Trying to do a breakdown of the New England offense in 2015 is a tough task, mainly for two reasons.
First off, a lot of the players who have made so many great plays for them throughout the season are either questionable for Sunday's game or definitely out. Second, they are such a week-to-week team in regards to how it attacks defenses. One week, the Patriots will come out in heavy sets and run the ball 25-plus times and try to set the tone on the ground, and before you know it they're spreading teams out in empty sets and throwing it all over the yard. They'll run any number of pass concepts and running plays, and it's so opponent-specific that it's rare to see the same concepts from week to week. They're very unique in that way.
The big question for this specific week against the Eagles is, how will New England operate without its biggest offensive weapons? Slot receiver Julian Edelman is out for the foreseeable future. Wide receiver Danny Amendola is still on the mend. Tight end Rob Gronkowski is "week to week," according to the statement released by the team earlier this week. Quarterback Tom Brady could be without his top three receiving targets. Does that mean we'll see a healthy dose of the running game and LeGarrette Blount? Perhaps. After watching the Patriots against Denver, however, I don't think that their playing style will change all that much despite the injuries. Head coach Bill Belichick is a master at making the most of the players at his disposal, and he and Brady are able to put those players in position to win favorable matchups on a consistent basis.
Before we dig deeper into Brady and some of the examples of what they do to game plan against specific defenses, let's look at the man replacing Gronk, tight end Scott Chandler. The veteran tight end was already a big part of the New England offense. That was apparent as soon as I turned on the tape against Denver. They moved No. 88 all around the formation, placing him along the line of scrimmage, as a wing, in the slot and out wide. They do a lot of things with Chandler that you would expect them to do with Gronkowski, which begs the question, with Gronk out of the lineup, will they still do them? Or were they able to put him in those situations because of the attention that defenses had to pay to the All-Pro tight end? Let's take a look.
In this 3x1 set, the Patriots line up Chandler as the No. 3 receiver slightly detached from the formation. This is a basic "stick" route from the veteran tight end, where he has the option to sit down against zone coverage or run away from the defender in man. You can see the athleticism from Chandler just on this short 9-yard gain, with the ability to separate at the top of the route and pick up extra yardage for the first down.
On the next series, New England comes out in a spread formation in 12 personnel, with one back and two tight ends. Now, they line up both tight ends to one side of the formation, with Gronkowski slightly detached in the near slot and Chandler flexed to the outside at the top of the screen. Chandler is matched up against a linebacker there. What does Brady do? He attacks, delivering the ball downfield on the outside shoulder and just too far from the outstretched hands of Chandler for an incompletion. Why did I show you this? Because, believe it or not, Chandler was the Patriots' most targeted receiver on Sunday night. He and Brady only hooked up five times on 12 targets. Seven times Brady threw him the ball when lined up outside. It was clear to me that they feel very comfortable with Chandler doing a lot of the things that they ask Gronkowski to do inside the structure of their offense.
One of the things they often ask Gronk to do is line up as the X-iso receiver, to the back side of a 3x1 set. Down in the red zone where the Patriots are very productive (currently ranking fourth in the NFL in red zone percentage), they put Chandler out wide. Denver responds by sliding Von Miller outside to line up over him. A little sluggo route is still just too much for Miller to handle, and Brady delivers the touchdown pass in the corner.
Later in the game, Chandler lines up slightly detached and runs a "bender" route down the seam for a 22-yard gain. He has the ability to win down the field as a receiver and in the quick game as well, and the Eagles will need to prepare for a healthy dose of him in this game.
The other player whom I think will be a factor for New England on Sunday is running back Brandon Bolden. After the injury to former Eagle Dion Lewis, many pundits believed that Brady had lost his only pure receiving threat out of the backfield, but Bolden has done some of those same things on a weekly basis. He's able to be flexed out wide, in the slot and runs good routes out of the backfield as well.
The Patriots come out in an empty set (New England is a very effective "empty" team), and have Bolden flexed out to the far left. Just before the snap, he motions inside to an almost stacked position behind the slot receiver and runs a shallow crossing route, with the slot serving as interference against the defender matched up on Bolden. The running back catches the pass and takes off for a first down, as New England moves the chains.
Bolden was on the receiving end of one of the biggest plays in the game. With Gronkowski running a vertical route down the seam, Brady sees all the attention the Denver defense is paying toward the middle of the field. Brady understands that he has Bolden on a wheel route matched up on a linebacker in space. He drops a beautiful bucket throw right into Bolden's lap down the sideline and lets his receiver do the rest, resulting in a 63-yard touchdown reception. This is a great job by Brady of understanding the matchups at his disposal and taking what the defense gave him, providing his team with a huge play.
The Patriots have long been a team that likes to mess with defenses with their use of personnel groupings and their receiver distribution. Here is a great example of it. Inside the 5-yard line, New England comes out in 14 personnel, with one running back and four tight ends. Before the snap, Michael Hoomanawanui motions to the right, Gronkowski and Chandler motion to the left, and what initially looked like a power run formation is now a three-wide passing formation. A quick rub concept to the left gets Chandler open for a half-second, and Brady hits him for the 1-yard touchdown. The Eagles need to be prepared for situations like these, because New England's creativity in the red zone knows no bounds.
Let's wrap this up by talking about Brady, the best quarterback in the league and certainly one of the best of all time. If he's not at the top of anyone's list, he's got to be close. He truly is the complete package at the quarterback position. He consistently puts his offense in the best possible position before the snap, he works the pocket very well and can operate with bodies around him. He is a master of manipulating coverages and knows how to attack every hole that you give him, not to mention his strong arm and pinpoint accuracy. I just wanted to pull a few plays to help paint a picture of what the Eagles' secondary is up against on Sunday afternoon.
On this play against the Giants, Brady brings Gronkowski in motion just before the snap. When he sees the safety rotation towards his side, he knows exactly what he's doing with the ball. Brady drops back, keeps his eyes to the right side of the field to make that safety hesitate for just a tick, before unleashing a dart down the seam. Brady knows full well that the safety had too far to go from the other side to impact the play as long as he delivered the ball on time. Gronkowski does the rest on this 76-yard touchdown strike.
On this red zone touchdown to Amendola, Brady brings James White from out wide out into the backfield. When he sees the defense's reaction, he has a pre-snap read of man coverage. When the ball is snapped, he keeps his eyes outside to confirm that belief. As Brady hits the top of his drop, he turns back inside, loads up and delivers a dart to his slot receiver over the middle on an in-breaking route. This was a man-beater concept with Amendola and Edelman inside, and when Brady read man coverage he immediately went there for six points.
When you talk about game-specific plays, one that stood out to me also came in this game against the Jets. I explained back in Week 3 during the prep for the Eagles' matchup against Todd Bowles' defense that the Jets are a blitz-heavy team that is really aggressive in getting after the quarterback. The man-pressure schemes ask defenders in man coverage to "green dog" when given the opportunity. What does that mean? If you're a defender manned up on a tight end or running back, and at the snap if you see that player stay in to block, then you become a part of the blitz and rush after the quarterback. This always ensures that the defense has an extra man in the blitz scheme. After seeing this play, it was obvious that the Patriots planned for that exact scenario down in the red zone.
The Patriots are in an empty set with Gronkowski to the left. At the snap, his first couple of steps make it seem as if he's blocking the edge defender, so the defensive back responsible for Gronk in coverage blitzes Brady. Gronkowski then releases up the hash, and Brady hits him for a 15-yard touchdown pass, a thing of beauty. The Patriots are great at picking on your tendencies as a defense, this will be a huge challenge for the Eagles on Sunday.
Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team's games, practices and opponents.