Friday, July 17, 2015

Fundamentally Speaking - Part 2: Recognizing Single-Digit Offensive Alignments

In Part 1 of this series, we saw how the number of running backs and tight ends in a personnel grouping determines its number designation, and also how looks can be deceiving in relationship to how these players are aligned within the designation, so now let's deal with each designation and the typical defensive alignment that is best suited to counter each.

The single-digit groupings are not as prevalent in the New England Patriots concept-driven scheme as they would be in a more conventional offensive attack for two reasons: first, the Patriots are not built to use four and five wide receivers at one time, though they certainly could if the situation dictated such and, secondly, rarely does the situation dictate such.

Why?  Well, let's look at the single-digit groupings on the chart to the right.  The "00" grouping is used in a quick attack, spread concept designed to move the ball down the field quickly, normally at the end of a half or, more prevalent, at the end of regulation - and usually in a circumstance where a desperate, last-ditch "Hail Mary" play is called for.

How many of these circumstances do the Patriots find themselves in?

Right, not very many.  The Patriots have evolved into a "heavy" team, meaning bulk and technique over speed and other-worldly athleticism.  When training camp breaks, there is every chance that New England's depth chart at tight end and wide receiver will include up to four massive pass catching tight ends and three of their five receivers standing 6' 2" or taller...

...but no certified deep threats on the outside to stretch the field - but that's ok, since the Patriots can make the defense defend the entire field based on sheer size alone - and since all of their pass catchers are magic with the ball in their hands after the catch, the benefits of going heavy is easy to see.

Time was, the Patriots could spread out teams when they had a legitimate deep threat - in fact, they had two at one time with Dante Stallworth and Randy Moss in 2007. That turned out to be a fun experiment that yielded a top-scoring offense which disappeared along with the rest of the Patriots' offense when the spotlight shined brightest.

They can still spread teams out, but now their "deep threat" is 6' 6", 265 pound tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is deemed such because he is too fast for most linebackers and too big for most defensive backs to handle.  And when the Patriots go five wide, there is usually a running back in the mix as well, as Belichick uses his passing backs split wide or as a flanker more successfully than most.

As a result, the Patriots offense is not built like a traditional pro set offense, thanks both to the presence of one Rob Gronkowski and a stable of reliable possession receivers, sans a legitimate deep threat.  Quarterback Tom Brady has never been a consistently accurate deep ball thrower, so it doesn't make a lot of sense to employ receivers who only function well deep.

Gronkowski is the deep threat in this offense, but only because he can not be matched up with.  The Patriots move him all over the formation, to create mismatches elsewhere on the field, and very few teams have a weapon that they can consistently do that with.  Most try to cover him with their speediest linebacker, perhaps with a strong safety over the top.

That means that with Gronkowski basically double-teamed, either someone else is open or the opposition has sacrificed run support in order to have everyone covered - which bodes well for underneath targets like Edelman, who is a master at quick-twitch separation and for the passing backs, who can wheel out into the flat after Gronkowski clears the zone...

That said, the single-digit groupings preclude the use of a running back in the formation - and since the Patriots regularly employ a back in each concept, rare is the occasion that you will see any of these, but that doesn't mean there is not a place for them in the playbook.

00 Grouping - Rarely will you see the Patriots in this formation, at least as long as Gronkowski is on the team and healthy, because being the most physically dynamic pass catcher on the team, his very presence creates matchup nightmares for defensive coordinators.

As you can see from the graphic above, this formation is not conducive to the way the Patriots are built.  Even though the premium on the offense has always been the short passing game, New England uses their tight ends and running backs as primary pass catchers and usually keep only five receivers on the roster - which doesn't preclude them from running this spread formation, just makes it very unlikely given the number of quality tight ends and passing backs on the roster.

The 01 Personnel package is far more likely to be seen by Patriots' fans, as the no running back, one tight end alignment works in more favor of their depth charts, but still does not take full advantage of all that the Patriots are on offense.

The graphic above is just one possible usage of the 01 Personnel package, and the one that most teams would have to run with considering their talent at tight end.  Gronkowski is the Patriots most dangerous pass catcher as well as a terrific blocker in the running game, so it makes little sense to ever leave the man-child out of the huddle.

The "02" grouping is one that you will see on a more regular basis this season than in the past, due primarily to the presence of a second threat in the tight end corps with Scott Chandler joining the Patriots in free agency - and while Chandler isn't quite the complete beast that Gronkowski is athletically, he is still a massive target at 6' 7", and teams will be hard pressed to find someone that can high point the ball on Chandler, or Gronkowski.

The tight ends make this formation nearly impossible to defend without sacrificing coverage elsewhere.  As mentioned, the Patriots are set up to use their passing backs in most formations, but without a proven passing back on the roster because of Shane Vereen's departure, we may see more of this grouping that normal until one of the remaining backs on the roster steps up to claim the job.

Next in Part 3 of this series, the "teen" groupings, which is where you will find most of the more familiar alignments that the Patriots use on offense...

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