The Patriots are off to another sizzling start behind an explosive offense that is lighting up scoreboards around the NFL. The unit leads the league in nearly every major statistical category -- total yards per game (423.8), passing yards per game (331.2), third-down percentage (53 percent) and first downs per game (27.0) while racking up 37.2 points per game (second-best in the NFL). Of course, we've come to expect big numbers from a Tom Brady-led offense. But I wanted to dig into the All-22 Coaches Film to see precisely why opponents are having such a tough time slowing the Patriots down.
After watching the tape, I've come up with three reasons that the Patriots' offense is seemingly impossible to stop:
1) Tom Brady is the ultimate game manager.
For all of the credit Brady receives for his winning pedigree (four Super Bowl wins in six appearances) and clutch performances (46 game-winning drives), he should be celebrated for developing into the best game manager at the quarterback position. Yes, the dreaded label conjures up images of a quarterback with severe limitations playing conservative football from the pocket, but the fact that Brady excels at situational football should change that perception.
The 16th-year pro simply plays winning football, exhibiting exceptional poise, awareness and judgment with the ball in his hands. Brady rarely hurts his team with careless turnovers, yet he aggressively pushes the ball downfield to the Patriots' playmakers on the perimeter. Brady has mastered the delicate balancing act between risk and reward -- difficult for some quarterbacks to achieve -- as well as anyone in football. Heading into Week 6, Brady is the only remaining Week 1 starter without an interception; he's also only the fourth quarterback in the Super Bowl era to toss 11-plus touchdown passes without an interception in the first four games of the season. Given the impact of turnovers, the fact that Brady limits his giveaways while creating scoring opportunities is one of the reasons that the Patriots have been impossible to beat in recent seasons.
After looking at the All-22 Coaches Film of the Patriots' first four games, I came away impressed with Brady's masterful execution of the quick-rhythm passing game. The veteran gets the ball out of his hands quicker than any quarterback in the game (according to Pro Football Focus, Brady is averaging just 2.04 seconds before each pass attempt -- the quickest mark in the NFL), which makes it nearly impossible for the pass rush to disrupt the timing of the passing game. Additionally, Brady's quick release and superb diagnostic skills make it challenging for defensive coordinators to craft a plan to hit the quarterback consistently in the pocket. Brady can nullify blitzes with his ability to anticipate pressure and check to an audible or target a "hot" route -- indeed, that helps create big-play opportunities. If the defense sits back in a soft zone and dares the quarterback to play "dink and dunk" football, Brady will patiently pick apart the defense with dump-offs or check-downs until he has a chance to push the ball downfield against a jumpy defender.
Against the Dallas Cowboysin Week 5, Brady repeatedly anticipated the blitz and found the open receiver before the pass rush could collapse the pocket. In the play depicted below, the Patriots are aligned in a trips formation, with Rob Gronkowski positioned on the outside. The Patriots are running a pick concept, with Danny Amendola executing a slant, Julian Edelman running to the flat and Gronkowski coming underneath on a "dart" route. Edelman inadvertently picks the defender assigned to Gronkowski, leaving the big tight end open immediately over the middle. Brady quickly diagnoses the defense, sees the rub and delivers the ball on time to Gronkowski. This results in an 18-yard gain for the Patriots(TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
While the bulk of Brady's production is derived from a variety of quick-rhythm concepts, the Patriots' playbook features a number of play-action passes that allow the veteran to deceive defenders with deft ball-fakes to create big-play chances on vertical routes. Brady has become a more efficient intermediate passer in 2015, connecting on 57.1 percent (16 of 28) of passes that travel 15 or more yards in the air for a 113.7 passer rating after completing just 25 percent of such passes (8 of 32) for a 40.0 passer rating through his first four games in 2014.
Against the Jacksonville Jaguarsin Week 3, Brady attacked the defense with a number of seam passes thrown following play-action fakes. On the play depicted below, the Patriots are aligned in a dubs formation, with Gronkowski aligned at tight end. Brady takes the snap and turns his back to the defense, to bluff a running play to Dion Lewis. With the fake luring Jacksonville defender Paul Posluszny to the line of scrimmage, Brady has a huge window to target Gronkowski on the seam route. The veteran delivers a perfect throw to Gronkowski, who rumbles 21 yards on the play (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Given Brady's ability to throw the ball to every area of the field on a variety of quick-rhythm and play-action throws, the Patriots have been able to aggressively attack defenses while staying on schedule (they have just three three-and-outs this season, least in the NFL) and avoiding the costly turnovers that undermine a winning formula.
2) Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman form a powerful 1-2 punch.
It's uncommon for a prolific aerial attack to thrive without a classic WR1, but the Patriots have torched opponents while leaning on a big-bodied tight end and a slippery slot receiver with exceptional "catch-and-run" skills. Of course, the tight end is unquestionably the most dominant offensive weapon in football. Still, the Patriots' use of "MOF" (middle of the field) playmakers as the driving force of their passing game stands as a unique approach in today's game.
Gronkowski, a sixth-year pro with 58 career touchdown receptions in just 69 games, is a matchup nightmare on the perimeter. Measuring 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, the Pro Bowler is too big and physical for defensive backs and too athletic and agile for lumbering linebackers. Consequently, defensive coordinators are unable to defend him using single coverage, which gives Brady a dependable option to target in key situations. The problems created by Gronkowski's unique physical attributes also allow the Patriots to deploy him in different spots within multiple formations to help Brady diagnose coverage during the pre-snap phase. If Gronkowski is positioned on the outside as a quasi-receiver, Brady can identify man or zone based on the defender lined up across from him. Thus, the veteran quarterback can quickly crack the defensive code and identify the receiver who is most likely to exploit the vulnerable area of coverage.
Gronkowski's athleticism and explosiveness also allow the Patriots to mix in a vertical-based passing attack despite lacking a proven deep threat on the perimeter. Gronkowski's ability to win against one-on-one coverage on go-routes and seams gives Brady an unconventional deep-ball weapon to target for big-play chances. Click on the video to the right to see how Gronkowski's size, athleticism and physicality overwhelm defensive backs on the perimeter.
Edelman is not an athletic freak like his partner, but he creates just as much chaos on the perimeter. He is a crafty route runner with spectacular stop-start quickness and burst. Edelman's short-area explosiveness combined with impeccable timing makes him a dangerous weapon in a passing game that features an assortment of crossing routes and pick plays on the perimeter. Looking at the All-22 Coaches Film, I was blown away by Edelman's patience and savvy executing crossers and "rub" routes. He not only understands how to set defenders up for the pick, but he does a great job of running away from the defender after the screen. Edelman honed his running skills during his days as a punt returner; the Patriots' "catch-and-run" concepts allow him to get the ball on the move with plenty of room to maneuver in space.
Against the Dallas Cowboysin Week 5, the Patriots used a pick play to spring Edelman on a rail route down the boundary, as you can see in the play depicted below. The Patriots are aligned in a trips formation, with Edelman positioned as at the WR3. Amendola is positioned at the WR2 spot and instructed to run a snag/pick in the middle of the field. He takes a direct angle to run into the defender guarding Edelman (Morris Claiborne), but turns around to the quarterback with his hands up to look like a legitimate receiver on the play. Edelman sets up the defender brilliantly with a stutter-step move before running his route down the bottom of the numbers. With Amendola knocking Claiborne off-course, Edelman is left uncovered down the boundary. Brady sees the pick and lobs a pinpoint pass to Edelman, who eventually rumbles in for a 59-yard score (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
The Patriots' brilliant use of misdirection and deceptive tactics certainly enhance Edelman's ability to get open. The team will constantly motion, shift and reshuffle the shifty pass catcher's alignment to help him get a step on defenders at the line. Additionally, the Patriots will incorporate crossing routes off play-action fakes to lure second-level defenders to the line, leaving open voids at short and intermediate range.
Against the Buffalo Billsin Week 2, the Patriots used misdirection and multiple crossing routes to free Edelman for a 22-yard touchdown, as depicted below. The team is aligned in a tight dubs formation, with Edelman positioned close to the tight end on the right. At the snap, Brady will fake the ball to Lewis while Edelman works across the field on a short crossing route. Notice the Patriots' receiver working across the field from the opposite side to create a possible pick for Edelman coming underneath. The combination of backfield action and crossing routes frees Edelman on the play. He waltzes in for a touchdown on another pick play from the Patriots(TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
The Patriots' passing game is a two-man show with Gronkowski and Edelman occupying the lead roles. While most of the attention goes to Gronkowski as the team's most dangerous offensive weapon, the 5-foot-10, 200-pound slot receiver leads the unit in catches and ranks second in the NFL with 8.5 receptions per game (Julio Jones is first in the NFL with 8.6 receptions). With a scheme that enhances each of their skills as talented playmakers and an accurate passer at the controls, the Patriots' 1-2 punch is as good as any in the league.
3) Dion Lewis has added another dimension to the Patriots' offense.
It's hard to explain how a journeyman running back with limited production during his career can emerge as one of the key cogs in the NFL's most explosive offense, but I will try my best to break down why Lewis has been the Patriots' X-factor on offense. The 5-foot-8, 195-pound playmaker has capably filled the role originally established by Kevin Faulk during the Patriots' title runs of the 2000s.
Lewis is the designated change-of-pace back as a multipurpose threat in the backfield. He is a sneaky runner with outstanding vision, balance and body control who also displays excellent hands and receiving skills in space. While it is easy to lump him in with the likes of Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen, based on their production in the role, the fourth-year pro is a significant upgrade over both players at the position. Lewis is more dynamic than either player with the ball in his hands; he is a perfect fit as a hybrid playmaker from the backfield.
As a runner, Lewis is at his best working the edges on stretch or outside zone plays. He has a good feel for reading his blockers at the line of scrimmage and attacking the appropriate gap based on the defense's response. This has resulted in Lewis bouncing to the outside or cutting the ball back across the grain to slip into a crease created by an overaggressive defender. While his jitterbug style carries some risk, he has consistently churned out positive gains (58.3 percent of his runs have gone for 4 or more yards) and helped the Patriots stay ahead of the chains.
In the passing game, Lewis has given the Patriots another mismatch option to incorporate into the game plan. He is too shifty for linebackers to cover in space, which makes him a viable option when opponents attempt to use man coverage. In addition, Lewis' polished route-running skills allow the team to position him on the outside of spread and empty formations to create home-run opportunities against overmatched defenders.
In the play depicted below, which happened in the matchup with the Billsin Week 2, the Patriots position Lewis on the outside of an empty formation. Bills' linebacker Nigel Bradham is aligned opposite him in man coverage. Lewis is instructed to run a go-route down the boundary to clear out the side for the underneath routes, but Brady spots the mismatch and targets his change-of-pace back on the deep route. Lewis runs away from Bradham to snatch a 40-yard reception on second-and-long.
With Lewis adding another element to the offense, the Patriots can expand the playbook to keep defensive coordinators guessing about their plan of attack.