“How do you stop the New England Patriots offense?”
As a wearer of many hats during the football season I get a number of various questions each and every week on radio hits and podcast spots. Yet, given how I am most commonly associated with covering the Patriots, I probably get this question the most.
There are a number of things that have worked to slow down this offense and frustrate Tom Brady over the years - schematic elements and execution that New York Giants fans are intimately familiar with - but in thinking about the 2019 Patriots offense in anticipation of Thursday night there are some core elements that you should keep in mind.
Running back routes
A critical philosophical element of the Patriots’ “system” is the idea of exploiting matchups. The Patriots firmly believe that the NFL is a matchup-based league, and on both sides of the ball they try to put players in position to win individual matchups. That is most apparent with how they use their running backs. Between James White, Rex Burkhead, Brandon Bolden and even recently Sony Michel, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has a stable of backs with various different skills that he can call upon in the passing game.
The foundation of how New England uses their running backs in the passing game is the running back option route. Whether given a free release or tasked with initial pass protection responsibilities, the running back then presses their nearest defender, reads their leverage and has a two-way go. If the defender uses inside leverage against them, the running back breaks outside to the flat. If the defender plays them from the outside, the back slants inside on the Texas route.
On this example from last week against Washington, James White (28) runs the option route. When he sees the defender play him with inside leverage, White breaks to the outside:
This play from Week 17 of the 2018 season illustrates what the inside break looks like. White uses a juke move against a linebacker and cuts to the inside, where he wriggles free for a catch and a touchdown:
Now on both of these examples the defenders in coverage seem concerned with a potential vertical release. That is due to the fact that New England is more than willing to use their running backs on vertical routes out of the backfield to stress the defense down the field. Again, the league is a matchup-based league, and the Patriots believe that their running backs have the advantage in the passing game matched up against linebackers.
The biggest offensive play of New England’s Week 4 victory over the Buffalo Bills is a perfect example of this philosophy:
Here White gets matched up against linebacker Matt Milano (59) and the Patriots are more than willing to attack this matchup. White gets past the linebacker and accelerates downfield, and Brady drops in a perfect touch pass to get the offense down deep into the red zone.
The Patriots are more than willing to utilize their running backs as receivers in the passing game, and only the Los Angeles Chargers have targeted their RBs more than New England this season. When thinking about their offense from a “how do you stop it” perspective, slowing down their backs in the passing game is a good place to begin. Are your linebackers up to the challenge? Do you have to go light in the defense and play more defensive backs as a result? Well, that opens up other areas of concern ... something the Chargers themselves experienced in the Divisional Round last season.
Another critical element to the New England offense is the intermediate crossing game. Whether using play-action or on a traditional drop back, McDaniels likes to give Brady options underneath or in the intermediate area with his receivers either working against linebacker or running away from cornerbacks.
The most common design New England uses in this area is by getting Julian Edelman working inside on a play-action design. On this play from Week 1 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Patriots come out with their 21 offensive personnel package and Brady (12) under center. The quarterback comes up firing out of the play fake, targeting Edelman (11) on the crossing route working right to left. Pay particular attention to how the run action sucks up the linebackers, creating a huge throwing lane:
Believe it or not, the Patriots ran almost the exact same design on the next play, with a similar level of success.
Of course, not every single play can be a play-action design. But the Patriots will still turn to crossers or deep in cuts with success. On this play against the New York Jets from 2019, the offense converts a third-and-long with Brady targeting Edelman again in the crossing game:
Of course, when it comes to the Patriots’ roster Edelman is not the only player who can run a crossing route. Josh Gordon (10) can do that as well, as he displayed back in Week 1:
Gordon’s strength after the catch is perhaps his best trait as a receiver right now, and he showed it on this touchdown.
Here is an exercise for you: Ask anyone in football media about the Patriots offense, sit back and see how long it takes for them to say the phrase “Hoss Y-Juke.” After all, the New England Hoss design is a staple in their offense, and Hoss Juke was the play the Patriots ran three straight times in Super Bowl LIII, culminating in what seems to be Rob Gronkowski’s final NFL reception.
The Hoss Juke design has three elements. First is the Hoss piece, which consists of a hitch route from the outside and a seam route from the inside receiver. New England often runs this mirrored, putting a hitch/seam combination on both sides of the field. The Juke is the third piece, and it consists of the inside receiver to the trips side of the formation running the Patriots’ “juke” route, which is an option route over the middle of the field where the receiver can sit down, continue across the formation or break back to the outside.
Here is what that looks like conceptually:
A quick point of clarification, which was recently illustrated by Zach Dunn on Twitter. While people often refer to “Hoss Y-Juke” what the Patriots usually run is this design, with the Z receiver running the Juke route.
As football fans saw in the Super Bowl, this route concept gives Brady an answer for almost everything. If the defense is playing Cover 2 or Cover 4, he can throw the hitch routes on the outside or potentially the seam route - which will convert to more of a post with the middle of the field open - to the inside. If the defense is in a single-high Cover 3 scheme, those inside seam routes are perfect to throw, and the hitches should be open as well against a Cover 3 cornerback. Finally, if you get man across the board, well the Juke route is almost ideal to run against man.
Making matters tougher for the defense is that the Patriots love to run this using tempo and out of base personnel groups. That is what they did in the Super Bowl, when they finally got the Los Angeles Rams to stay in base personnel using their 22 offensive personnel package. So you will often see running backs on the outside running the hitch, as you see here from Week 3 with Rex Burkhead (34):
Brady sees the soft coverage over Burkhead, and he has no qualms about throwing the easy hitch route. If the defense gives you something, take it from them. You never go broke taking a profit, as they say.
But if the Patriots passer sees single-high coverage, he will look to that seam route:
Look for this route concept on Thursday night. Chances are you will see it early and often.
So now the ultimate question: How do you slow down this offense? Well dear reader, if I knew the answer to that question I would be a much richer man. Unless I have actually figured out the answer and am sitting on it due to my Patriots’ fandom ... which would just make me a foolish man.
I’m not that foolish.
While interior pressure with three or four pass rushers is typically what frustrates Brady the most, there are two things that we have seen in recent weeks that could be potential keys to slowing down this offense. First is something the Patriots have seen from Buffalo so much over their past few meetings: Spinning the safeties late and effectively.
Remember this about the New England offense: So much of what they do has route conversions based upon the coverage. We often think about rotating the safeties at the snap as a way of confusing the quarterback, but there are other players you can confuse as well. If you show a Cover 2 look pre-snap for example, but then rotate that to a Cover 1 look, the quarterback and the receivers all need to see that and make the right adjustments. You might not be able to fool Brady, but if you fool the player he wants to throw to, and force him to come off that route as a result, you might have a chance at forcing a bad throw or a sack.
On this play from the Buffalo game, the Bills show Brady a Cover 2 look pre-snap. But they spin right as the play begins into a single-high look, dropping one of the safeties down as a robber. Brady wants to throw a crosser to Edelman, but the robber takes that away. The quarterback is forced to his right due to pressure and his throw in the direction of Phillip Dorsett (13) is low and incomplete:
Speaking of crossers and robbers, Washington had a neat little trick last week to force Brady to work to a later option in his progression and eventually a sack. Early in the game the Patriots face a third down, and Brady wants to target Edelman on a crossing route from right to left:
As you can see, Washington is showing a Tampa 2 look pre-snap with two deep safeties as well as a defender between them, looking to take away the middle of the field. But they actually spin this at the snap as well, into a Cover 1 scheme with two robbers in Edelman’s path:
Brady is forced to come off Edelman, but with Washington dropping eight into coverage, he runs out of options, and time:
Something to keep in mind for Thursday night.
On a short week, with a banged up team going on the road, and a rookie quarterback looking to become the first rookie QB in history to beat Bill Belichick on the road, the odds are long. But that’s why they play the games. If nothing else, now you know what to expect from the Patriots’ offense, and a few things the Giants might do in response.