Tied with Buffalo deep in the 3rd quarter of a Week 11 matchup, the Pats struggled to establish any offensive rhythm. Their downfield movement reliant upon huddled play-calls and a less than stellar offensive line until Brady, “Gashing the Bills and jumping the ball with the no-huddle” in the words of Jon Gruden, fired off from scrimmage while the Bill’s DE Jerry Hughes still lagged far behind it. To Mike Tirico, “It was vintage Patriots,” Brady taking the free-play and catching the defense out of position. And like so many times before, the result was six points. But the recipient of the six? Brand new. In one night James White went from a back with no scores to his name to two touchdowns within a quarter of one another. All a mere two weeks after the “steal of the season” in Dion Lewis succumbed to a torn ACL.
Bill Belichick has never been deterred by injury, and the loss of Dion Lewis was no exception. The Hoodie having too much faith in his system to let a blown knee derail it right?
Let’s find out as we compare-and-contrast the Patriots approach to pass-catching backs both pre-and-post Dion Lewis injury. Coming to find that New England’s approach to injuries is not merely a “next man up” philosophy but instead one based on “plug-and-play” within their game-plan. For when Lewis went down in week 9 and the receiving duties fell to White; the Wisconsin alum has since tallied 6 touchdowns in the past 6 games. And all of the them from the same formation and in a similar manner to Lewis’ early season brilliance.
Dion dancing in Dallas-
Lewis lines up as a single-back behind Brady. Julian Edelman exposing the man-to-man via pre-snap motion, bringing the corner from the outside to the in.Effectively crowding the middle third of the field- right where Dallas safety Barry Church has set up shop to disguise his assignment of Lewis.
Upon the snap, Danny Amendola runs a stuttered crossing route, forcing Church (initially pre-occupied with Amendola) to run overtop of his teammate Corey White and over-compensate when he meets Lewis at the 8-yard line.
Allowing Dion to shake him with ease, duck under a desperate Corey White and waltz in for six.
There is no question Dion’s escape-artist antics set him up for the score. But the fact he was so wide open to begin with is a testament to the Patriots execution as a unit. Their ability to expose a man-to-man defense masked as a cover-3.
James White vs. Philadelphia-
Another goal to go situation, another Patriots score via a halfback in the flat. This time Brady has his back to his right side in the shotgun. Only now (without Lewis) Tom doesn’t have a halfback’s escapability to rely upon for the score. Furthermore, only tight end Scott Chandler is sharing the right side of the field with White.
But like Dion’s score in Big D, a simply stutter route, in this case a “stutter-and-go” by Chandler, turns two defenders on one another with the defender covering (much like Amendola’s in Dallas) sidetracked by Chandler’s route at the get-go, only to have their path to the flat (again like Amendola in Dallas) obscured by the corner covering the inside stutter. Allowing White to get free as soon as he makes his cut, catch the ball and find himself in the end-zone and White finishing the game with 10 receptions and 115 yards, 7 of them in critical 4th quarter situations.
Two different backs. Two different formations. Still the same concept. It is no secret the Patriots’ offense is heavily reliant on the underneath “dink-and-dunk” to move down the field. But to be so dependent and to still find success as the depth chart thins is a testament to the savvy nature of the scheme itself. One which allows OC Josh McDaniels to plug in a tight end for a slot man, a player on the path to the Pro Bowl for a virtual afterthought and still find the same result.
To this day the Patriots are grounded in the Erhardt-Perkins system- an offensive mindset devised by New England assistants Ron Erhardt and Ray Perkins in the mid-70’s and operating entirely on the pillars of flexibility and simplicity. To Erhardt and Perkins, the true test of an offense was not it’s complexity of playbook but it’s efficiency in calling such plays. Under their system, a set number of route-combinations is memorized. However any route-combination can be called from any varying offensive set, meaning that to a defense the play looks different, even though it is inherently the same thing to a quarterback. In one scenario; say four wide with a single back, the WR’s outside the hash marks will each run a vertical go while the slot receivers run crossing slants, the halfback running into the flat. However take that same route combo but with an heavy I-formation- with two tight ends on the line and two receivers outside- and the quarterback can have his wide-outs run crossing slants while his TE’s head straight up the seam. His fullback meanwhile, thought to be a pass-blocker, runs into the flat while the halfback stays at home to protect.
It is the same combination of five routes. What changes is who runs them and thus how the defense perceives the play pre-snap. Who runs what might change, but their ability to get open (when their teammates execute their routes/blocking schemes) will be the variable constant. It is a system free from dependence on the physical prowess of a player to be effective. Any player- be they 5’8” slot man or 6’6” tight end can get open on the vertical seam route or the slant. It’s a matter of offensive combination leading to defensive confusion. A system designed to catch the defensive out of position rather than get the receiver open out-right. Any team can play to it’s strengths, the Patriots play to their opponents weakness.
For a Rex Ryan coached team, that chink in the armor will always be aggression and over-confidence. Back to the Monday night game now, the two teams tied at 3 with less than 20 ticks to go in the half. New England is in a 3rd and 10 with one timeout.
The Pats will likely go to the air. Either in an attempt to gain the first down or set up a more manageable field goal try for Stephen Gostkowski. Rex Ryan, understanding of Gostkowski near automatic ability, attempts to push the Pats back. Making the kick all the more difficult.
James White vs Buffalo-
Gronkowski lines up adjacent to the o-line on Brady’s strong side. White is next to him in the shotgun. As Gronk clears down the seam Brady picks up the strong side blitz from corner Nickell Roby. Leaving the cover of White to free safety Corey Graham who begins the play high and deep in the field’s middle third.
Initially pre-occupied with the crossing route of WR Chris Harper, Graham is late to meet James White in the open flat, Brady hitting him in the numbers near immediately. Due to the blitz of Roby, White is sprung free as Corey Graham is unable to cover the ground between himself and the halfback, Buffalo to take White one on one on the outside. Any guess what happens next?
White evades the pursuing Graham (as Lewis evaded Church) and takes it in for six.
It’s the same concept as the Dallas score, clear out the flat and let the athlete go to work. Whether or not their is a blitz from the nickel-back is erroneous. If there isn’t, the corner will be preoccupied by a streaking Gronkowski or a crossing wideout. If there is, Brady need only throw the ball 4-8 yards to find the mismatch.
Lewis’ injury has undoubtedly been a blow, but one the Patriots have and will continue to compensate for within their scheme. Neither Lewis or White was open due to their personal ability, rather the structure of the play is designed to spring the tailback- no matter what number he wears.
Players play but coaches prepare. And Belichick and McDaniel prepare their players-be they back-up or starter- to act in both roles.
The Total Team
The “slow screen” is a staple of the Patriots offense. Typically utilized to attack a zone-defense, the screen is employed in long-yardage situations as corners and line backs are more likely to sag off their assignment and play the first down marker. However, more so than any other screen, the slow screen requires a heightened element of deception and execution. As the Patriots are known to run it, Brady lines up in the shotgun with a back to his left or right. Incinuating upon the snap that the half-back will act as another blocker. Instead (whether it is Dion Lewis or James White) the Patriots have the back bounce to the outside as the offensive line bails on their initial assignments.
The halfback is entirely dependent on the spacing of his offensive line- whose efficiency in finding a defender and lighting them up is paramount to the path the running back takes down field. Each player’s head must be on a swivel- be they playmaker or blocker- sending the zone defense designed to prevent the big play into a pursuing chaos.
Lewis’ 3rd and 16 conversion vs. Miami-
Dion Lewis is the target of a “slow” screen. Upon the snap, Lewis initially fakes like he is going to pass block, bouncing outside as the pass rush closes around Brady. As Tom hits Lewis with the pass, guard Josh Kline and center David Andrews shuck their initial assignments to provide Lewis a brigade of blocks.
However in this instance Andrew’s and Kline head for the same defender, leaving Lewis outnumbered inside the hash marks. If not for Lewis’ elusiveness, the Pats would have been forced to punt. Instead they had a fresh set of downs, yet still the Pats’ execution left something to be desired.
White’s 30 yard score vs. Tennessee-
That desire fulfilled in Week 15 when again the “slow screen” is called, only now the target is James White. In this instance the line goes 3 for 3 on block pick-ups, allowing James “Sweet Feet” White to go outside the hash (as opposed to in) and scamper 30-yards for the score behind the convoy.
The screen seeing both Kline and Andrews clear to the hashmarks with tackle Shaq Mason following behind.
“This is pretty hard for an offensive line… to get [the defenders] all blocked cleanly” says Belichick. But block cleanly they did with coach now referring to the play as the best-executed of the year as a “total team.”
Which is exactly why the Patriots can weather such a storm of injuries. Their plays rarely dependent upon the primary target’s ability but rather the execution of the play itself. Anyone can thrive, anyone can score. And anyone can become a household name.
The question is…. Who’s next?
By Cameron Mellin