Despite suffering numerous injuries on the offensive side of the ball this season, the New England Patriots have still managed to ride their high-powered offense to the AFC Championship game. Week in and week out, New England figures out a way to get the ball down the field, and often to guys that most us haven’t heard of. Bill Belichick and his staff have long been known for their ability to find certain matchups that, year in and year out, lead them to conference championship games and Super Bowls.
This skill was on display last week in the Divisional round against the Houston Texans. Second year player Shane Vereen had four touchdowns in the 16 games he played in during the regular season. Against the Texans, he had three (one on the ground, two through the air). This happened because Belichick and his staff were able to find a mismatch—they were able to get Vereen in one-on-one coverage with a linebacker, and outside of the numbers with very little to no safety help.
The first example came in the first quarter. At the 1:24 mark of the video above, Vereen is lined up at the top of the screen. He is getting nine yards of cushion from the linebacker in coverage. One of the most basic concepts and principles of spread offenses, or really any offense, is that play-caller must be willing to take what the defense gives them. In this particular alignment—which you can see in the picture below—and man-to-man scheme that the Texans are using, the linebacker is not going to get any inside leverage help so he is very susceptible to any short inside breaking route.
Vereen runs a four-yard stop route. In other words, he runs as hard as he can up the field for four yards, then stops. As long as the receiver bursts out of his stance, there is no chance of the linebacker breaking on this route. The linebacker knows he has very little help, especially on a deep ball, so just like anybody that has ever played touch football in the back yard, he does not want to get beat on a deep vertical pass.
Brady takes what the defense gives him: a four-yard throw, or what you often hear commentators refer to as “nothing more than a long hand-off.” This particular matchup is more than that, though; you get a running back in space with the ball, against a less athletic linebacker that has to make an open-field tackle. Vereen breaks the initial tackle and turns this four-yard throw into a 25-yard gain.
The second example came in the fourth quarter with the Patriots looking to put the Texans away. After Houston’s failed fourth-down conversion with just over 13 minutes left in the game, New England took over the ball on their own 33-yard line (7:20 mark of the video above). On first down the Patriots decided to go for the jugular.
Once again, they are taking advantage of the RB-LB mismatch on the outside. As you can see in the picture above, the defensive scheme is primarily the same. The LB is giving nine yards of cushion with no inside help and very little deep help. The Pats call a double move and run the “sluggo” route. A sluggo route is a double move off the inside-breaking slant route.
The initial part of the route is a slant route, and then as soon as the defender turns his hips or attempts to break on the route, the receiver redirects quickly to the outside and converts the route into a fade pattern. The play design takes advantage of an overly aggressive defender that is rarely put in that coverage situation. Couple that with an accurate quarterback, great empty backfield protection, and a free safety that isn’t giving NFL effort, and you get the play you see below, and a clear and easy path to the AFC championship game.
Here’s the play:
If the Ravens have any hopes of reversing last year’s AFC Championship game results, they are going to need to figure out a way to eliminate these sorts of matchups.
Charlie Means is the wide receivers coach for the Denison (TX) High School football team and the author of TDdaily’s Coach’s Playbook series. Follow him on Twitter @coach_means.