. The Niners start in an I-Formation and then motion fullback Kyle Juszczyk to an in-line tight end position. The motion looks like the offense is trying to create another gap to run to in its outside zone scheme. Instead, Shanahan calls one of his bootleg play-action concepts, and the safety on Juszczyk, Daniel Sorensen, gets sucked up in the run action too long and is late to his man coverage assignment. Garoppolo sees the delayed reaction by the Chiefs safety, gets the ball to Juszczyk, and from there, the Niners fullback takes over.
Shanahan is constantly changing the point of attack on defenses and putting players in run-pass conflicts. This play is a 49ers staple, another bootleg play-action call with a “sift” motion from tight end George Kittle. The Niners mimic outside zone once again and get Kittle sliding out the backside of the play into the flat. Jimmy G rolls out, dumps the ball off to Kittle, and there’s tons of space there for yards after the catch.
The Niners also got rookie Deebo Samuel involved last season, and the “slide” route looks like a perfect YAC opportunity for N’Keal Harry or rookie tight end Dalton Keene with the Pats.
(via Mark Bullock)
San Francisco will also attack down the field in their bootleg series, starting with Shanahan’s version of the “leak” or throwback concept.
On the play, the Niners run what looks like their typical bootleg play-action with Garoppolo looking to his right (arm side) for a receiver. The “leak” route often gets lost in the trash of the run action, and a delayed-release by the receiver makes the defense think he’s a blocker. The receiver sneaks out the backside on the “leak” route for a walk-in touchdown.
(via Mark Bullock)
Another Shanahan favorite is the “drift” concept. The scheme gets the second-level defenders to jump into their gap to defend the run, leaving a void of space behind the linebackers and in front of the third level of the defense, a lot like New England’s crossing concepts.
As the play rolls, the middle linebacker steps up, and Garoppolo hits his receiver for a completion as the linebacker tries to get back in position after falling for the run fake.
The last downfield passing concept off of outside zone we’ll cover here is the Yankee Concept or “ deep cross” in other terminology. Deep cross is a two-man route combination with an over route (crosser) and post pattern, a great single-high beater. The idea is to occupy the deep safety with the post route, leaving the crosser with no deep or intermediate help thanks to the post and play-action.
Here, the play-action fake pulls the linebackers out of the passing lane for the over route while the post does its job of holding the deep safety. This time, it’s Brian Hoyer under center, and Hoyer hits the crossing route in-stride for a nice completion.
Hogan TD was a yankee concept off of reverse play-action. Post/deep over for Gordon and Hogan and when they cross at the mesh point all three defenders run with Gordon. Backfield action sucks in the LBs. Great blocks from Rex and Gronk to pick up the rush off the edges. #Patriots pic.twitter.com/2csHb9d6Um
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) December 18, 2018
The Patriots are already fans of the Yankee concept, hitting mostly the crossing route for huge plays over the years.
Along with outside zone play-action, the Niners will also incorporate tight zone action to get the fullback vertically down the field.
Remember the tight zone run earlier? Well, Shanahan will pair tight zone runs with a fullback in the backfield by sending Juszczyk on a corner route. Juszczyk sells a lead block on the linebacker, who steps up ready to engage and then blows by the defender for a chunk play.
Here’s another version of the fullback vertical off of tight zone on a sail concept via The Athletic’s Mark Bullock. This time, the Niners put Kittle in the backfield on the corner route.
As noted earlier, Michel ran inside or tight zone more than any blocking scheme during his four seasons at the University of Georgia.
With rookie tight end Dalton Keene and free-agent addition Dan Vitale, the Pats also have two fullbacks that are pass-catching weapons.
The Shanahan coaching tree isn’t quite all-in on the RPO movement yet, but Kyle Shanahan has added a few to the Niners playbook in recent years.
Last season, Garoppolo ran 24 RPO plays, ranking 20th in the league. But he averaged a terrific 15.2 yards on 23 pass attempts on RPOs, per Pro Football Reference.
The Patriots hardly ever ran an RPO ranking 29th by only calling a run-pass option on 1.7 percent of their offensive plays a year ago.
Shanahan’s go-to RPO concept is the RPO slant, which sometimes turns into a glance route. A slant breaks at three steps while a glance route is at five-to-seven steps. Here, the Niners run the RPO slant, and with the numbers in the box and no defenders falling underneath the slant, Garoppolo completes the pass to Samuel, who breaks a few tackles for a massive gain.
In college, Stidham was in two RPO-heavy systems at both Auburn and Baylor with the RPO slant or glance as a major part of the play calling.
Here, Stidham runs an RPO glance with a deeper slant on the backside. When the safety to his right comes down to play the run, that signals to Stidham to throw the glance route, and he puts the ball on wide receiver KD Cannon who takes it to the house for a 55-yard score.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) August 19, 2019
The Pats second-year quarterback might not be a big-time running threat, but he’s got the athleticism to move the pocket and will take off if defenses leave the door open.
Plus, his arm strength and downfield accuracy make him dangerous on deeper drops that lead to downfield shots and RPO concepts to closing passing windows while getting the Patriots’ receivers chances to pick up yards after the catch.
New England’s focus this offseason was on making life as easy as possible for their young quarterback and Shanahan’s offense is notorious for being extremely QB friendly.
With quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch there to bring Stidham along, the Patriots might be giving off Shanahan vibes this season.