Check the Film: Versatile personnel fuels Pats aerial assault
Dion Lewis' receiving ability helps the Pats create mismatches all over the field. AP Photo/ Gary Wiepert
After each Patriots game, I'll be going over the All 22 film to take a closer look at just how the game unfolded, posting my X's & O's takeaways here at PatriotsLife. Many were worried this week that the Bills had the combination of defensive talent and coaching to stymie the Pats offense and turn the game into a rock fight, but the Pats spread them out and marched up and down the field en route to a 40 point performance. Here's my analysis on how the Pats bent the Bills to their breaking point.
I'll start with two numbers: 3 and 59. 3 is the number of true receivers (not counting special teams standout Matthew Slater) that were active for the Pats on game day Sunday. 59 was the number of passing attempts Tom Brady had against the Bills, the second highest single game total in his career.
Throwing the ball that much wasn't necessarily a surprise. The Pats have always been a team that plays to their strengths, and pounding the ball on the ground into the teeth of Buffalo's talented front would have been a recipe for an endless supply of third and longs. Legarrette Blount will have weeks when he plays a major role, but this was never going to be one of them.
However, the way the Pats attacked was interesting. Despite only have three receivers active, they spent a lot of the game in empty backfield sets, often with four or five pass catchers spread out. They were able to do this because of the versatility of their non-receiver personnel, with Rob Gronkowski, Scott Chandler and Dion Lewis all spending their fair share of time outside.
This was a similar approach to what they did in Week One against Pittsburgh, and it created a lot of matchup problems for the defense. Normally, the formations they were using would feature three or four receivers, forcing defenses to matchup with extra defensive backs. However, putting a corner against the 6'6" Gronkowski or the 6'7" Chandler outside the numbers is asking for trouble from a size perspective, and most teams don't have enough defensive backs to commit one to covering a running back.
As a result, the Patriots were able to create near constant mismatches, enabling Brady to get rid of the ball quickly and neutralize the Bills pass rush. With Gronkowski and Edelman already in midseason form, the Pats personnel is dangerous enough as is. Using their scheme creatively to compromise the defense against players like that makes this offense almost unstoppable, and has played a big factor in the video game numbers Brady has put up so far this season.
A good example of this came on Gronkowski's 36 yard first quarter catch down the seam, a play that really started to turn the tide back in New England's favor after a fast Buffalo start. As you can see, the Pats are lined up "five wide" formation-wise, but with unconventional personnel in those five spots. Split out wide are Lewis (33), a running back, and Michael Williams (85), a 300 pound blocking tight end who was playing offensive tackle a month ago with the Lions. The only true receivers on the field are Julian Edelman and Aaron Dobson, with both of them lined up as the inner-most receiving options on either side of the formation. Gronkowski is lined up in the right slot.
Take a look at what that has done to the defense before Brady has even snapped the ball. Despite playing with their nickel personnel, the Bills simply don't have enough coverage options to matchup in Rex's preferred man coverage without severely compromising the defense. Their starting corners remain outside the numbers, with Stephon Gilmore lined up across from Lewis and Ronald Darby across from the plodding Williams. Meanwhile, nickel corner Nickell Robey has Dobson, with linebacker Manny Lawson lined up across from Gronk and no one in front of Edelman.
No defender covering Edelman is a giveaway that zone coverage is coming, and the Pats have a perfect play dialed up to attack it. Williams and Edelman both run short hitch routes, forcing defenders to commit to the short zones on that right side of the formation. Meanwhile, Gronk runs a straight go route up the seam between those two hitches. Lewis and Dobson also run go routes on the backside of the formation, which occupies the weakside safety long enough to keep him out of the play.
On the snap, Lawson is responsible for Gronk initially, but then passes him off to the second level in order to patrol the left flat of the defense. However, his help behind him (safety Aaron Williams, 23) sits a split second to long on the double hitches underneath, which allows Gronk to run right by him. The rookie corner Darby (28) actually makes a great heads up play to abandon his original assignment (Williams), and uses his range to make it a contested catch rather than an easy touchdown. Still, the defense has already lost 90% of the time if Gronk is allowed to reach a full sprint unmolested up the seam, and this play was no exception. Four plays later, Brady finds Edelman in the end zone for the tying touchdown, with Edelman beating a mismatched double team from the safety Williams and linebacker Nigel Bradham while Gronk occupied coverage from the cornerback Darby. They wouldn't trail the rest of the game.
Another example of this ability to keep defenses unbalanced came on Gronk's touchdown. With a second and goal from the two yard line, the Pats line up with their heavy personnel on the field. Formation-wise, there are three tight ends on the line of scrimmage (Michael Hoomanawanui and Michael Williams on the right side, Gronk on the left), with a fourth (Scott Chandler) lined up in the backfield as a fullback in front of LeGarrette Blount. The Bills, naturally, counter with a traditional goal line defense.
Then the motion starts, and everything changes in a hurry for the defense. Hooman splits out wide, drawing a corner (Darby). Meanwhile, Gronk and Chandler both motion out wide to the left side of the formation. As the furthest man outside, Gronk becomes cornerback Stephon Gilmore's responsibility, but the Bills seem to have some trouble getting on the same page with regards to Chandler. Linebacker Bradham (53) and safety Duke Williams (27) are both in the area, and both appear to be yelling at each other right up to when the ball is snapped.
That confusion appears to lead to a missed assignment and an easy touchdown for the best tight end on the planet. Gilmore plays an outside technique, shading towards the left sideline to try to force Gronk over the middle, where he thinks he has safety help. However, that safety is instead one of two defenders in the vicinity of Chandler, who is well covered by Bradham's with a strong jam. Given a free release inside, Gronk is easily able to get a step on Gilmore, and with no one manning the back of the end zone the result looks effortless. Extra entertainment value comes after the play from the reaction from Bradham, who makes it clear exactly where he thinks the blame lies for the breakdown
Sometimes, all the Pats need is for their formations to create a mismatch. That's just what happened on Dion Lewis' 40 yard second quarter catch. Once again, the Pats go "five wide", with Lewis and Edelman outside the numbers, Dobson in the left slot, and Gronk/Amendola in a bunch just outside the right hash-marks. Tired of getting burned, the Bills this time matchup with traditional personnel. Gilmore and Darby take Dobson and Edelman, nickel back Robey (37) and safety Williams have the Gronk/Amendola bunch, and linebacker Bradham follows Lewis out wide.
Bradham going all the way outside the numbers is a dead giveaway of man coverage. He might be the Bills best coverage linebacker, but Lewis has a distinct quickness advantage against any linebacker in one-on-one coverage. Deep safety Corey Graham (20) is now in a difficult position, with a potential mismatch on the left sideline, but Gronk, Amendola and Edelman all lined up on the right side of the formation. He attempts to split the difference, and simply can't get there in time, as Lewis runs right by Bradham and Brady hits him in stride for a big gain.
Another mismatch came in the third quarter, when Brady found Aaron Dobson on a 24 yard post. Once again, the Pats go empty backfield and "five wide", with Lewis split out left, Dobson in the left slot, Edelman split out right, Gronk in the right slot and Amendola lined up just outside the right hash marks. This time the Bills counter with their dime defense, matching up a safety (Corey Graham, 20) on Lewis, and corners Darby, Gilmore, Robey and Mario Butler (39) on Edelman, Gronk, Amendola and Dobson respectively.
This time, Dobson has the mismatch against the Bills fourth corner. He beats Butler cleanly with a well run post route, and Brady identifies the matchup and hits him in stride for another "chunk" play.
I've highlighted just a handful of plays, but there are plenty more from this game that further illustrate my point. The Pats may only have three healthy receivers, but combining them with Gronkowski, Chandler and Lewis gives them six dangerous weapons who can be mixed and matched all over the formation. Guys like Edelman and Gronk are already difficult enough to deal with defensively, but the versatility of all of their skill position players helps the Pats to constantly create advantageous situations for their weapons. Combine that with the ruthless efficiency with which Brady runs the offense, and you have nightmare scenarios for opposing defenses. It's the reason for Brady's red-hot statistical start, and it's the reason the Pats offense figures to be one of the league's best once again in 2015.