Friday, January 8, 2016

Prelude To A Championship, Part III - Patriots Passing Game Back On Track With Healthy Edelman, Amendola

The New England Patriots' offense is complex, and not every player has the capacity to absorb it, and fewer still have the wherewithal to actually put it into practical application.

How complex? Usually, it takes a player who has had some exposure to the professional game beyond simple fundamentals - rookies rarely get it, and any player with an ego larger than a roasted peanut will not succeed. It takes a player of above-average intelligence, a work ethic above and beyond simple film study and a toughness that belies normal human condition.

In fact, the last rookie that came in and excelled in the scheme was tight end Rob Gronkowski, and even he did not blossom fully into the offense until his second season, and even then his success was predicated by the underneath work of Wes Welker and the shallow crossers run by fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez...

There really are no physical requirements beyond those that dictate where a player may be successful in the formation, as one would not hope to find someone the size of wide receiver Julian Edelman on the end of the line trying to drive block a 280 pound defensive end - but in this offense, you may very well see funky things like a lumbering tight end or a power back split wide.

That is all part of what is known as a concept-driven offense, where any pass catcher can run any route from any spot in the formation - and as a side effect, each pass catcher will know where everyone else is supposed to be, setting up downfield blocking that Patriots' receivers are famed for.

That said, the entire premise of the Patriots offense is to throw short routes and to pound the ball inside with the running game to draw the defenders up to within ten yards of the line of scrimmage, freeing up the bigs - Gronkowski, Brandon LaFell and Scott Chandler - down the seam or on intermediate crossers, which is the only vertical game the Patriots have - or need...

...because the way the Patriots spread the field is horizontally with the pivot snag, short digs and flat screens which are all designed to take the defenders outside of the numbers - particularly the staple of the offense, the pivot snag, which ended up accounting for the winning points in last season's Super Bowl...

As you can see from the above video, there really isn't a more sound route against man coverage than the pivot snag, which is set up by the shallow cross and complicated when the flat screen is working - and once that pivot snag route is working, everything else falls into place for the Patriots' offense.

How does a defense defend it? Well, that simply isn't known short of stationing a safety at the sideline, but that's unrealistic in any philosophy. The quick twitch Edelman releases from the line and starts inside like he's running a short crosser, then pivots and pirouettes, heading back toward the sideline and leaving his defender grasping at air.

Another entity that is helped immeasurably by the return of Edelman is the offensive line, who will not have to deal with the defense stacking the box and overwhelming them at the point of attack, not only giving them time to anchor against the pass rush, but also giving them extra push in the running game - and Brady is better protected because his hot reads increase from one - running back James White - to multiple in, well, just about everyone.

It all has to do with match ups - and there is no better encapsulated example of how the Patriots' concept-based uses matchups to their advantage than in last February's Super Bowl.

On Brandon LaFell's touchdown catch in the first quarter, he was matched up outside the numbers against Seattle's nickle corner and he runs a hard slant when Therald Simon was expecting LaFell to go to the back of the end zone where safety Earl Thomas was waiting for him - but Brady read the coverage and motioned for LaFell to run the slant where his 6' 3" frame could shield the ball from the four-inch shorter Simon, and Thomas arrived just a shade late.

On that play, receiver Danny Amendola ran a flat out to the sidelines out of the slot to pull his mirror to the outside and out of the play, and later in the fourth quarter Brady and Amendola used that play to their advantage - in the same formation as LaFell's touchdown, LaFell ran the hard slant and Amendola started out from the slot and faked the flat out, instead going to the back of the end zone where Brady found him with Thomas again late to the play because he was expecting the ball to go to LaFell again.

These staples of the Patriots' offense have been missing for half of the 2015 season, simply because the men who make them work have been missing. Without Edelman running the pivot snag and without Amendola running the flat out, the Patriots have not been able to stretch the field horizontally, which means that LaFell, Gronkowski and the rest have had to deal with congested passing lanes and double coverages.

It also means that the running game has suffered because the passing game without those two doesn't particularly scare defensive coordinators, so they stack the box and take their chances with Brady trying to hook up with what remains - and it equally affects Gronkowski, as some teams have taken to triple-teaming him to keep him out of the play, something fare easier to do without the Graden Gnomes in the pattern.

Fully stocked, the Patriots enjoy carte blanche as far as where they can deploy Gronkowski, and frequently the defense has no choice but to match up on him with a linebacker one-on-one, and the results are predictable...

And, yes. As anyone can plainly see, the Patriots are close to unstoppable on offense when fully loaded - and as we've witnessed this season, the Patriots is severely handicapped when they are not.

It is unhealthy for an offense to rely on one player as much as they do Edelman, and while they will have every opportunity to address that deficiency in the offseason through either the draft (unlikely) or free agency, this Super Bowl run will have to get by with hoping that Edelman and Amendola are close to 100% and suffer no other set backs.

But in the midst of all of the chaos, there is one player who has blossomed in an increased role this season, an under-the-radar pass catcher that could very well run wild as a hot option in the short passing game - and we take a look at sophomore James White in part IV of this series...

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