FOXBOROUGH — In Sunday’s dismantling of the Los Angeles Chargers the Patriots offense led by coordinator Josh McDaniels won with diversity.
Over the last five years of breaking down Patriots film, I have never seen a more complete offensive attack from New England than we did in the first half last weekend.
“I think Josh [McDaniels] is a great play-caller. He does an excellent job of attacking, keeping the defense off-balance, but most importantly doing the things that we do well so that we’re running things that we can execute. He does a great job of that. It was really the key to the whole day,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.
“We ran a variety of different plays – dropbacks, play-actions, inside runs, outside runs, gap runs, zone runs. Ultimately it was great execution by our players and, again, a really nice job by Josh of keeping the defense off-balance.”
Belichick, as he so often does, summed it up perfectly; the Patriots hit the Chargers defense with so many schemes that it must’ve felt like they were playing a different team every time they stepped on the field.
In the running game, New England amassed 155 yards on 4.6 yards per rush with old-school smashmouth football led by the offensive line, fullback James Develin, tight end Rob Gronkowski, and of course, rookie Sony Michel.
And in the passing game, they built off of those runs with play-action and threw it all over the yard en route to 343 yards through the air.
Below, we’ll go over a handful of plays from Sunday’s win to illustrate just how multiple the New England offense was tying a playoff team record with 35 points in the first half:
Although the Patriots threw to score, they ran to set the tone, and you’d be hard-pressed to find an offensive line that can execute so many different blocking schemes at such a high level.
The ability to run everything from outside zone to power schemes as well as New England did on Sunday is an art form, and OL coach Dante Scarnecchia told me the key to all last month.
“It really is a lot of the same stuff [man or zone blocking] even if it looks different,” Scarnecchia said. “When we run the jet sweep we run the outside zone technique away from it, and the double-teams that have application for our power plays also have application for our inside zone runs. The footwork and fits are really the same. I believe that the more you can do the same things over and over again the better you’re going to get. So I think that’s a foundation of ours.”
The Patriots’ offensive line was terrific in every facet, but they were at their best running inside zone against the Chargers with Michel averaging over seven yards per rush behind zone blocking (ten carries, 71 yards).
Let’s start with an 11-yard gain by Sony Michel on the Pats’ 14-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to start the game.
The Patriots are in 11-personnel (three wide receivers) with Michel alone in the backfield and Brady under center. The offensive line and Gronk come off the ball at a 45-degree angle signaling inside zone and blow the Chargers’ defensive front back. First, they get a crucial block on the interior by center David Andrews to reach the one-tech DT which gets the play moving. Then, the right side of the OL (Mason and Cannon) combo block the five-tech defensive end to seal the edge along with Gronk who kicks out safety Derwin James. After Mason controls the end, Cannon climbs to the second level to reach the safety driving him downfield as well and left guard Joe Thuney climbs immediately at the snap to seal the weakside linebacker. Michel stays patient allowing his blockers to do the work and jogs to a first down.
On the Patriots’ longest run of the day, and the longest run of Michel’s career, it was inside zone once again that sprung the rookie.
This time, fullback James Develin is in the backfield with Michel in 21-personnel (2 WR, 2 RB, 1 TE). The Patriots run behind Cannon and Gronk again on the outside, but the interior blocks get the ball rolling. First, center David Andrews and left guard Joe Thuney “fold” the nose tackle meaning Andrews chips him on the way by to help Thuney reach the block. The best block on this play, however, is by right guard Shaq Mason; Mason reaches the three-tech on his outside shoulder and completely turns him out of the gap. Cannon and Gronk combine to demolish Melvin Ingram on the edge kicking him outside of the play, and Andrews climbs to the second level to block the safety downfield turning this positive play into an explosive run. The OL sets it up, and Michel has the skill to see the opening, make the cut upfield, run through an arm tackle, set up Andrews’ block downfield, and then nearly outrun the entire defense.
To cap off that drive, the Patriots stuck with the running game subbing Rex Burkhead in for Michel to punch it in for six.
The Patriots run outside zone to the left this time, and Gronk and Trent Brown combine on a thunderous block on Ingram blowing him all the way back into the end zone, and Gronk peels off at the end to the linebacker to finish the deal. There’s also a key combo block on the interior by Thuney and Andrews as well as a kick out block by Develin leading the way. Thuney and Andrews “fold” the three-tech and Thuney gets two picking off the linebacker as well. However, we can marvel at the blocking ability of Rob Gronkowski on this one as he puts in a dominant rep to lead the way for Burkhead.
Although inside zone was very successful against the Chargers, the Patriots’ bread-and-butter is still their gap or man blocking schemes, and they executed those to perfection as well.
On the Patriots’ second drive, Michel gained 12 yards on New England’s “blast” concept utilizing a “fullback wham” from James Develin.
The idea is that Develin is going to “wham” the defensive lineman lined up in the backside b-gap which allows right tackle Marcus Cannon to climb to the second level at the snap. However, Michel makes a great read here when he sees the nose tackle cross center David Andrews’ face and Andrews throws him to the ground. Andrews’ role on this play is to climb as Cannon did, but when Mason sees him engage with the nose tackle, he smartly takes on Andrews’ assignment to climb to the linebacker. Michel reads it out perfectly and has Mason as a lead blocker downfield as the Pats create a massive hole for their running back.
To finish off that drive, the Patriots went to their draw play on a nifty call from McDaniels to combat the aggressive one-gapping style of the Chargers defense.
This is a simple “fullback lead” draw for New England with a delayed handoff to Michel and Develin leading the way. Everybody on the offensive line is “fanning” their defenders to open up the hole for Michel, and Develin leads through to the backside backer with Gronk “cracking” the play side linebacker. Gronk delivers another terrific block, and Michel does the rest winning the race to the pylon.
At this point, New England threw almost every run blocking scheme in their playbook at the Chargers defense, and now they’re going to take to the air with some guy named Tom Brady.
The Patriots are as good as any team at marrying their play-action fakes with their running plays to make the blocking up front look the same.
Brady completed nine of 12 attempts for 112 yards (11.0 YPA) and a 110.4 passer rating off of play-action on Sunday.
Above, we saw fullback James Develin “whamming” at the line of scrimmage to help open a crater-sized hole for Michel, so now they’re going to simulate the wham scheme with Gronk on a play-action pass.
Gronk “whams” the front side A-gap defender, and Andrews and Mason jump to the second level like they’re run blocking, but Brady fakes the handoff to James White. Edelman runs right to the area behind the second level defenders that are creeping up to stop the run, and Brady easily hits him in stride for a 28-yard gain.
The Patriots took advantage of the Chargers playing safeties, who aren’t used to reading and dropping against play-action, at linebacker, and have been a lethal play-action team all year because they make everything look the same.
SPREAD PASSING GAME
We’ve gone over zone blocking, gap schemes, play-action passes, and now the Patriots put Brady in the shotgun to go up top for a touchdown.
The Patriots are in 11-personnel with White in the backfield, Gronk in the right slot, and Edelman and Dorsett to Brady’s left. With Dorsett in the slot, the Patriots motion Edelman into a “stack” alignment with Dorsett right before the snap. In response, the Chargers made a “banjo” call which tells the cornerbacks to play sides; the outside CB takes whoever goes left and the inside takes whoever goes right or the second to the left. To add more confusion, the Patriots snap the ball quickly before LA can fully set their coverage, and then fake a “switch” release with Edelman taking a few steps inside at the snap which causes Desmond King to lock onto him thinking he’s coming in that direction. Dorsett blows by King on the corner route and is wide open for the touchdown.
After the game, Dorsett said that the Patriots saw the Chargers struggle with stacks on film:
“Me and Jules were in the stack, and we were talking about it the whole week, we knew that they might mess it up. Once they hesitated, I just took it, and I knew the ball was coming because I knew Tom was going to see me.”
All year long, we’ve asked what is the “identity” of the Patriots offense as they went through lulls during the regular season?
On Sunday, we discovered that their identity is that they have no identity, and to defend them you’ll have to be prepared for as diverse of an attack as you’ll ever see at any level of football.
In the passing game, the Patriots made up for a perceived lack of talent at the skill positions with smarts, keying on the Chargers’ flaws and exploiting their cover-3 defense.
And in the running game, New England unleashed a variety of blocking schemes to overpower the smaller LA defense putting so much on tape that Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton won’t sleep much this week trying to decipher it all.
Although the coaching and play-calling were spectacular, the Patriots succeeded on offense against the Chargers because the players executed all of the schemes at an extremely high level.
And that’s no easy feat when you consider how complex the game plan was from McDaniels.
If the Patriots want to reach the Super Bowl, they’ll need that kind of play from their offense against the Chiefs.
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