This is the first installment of a series of posts breaking down the Patriots’ favorite offensive plays.
The brains behind the two offenses that made last year’s Super Bowl are football magicians.
Like in magic, both Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Rams head coach Sean McVay have masters degrees in the art of deception; everything looks the same until it isn’t.
“I think most of the things you try to do in the NFL nowadays is build complements to what you’re doing,” the Pats OC told me. “So if you’re running these style of runs then you have to try and complement it with something off of those runs, or if you’re throwing a lot of this pass, then you might have to complement that route with something that gives the defense the same look, but it’s a different route. We always try to be conscious of that.”
Rams captain Andrew Whitworth gave this description of McVay’s offense (via the Ringer):
“When you look at the rare teams, the rare NFL offenses, outside of special talent, the good ones are the ones where everything’s married to each other. Everything looks the same, but it’s completely different.”
One of the Patriots’ go-to schemes builds off of their wide receiver screen package.
Last season, the Patriots threw 29 screen passes to their wide receivers. With that on film, they create explosive plays with fake screens that feast on undisciplined defenses.
Let’s start with a signature play of Josh Gordon’s first season in New England: a 55-yard touchdown against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.
The most common route combination that the Patriots use for this play design is an outside fade and a seam route from the slot receiver out of a trips formation. The Patriots like to throw bubble screens to their receivers out of this look, so they fake one here to Chris Hogan testing the eye discipline of the Green Bay secondary. First, Brady stares down Hogan and gives a slight pump fake to sell the screen. As you can see, both the boundary and slot corners bite hard on the fake coming up to defend Hogan, leaving a two-on-one in the secondary for the half field safety rotating over. Brady flips his hips upfield and quickly gets the pass to Gordon who then makes the safety miss en route to a long touchdown. For the receivers releasing downfield, the key to the play is taking an outside release. Typically, an outside release paired with Hogan’s route signals to the corners that Gordon and Edelman are blockers. They weren’t blockers, and the score gave the Patriots a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter.
Adding to the confusion, the Patriots will change up the route combinations to give defenses a different look.
Here, the Patriots motion Phillip Dorsett into a similar alignment as Hogan above. Brady once again fakes the bubble screen to Dorsett, displacing two Saints defenders. The Saints are in man coverage. Dorsett’s route pulls his defender out of the middle of the field and influences Hogan’s man into playing the screen. But Hogan’s outside release and subtle pause before releasing into his route is a small detail that goes a long way on this play. Hogan’s acting job gets his man to leave him completely uncovered, and Brady hits him on the slant for a huge gain. Remember, the first example had an outside fade and seam out of the slot. This time, the Patriots ran almost an identical play, but the two receivers ran slant routes.
Like a good magician, the Patriots offense has defenses looking in all the wrong places.