The last time Patriots head coach Bill Belichick prepared to face Raiders head coach Jon Gruden was at the end of the 2005 NFL season.
Gruden was still coaching the Buccaneers, and Belichick’s defense shut down the Tampa Bay offense while current Bucs quarterback Tom Brady threw three touchdowns in a 28-0 victory.
Those were different times for New England, and Gruden, who was once the Sean McVay or Kyle Shanahan of his era, was only three years removed from winning Super Bowl XXVII.
The 2005 Bucs would finish the season 11-5 and lose to the Redskins on Wild Card weekend, which was the last time Gruden led Tampa to the playoffs. Three years later, he was fired.
Following a parting of ways after seven seasons in Tampa, Gruden took a gig as a Monday Night Football analyst on ESPN, where he worked until the Raiders came calling in 2018.
In his third season with Las Vegas, Gruden is no longer a 39-year-old prodigy, but the Raiders went back to their old coach from the turn of the century to return to respectability.
As Belichick said this week, the plan for Vegas’s roster is coming together in their two-game win streak to start the 2020 season.
Despite almost a decade removed from the league, the basis of Gruden’s west-coast scheme is still sound. He’s also making adaptations to utilize tight end Darren Waller, first-round pick Henry Ruggs, and running back Josh Jacobs as matchup weapons.
The foundation of most west-coast offenses is to get the ball out on quick throws designed to pick up yards after the catch. Vegas currently ranks fifth in YAC through the first two weeks, and they’re also taking advantage of their team speed with downfield shot plays mostly built off play-action.
Gruden, a known advocate for Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, hired Zimmer’s old defensive coordinator, Paul Guenther, to run that side of the ball. When the Raiders head coach hired Guenther, he said it was Guenther’s attacking 4-3 scheme that drew him to the veteran DC.
“I love the way the Bengals play defense. Up the field. Single gap. Get after you,” Gruden said after hiring Guenther away from Cincinnati.
Below, we’ll highlight some of the schemes and philosophies that the Patriots could use to get back in the win column against the Raiders at Gillette Stadium on Sunday:
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
The Raiders defensive coordinator shared some information on his system in an interview with Sports Illustrated following his decision to make a lateral move to then Oakland from Cincinnati.
Guenther scheme features 14 different D-line fronts, 14 stunts and twists, 15 coverages, 20 blitzes out of a four-down front, 26 blitzes out of a double-A-gap front, and 19 blitzes out of an odd front.
The Raiders DC sounds like he’s flexing his football knowledge more than highlighting positives about his defense, but there’s a lot to learn both for his own players and the opposition.
(via Pro Football Focus)
The Vegas defense is off to a sloppy start, ranking 30th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric through the first two weeks of the season. Most regulars are playing below-average to plain awful due to either youth or veterans inexperienced in an elaborate scheme.
For example, free-agent addition Cory Littleton, an athletic linebacker whose a valuable commodity, had a 79.0 grade with the Rams in 2019. But a transition into Guenther’s scheme has plummeted his overall grade to 31.5. Littleton will figure it out, but probably not by Sunday.
Second-year defensive backs Johnathan Abram and Trayvon Mullen are still trying to find their footing, while 2020 first-round pick Damon Arnette’s head must be spinning as well.
Guenther has a great relationship with Gruden, which is why he’ll keep the job, but his defense will take time to mature, making Sunday’s game a juicy matchup for Cam Newton.
Due to the inexperience on the Raiders defense, the name of the game for Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will likely be misdirection.
As we mentioned earlier, Vegas wants to come after you defensively, opening themselves up to big play on the ground if the offense confuses their keys and catches them too far upfield.
Last week, New Orleans presented a bad matchup due to their commitment to a zone rushing scheme that produced 5.9 yards per carry and is the perfect blueprint for McDaniels.
Although they’ll prepare more for option runs with New England, the Saints had success with their option package featuring swiss-army knife quarterback Taysom Hill in the backfield.
Here, the Saints are running a zone-read action with Hill and star running back Alvin Kamara. The Raiders defense tries a scrape exchange to combat the scheme. In a scrape exchange, the defense end automatically slants down to take the back while the off-ball linebacker behind him is responsible for setting the edge. Raiders safety Erik Harris blows his assignment by crashing down to Kamara, so Hill keeps around the corner for decent yardage.
New Orleans also used the Raiders’ aggressiveness against them with their under-center wide zone rushing attack that eventually set up shot plays off play-action.
Kamara, who is undoubtedly more talented than any back on the Pats, gashed Las Vegas running to the weak side of the formation (away from the tight end). On the play above, you can see how the Raiders front wants to fly off the ball, so the Saints use that against them by getting the defense trapped upfield, presenting a clear cutback lane for Kamara.
Saints head coach and play-caller Sean Payton also dialed up a first-down run using a jet sweep on their opening drive that made the Raiders respect jet motion the rest of the game.
For the second consecutive week, wide or outside zone is the way to go for the Patriots, but their lack of speed to get around the edge at running back makes it difficult for them to execute.
The Pats continue to lean on a power rushing attack centered around Newton, and they could physically dominate Vegas’s front to the point where the scheme doesn’t make a difference.
However, as we saw against Seattle, penetrating fronts that prevent pullers from getting to their spots challenge power concepts. We’ll see if McDaniels commits to a zone-based attack.
Based on two weeks of film, the best way to attack the Raiders defense is through the air, where their match coverages are very easily manipulated.
Guenther is a big proponent of two-high safety shells out of either cover-two, cover-six, or quarters structures that usually incorporate match principles in the secondary.
Match coverages are hybrid schemes that can either be man coverage or traditional spot-drop zone depending on how the receivers run their routes. If a route breaks off early, they’ll spot drop. If the receiver runs vertically for eight yards or more, then that defender plays it as man.
The Raiders will then mix in some cover-one man and cover-three match structures to give the offense single-high looks as well, and all of them are very beatable with their current personnel.
Before we get into schemes that beat cover-six, let’s quickly explain the scheme. Here’s an example of the Raiders running cover-six against the Saints last week. The defense’s left side is playing straight spot-drop cover-two, while the right side has some options. At the bottom, the outside corner is locked into man coverage, while the deep safety to that side is in match coverage. If the slot receiver runs a vertical, the safety will match him in man. If he runs under the defense, the safety provides inside help or doubles the outside receiver.
The Patriots have several two-high beaters that will shred cover-six, but the best one from this vantage point is their “branch” concept. On the play above from Super Bowl 51, the Falcons play a cover-six variation where the outside corner at the top of the screen matches the vertical release. With the sideline vacated, Chris Hogan’s “branch” route is easy pickings for Brady as the curl/flat defender is out-leveraged and is way too slow to match Hogan.
Another two-high beater that feasts on match principles is the “dagger” concept. Above, the Giants are playing a match cover-two scheme. Out of the bunch to Brady’s left, Jakobi Meyers runs a vertical route taking the MIKE linebacker and deep safety to that side with him, which leaves tons of space for Gunner Olszewski to sit down in the vacated zone.
Against Vegas’s single-high match coverages, the Saints averaged nearly 12 yards per attempt throwing off play-action with different variations of the “Yankee” concept.
Here, you can see the match rules exposed by New Orleans. The corner at the bottom of the screen has to match a vertical release while the deep safety needs to provide help on the post route (hence post-safety). On the other side, the outside corner lets Tre’Quan Smith go when he breaks his route off. However, the play-action sucked up the linebackers responsible for dropping underneath Smith’s route, and it’s an easy completion for Brees.
The Saints also got explosive plays by running corner routes against their single-high coverage. On the play above, the outside corner at the top of the screen has to match the vertical release again, so tight end Adam Trautman runs a corner route into the open area with the linebackers only spot-dropping. Again, play-action is a factor.
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is a maestro dialing up route combinations that feast on the different coverages that New England’s opponents implement.
Las Vegas’s secondary is vulnerable due to its inexperienced personnel, and McDaniels will give Newton answers to the Raiders’ match coverages that should lead to a productive day.
WHEN THE RAIDERS HAVE THE BALL
After last week’s performance, the question surrounding the Patriots defense remains at the linebacker position where they’re in for another conflicting test defensively.
New England’s defensive personnel is best suited to play with hybrid defensive backs Adrian Phillips, Terrence Brooks, Kyle Dugger, and Joejuan Williams in the box to better their backend coverage.
However, the Seahawks ran all over the Pats’ safeties playing in linebacker spots, forcing Belichick to play traditional linebackers Ja’Whaun Bentley and Brandon Copeland more than usual.
The Raiders present a similar challenge for New England’s undersized front seven as they feature a physical offensive line that loves to run a heavy dosage of outside zone (42 percent).
Las Vegas invested significant resources on their running game, including first-round picks on left tackle Kolton Miller and running back Josh Jacobs. Plus, big-money additions in left guard Richie Incognito and former Patriot Trent Brown, although both are dealing with injuries.
The Patriots front seven will need to slow down the Raiders’ rushing attack with their safeties in the box or risk putting Bentley back in coverage regularly as they did in Seattle. We all know how that went.
The good news for the Patriots is that their two-gapping system is inherently a good way to combat a heavy zone rushing attack.
New England has shut down wide zone offenses by lining up five or six defenders across the line to set the edge while forcing runners back into the teeth of the defense, a strategy we’ll likely see on Sunday to force Las Vegas out of its outside zone schemes.
However, Belichick pointed out this week that Gruden does an excellent job of running schemes out of different personnel groupings and alignments to give the defense different looks.
“Coach Gruden does a great job of using multiple personnel groups, multiple formations, different looks, different play concepts, but all within the framework of doing things that are fundamental and have principles embedded in their system. So, the execution is at a high level,” Belichick told CLNS Media on Tuesday.
One of those formation variations that Gruden uses in the running game is tight splits, which present better blocking angles while building a go-to power concept, the crack sweep.
On the play, the receivers in tight splits will block down on the ends aided by their alignment and the flow of the play, making their blocks easier. That’s why Vegas gets away with undersized slot receiver Hunter Renfrow blocking at the point of attack. With the receivers pinning down the defense, the offensive linemen to the play side can then pull and climb out in front, giving the back easy access to the edge and two 300-pound lead blockers. The end result? Touchdown.
The best way to defend the crack sweep is to stop it before it gets going, which is why the Pats might implement some of their run blitzes or one-gap principles when they see tight splits.
Assuming everyone is healthy for the Raiders, holding up against the run, so they don’t need to sacrifice their backend flexibility, will ultimately decide the game when Las Vegas has the ball.
In the passing game, Gruden’s west-coast offense plays to quarterback Derek Carr’s strengths by getting the ball out quickly on throws to the middle of the field.
Gruden is also very good at hunting matchups in the passing game, especially with tight end Darren Waller, who is blossoming into a premier receiving tight end as there is in the league.
This season, Carr’s average time to throw is 2.43 seconds (11th), and his average depth of target is 6.2 (29th) out of 32 qualified quarterbacks.
Luckily, the Patriots aren’t playing Russell Wilson again; Carr is a timing and leverage-read-based thrower that is one of the least aggressive passers in the entire league.
As a result, my theory is that the Patriots will play more of their cover-two man coverages and “cross” match coverages to cut off Waller rather than their typical cover-one man defense.
The reason for more two-man structures is that Gruden wants to give his receivers avenues to cut based on leverage into the middle of the field, a recipe for disaster in cover-one.
In cover-one, corners typically play with outside leverage since they only have post-safety help to the middle of the field. Without two safeties over the top, the man-coverage defenders need to take away the deep passes into the boundary and up the sidelines.
As we’ve seen in the past, that leaves the Patriots vulnerable to in-breaking routes and crossers. The corners are out-leveraged from the jump on those types of inside patterns.
New Orleans learned the hard way that giving up the middle of the field to Vegas is asking for trouble. Waller ran away from contact with the Saints DBs playing outside of him at the snap and snapped routes off inside.
Raiders slot receiver Hunter Renfrow did the same thing, widening his defender with his release at the snap to break inside on the slant. West-coast offenses love slants and quick-hitters to the inside, where Carr doesn’t need to push the ball down the field.
In cover-two man, the two deep safeties allow the defenders in man coverage to play inside leverage, since they can provide help over the top to outside releases. Plus, two-high coverages will help the Pats keep speedy rookie Henry Ruggs from beating them over the top while preventing him from taking a slant 70 yards to the house.
Here’s a great example of what the Patriots might do against the Raiders from their matchup with the Dallas Cowboys in 2019. The man-coverage defenders all take inside positioning on their receivers with safety help over the top, and all the in-breaking routes are shut down.
The vulnerabilities in cover-two are in the hole between the boundary corner and deep safety or splitting the safeties up the seam, downfield windows we are betting Carr can’t hit consistently.
Another solution is cutting Waller on crossers with defenders dropping into the low hole or in a “robber” position.
New Orleans finally had success slowing down Waller by bracketing him in the middle of the field with a man coverage defender and zone-droppers getting in his way. Unlike the Saints defense on the play above, tackling in space to prevent yards after the catch might be item number one on the to-do list.
Playing their typical coverages of cover-one man and cover-three will get the Patriots beat by Carr, Waller, and the Raiders west-coast offense that’ll feast on those schemes.
1. Patriots Starting Center vs. Raiders Interior DL: the entire game plan for New England’s offense could change if starting center David Andrews is inactive. Andrews was at practice on Thursday with a wrap on his right snapping hand. He did not participate in the session, which begs the question, who will replace him in the starting lineup if he’s unfit to play?
Second-year guard/center Hjalte Froholdt and practice-squader James Ferentz are the two top backups. Froholdt had a strong camp, but who knows where the team’s trust level is with him. Ferentz started two games a year ago, and they weren’t pretty. The Iowa product gave up a sack and three more hurries at center against Kansas City in 2019. The Pats could also play rookie Michael Onwenu at his natural position of guard and move Joe Thuney to center. However, they usually opt to leave the healthy starters in their typical spots. Veteran Johnathan Hankins is off to a good start, and Vegas kicks 2019 first-round pick Clelin Ferrell inside on passing downs. The Raiders’ defensive line is nothing to write home about, but Andrews needs to be able to snap the ball by Sunday.
2. Julian Edelman vs. Lamarcus Joyner: who knows which Raiders cornerback will get their lunch handed to them by Edelman on Sunday, but Joyner is their nickel corner in the slot. He has no chance—advantage Edelman.
3. Stephon Gilmore vs. Darren Waller/Henry Ruggs: my theory on Gilmore’s usage this week is that he’ll draw Ruggs on early downs and flex to Waller on third down. Ruggs reminds me more of a John Brown type than Tyreek Hill, and Gilmore’s press-man technique can smother his releases to prevent him from getting upfield. As for Waller, it’s a similar matchup for Gilmore as Travis Kelce and Zack Ertz. Gilmore is in for a difficult day.
4. Jonathan Jones vs. Hunter Renfrow: guessing this will be the matchup in the slot. Renfrow continues to build on an extremely productive rookie season in his first two games of 2020. He’s exactly who we thought he’d be coming out of Clemson, an excellent technician who is extremely tough to stay with at the top of his breaks. Gruden gets him free releases and favorable leverage with alignment, as the Pats do with Edelman, and Renfrow eats on third down. Jones will have a battle on his hands and could also defend Ruggs at times.
5. Isaiah Wynn vs. Clelin Ferrell: two players trying to emerge as former first-round picks will go head-to-head on Sunday. Wynn hasn’t allowed a single quarterback pressure in 70 pass-blocking snaps and looks great in that phase. Ferell, on the other hand, looks like a significant reach by Gruden and Mayock. Still, he’s starting to figure things out and his size and length for bull-rushing present a challenge for the smaller Wynn.