We’re not going to speculate on the Deflate-gate scandal. We have no clue who did what or whether it was done intentionally or not. That’s not what we do here at FootballFilmRoom.com. What we can say is that the Patriots offense had everything working right in the AFC Championship, and the Colts were ill-prepared to stop them.
The Patriots’ passing game is built on quick and short passes. The remedy for this on defense is to press and jam receivers at the line. This forces Tom Brady to hold onto the ball and gives the pass rush time to get to him. The Patriots know this, of course, and they made that mission difficult for the Colts defense to accomplish.
The Patriots might be the best team in the league at manufacturing open receivers. They do this through formations, the use of motion, and personnel alignment. They often like to put tight ends and running backs outside of their receivers. This helps quickly define the coverage and identify the mismatches.
As you can see on the play below, running back Shane Vereen was aligned on the perimeter. If a corner had stayed on him, it would have meant zone coverage. If a linebacker followed him, it meant man coverage. Here, linebacker Jerrell Freeman aligned over Vereen.
The coverage was identified. Additionally, so was the mismatch. Shane Vereen has great receiving skills for a running back. He proved that on this play, running by his man and then making a great play to come back for an underthrown ball. Most running backs aren’t capable of doing this. Vereen is. The result here was a 30-yard gain.
The Patriots like to use motion and alignment to prevent teams from playing press-man coverage. On the 3rd down play below, Julian Edelman was aligned outside. Brady and the Patriots knew that cornerback Greg Toler was playing man coverage because of what they saw on the other side of the field. There, tight end Rob Gronkowski was aligned on the perimeter with receiver Brandon LaFell inside of him. Just like with the Shane Vereen play, the Colts’ alignment tipped the coverage. They had cornerback Vontae Davis follow LaFell inside. Safety Mike Adams went outside over Gronk. This meant man coverage.
Edelman motioned toward the formation. When receivers motion tight to the formation or toward other receivers, defensive backs tend to back off to avoid getting picked in the traffic. As you can see here, this is exactly what cornerback Greg Toler did.
The potential press-man to that side had been taken care of. Brady’s primary target would not be disrupted. And with Toler now backed away from the line of scrimmage, this allowed tight end Tim Wright to run his man downfield into Toler’s path, making it difficult for him to stay with Edelman as he ran a shallow cross underneath Wright.
The result here was an easy 12-yard gain and another first down.
This is what the Patriots do. It isn’t flashy, but they manufacture open receivers on play after play, whether it’s through motion, alignment, formations, the use of stacks and bunches, or the use of routes that cross each other and create issues for defensive backs. Throughout the AFC Championship, their approach forced the Colts to play mostly soft-man coverage and zone. This, against a team that played press-man on down after down the previous week against the likes of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.
The Patriots do a great job of creating quick and easy throws for Brady, which negates one of the team’s weaknesses, their pass protection. The Colts barely breathed on Brady last Sunday, having no time to get to him because the ball was out of his hand so quickly on one pass after another.
The Colts were not ready for anything the Patriots did offensively. Stacks, motion, unconventional personnel alignments and quick passes are nothing new. This is what the Patriots have done for the last 5 seasons. Yet Indy had no answer schematically.
It didn’t help that the Patriots also physically dominated the Colts. LeGarrette Blount ran 30 times for 148 yards and 3 touchdowns. New England controlled the line of scrimmage. They ran powers and outside zones with ease. They got great double teams and moved the line of scrimmage consistently. LeGarrette Blount also showed great patience and set up his blocks. The Colts, on the other hand, showed just how far away they are from competing physically and schematically with a team like New England.
The Patriots are a handful to deal with. They can win in so many ways, and that isn’t an accident. Bill Belichick has built this team to win with Brady spreading it out and throwing 50 times, or with the running game paving the way. It depends on the opponent.
The Patriots have several players that are matchup nightmares for defenses. Rob Gronkowski is the obvious matchup advantage, but Julian Edelman is also incredibly difficult to cover 1-on-1 from the slot. Shane Vereen and Tim Wright are basically receivers playing running back and tight end respectively.
Belichick and Josh McDaniels have been masterful this season at utilizing these matchup advantages. They’ve put their offensive pieces in positions to win on down after down. And when teams have dedicated the rest of their coverage to helping out with these mismatches, this has left Brandon LaFell in 1-on-1 situations where he is more than capable of succeeding. With Tom Brady operating this well-schemed offensive attack, the Patriots will be a very tough out in the Super Bowl.