December 11, 2016

High-Percentage Play Calling and Great Execution

logoby Tyler Carter
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Years down the road, an unbiased observer might take a quick glance at yesterday’s box score and wonder how the Patriots managed a 9 point win.  After all, New York gained nearly as much total net yardage (256) as New England (260) while averaging more yards per play (5.2 versus 4.4) and being more efficient on 3rd down (50% to 43%).

Yet following the game, the normally stoic Belichick was (justifiably) elated with his staff’s preparation and his team’s performance while the AFC East favorite 1-1 Jets were equally effusive as to what went wrong:

Linebacker Eric Barton – “We played hard, but we didn’t make the plays we needed to win the game and that’s about it.  We’ll go and look at the tape and try to correct it.”

Guard Alan Faneca – “It’s tough.  They came out and played well. We left plays on the field. You’re not going to win a game like that against a team like that by doing that.”

Coach Eric Mangini – “We had a lot of positive things today, but there were too many missed opportunities and too many things we could have controlled, whether it was penalties or putting ourselves in a bad position that we didn’t do a good enough job with.”

However generic the explanations, there are certainly some common themes there.  We didn’t make the plays/left plays on the field translates to an overall lack of execution.  A huge missed opportunity was having 1st and goal at the New England 3 (a chance to take a 7-6 lead) and having to settle for a FG.  The penalties (six accepted for 60 yards) were especially crippling as three of them came on New York’s 2nd half opening drive and one directly led to the game’s only turnover.  By any definition or measure, that’s putting (your defense) in a bad position.

Let’s start in the middle of that drive to see what caused that critical penalty:

Situation: 1-10-NYJ 39 (11:30)

New York Formation: Ace Twin TE, Franks lined up as H-Back right
Personnel: WR 87 Coles, LT 70 Ferguson, LG 66 Faneca, C 74 Mangold, RG 65 Moore, RT 67 Big Wood, TE 86 Baker, TE 88 Franks, WR 89 Cotchery, Gunslinger QB 4 Favre, RB 29 Washington
New England Formation: 3-4 over
Personnel: LDE 94 Warren, NT 75 Wilfork, RDE 97 Green, OLB 50 Vrabel, ILB 54 Bruschi, ILB 51 Mayo, OLB 96 Thomas, LCB 21 O’Neil, SS 37 Harrison, FS 36 Sanders, RCB 27 Trey Hobbs
Play result: PENALTY on NYJ-J.Cotchery, Offensive Pass Interference, 10 yards

Summary: Vrabel lined up opposite of Franks while Baker, the inside tight end, entered a pass pattern during the subsequent play action fake.  Baker stumbled over Vrabel’s leg however, delaying his route running and leaving Favre with only two viable targets and Warren breathing down his neck from the edge.  With no time to step up in the pocket, Favre fired a flat-footed pass to the single-covered Cotchery who, in coming back to make a play, shoved O’Neil to the ground and made it rain yellow hankies.

In Cotchery’s defense, he was as much a defensive back as a WR in this situation.  But before assigning too much blame to Favre (too late), he may have been emboldened by the previous play in which he rolled out and completed a 28 yard pass on 3rd and 22 to Stuckey.

Situation: 1-20-NYJ 29 (11:30)

New York Formation: Ace 2 TE, Franks lined up as H-Back right
Substitutions: WR 16 Smith in for Coles
New England Formation: 3-4 over
Personnel: None
Play result: B.Favre pass short right to B.Franks to NYJ 24 for -5 yards

Summary: Facing a balanced ‘big’ set, both OLBs (Vrabel and Thomas) lined up opposite their respective TEs (Franks and Baker).  Perhaps expecting another Vrabel rush, Franks took a step to the outside which, combined with Warren getting decent penetration on Big Wood, provided Bruschi with a clear lane to the backfield.  Favre turned upfield following play action to see Bruschi closing in, but somehow managed to flick the ball sidearm to Franks to avoid an even bigger loss (after applying the hurry/hit on Favre, Bruschi also made the tackle).

Faced with a confounding pass rush, running a play action fake that didn’t fool anyone and took forever to develop probably wasn’t the best call on 1st and 20.  The dumpoff to Franks to avoid the sack made it 2nd and 25 instead of 2nd and 36, but Bruschi turned in a monster effort nonetheless.

Situation: 2-25-NYJ 24 (9:20) 

New York Formation: Shotgun Trips Left (Cotchery, Baker and Franks), Smith split right, Washington offset right
Substitutions: None
New England Formation: 3-4 over
Personnel: S Meriweather in for Sanders (Note: Meriweather may have checked in on the previous play; sometimes the Patriots disguise their coverages so well their deep safeties don’t appear even in 1080i!)
Play result: B.Favre pass short left intended for B.Franks INTERCEPTED by B.Meriweather at NYJ 37. B.Meriweather to NYJ 31 for 6 yards

Summary: Baker and Franks were kept in on 2nd and long, and Cotchery went in motion left to right to complete the tight bunch.  Defensively, Vrabel and Thomas remained in two point stances off their respective edges, and Meriweather came up a few steps from his safety spot (his initial responsibility apparently the underneath zone).  After the snap every Jet skill position player entered a pass pattern, while this time it was Thomas’ turn to cross the LOS.  Although the New York line held, Thomas and Warren pinched the edges of the pocket enough to prevent Favre from stepping up, and he once again threw a desperation pass off his back foot.  Meriweather, who never took his eyes off of Favre’s, made a leaping interception (his 1st, Favre’s 289th) and returned it 9 yards to set up the Patriot offense at the Jet 31 yard line.

Baker, the intended receiver, was underthown by at least 5 yards.  More on this later.

The ill-advised throws aside, the key to this three play sequence appeared to be the Patriots ability to disguise their 4th pass rusher on each play (first Vrabel, then Bruschi and finally Thomas); this is one of the advantages of a 3-4 defense.  Jet blockers appeared confused, especially on the second play where Franks keyed on Vrabel and let Bruschi by untouched.  Examples of poor execution include Baker’s stumble on 1st down and general breakdowns in man pass protection.  While the play calling could stand some scrutiny, how much of it has to do with Favre’s request to dumb things down?

Situation: 1-10-NYJ 31 (9:20) 

New England Formation: Strong I left
Personnel: WR (Flanker) 83 Welker, TE 86 Thomas, LT 72 Light, LG 70 Mankins, C 67 Koppen, RG 74 Yates, RT 77 Kaczur, WR (Split End) 81 Moss, QB 16 Cassel, FB 44 Evans, RB 33 Faulk
New York Formation: 3-4 over
Personnel: LDE 92 Ellis, NT 77 Jenkins, LDE 93 Coleman, OLB 97 Pace, ILB 50 Barton, ILB 52 Harris, OLB 99 Thomas, LCB 24 Revis, FS 25 Rhodes, SS 33 Smith, RCB 34 Lowery
Play result: M.Cassel sacked at NYJ 36 for -5 yards

Summary: Despite being double-teamed by two Pro Bowlers (Mankins and Koppen), massive NT Jenkins collapsed the pocket in less than three Mississippis to bring down Cassel, who was sacked for the third time in four offensive snaps.

Why break down a negative Patriot play in a column singing their praises?  The struggling Patriot offense now faced 2nd and long and was in danger of squandering terrific field position following the turnover.  Rather than suffer a meltdown as the Jets did on their recently aborted drive, however, New England adjusted with high-percentage situational play calling and great execution, a microcosm of the entire contest and this week’s The Turning Point:

Situation: 2-15-NYJ 36 (8:40) 

New England Formation: Shotgun Trips Left (Moss, Welker and Thomas), Faulk offset right
Substitutions: WR 10 Gaffney in (split right) for Evans
New York Formation: Nickel 3-3-5
Substitutions: CB 30 Coleman in for Thomas
Play result: K.Faulk left guard to NYJ 30 for 6 yards

Summary: All three Jet LBs lined up off the edge (Harris left, Barton and Pace right).  Sensing a blitz, Cassel signaled Welker to go in motion left to right.  Sure enough, Harris and Pace crossed the line, and as Cassel handed the ball off to Faulk, Ellis and Pace were too far in the backfield to make a play.  Blocks by Mankins (on DE Coleman), Thomas (on Barton) and Welker (on CB Coleman) allowed Faulk to pick his way for a 6 yard gain.

A draw play, considered the opposite of play action, is a classic call when an offense is trying to counter an aggressive pass rush.  Six yards on 2nd and 15 may not seem like much, but it put the Patriots in a much more manageable 3rd down situation and kept the Jets defense honest.

Situation: 3-9-NYJ 30 (8:02)

New England Formation: Shotgun 3 WR, Welker slotted right, Faulk offset left
Substitutions: None
New York Formation: Dime 4 1 6
Substitutions: LB 96 Bowens in for Jenkins, LB 56 Gholston in for RDE Coleman, CB 36 Barrett in for Thomas
Play result: M.Cassel pass short right to K.Faulk to NYJ 8 for 22 yards

Summary: the above link is worth ~100 TTP words!

Check out New York’s personnel on this play: three of their four down lineman were actually linebackers (Pace at LDE, Bowens at RDT, Gholston at RDE) leaving Ellis as the only ‘true’ lineman; perhaps Mangini was expecting an intermediate/long pass and wanted extra speed on the field.  Regardless, the undersized Jet front was not lost on Cassel, who coolly reminded his line of their blocking assignments.  Harris, who was responsible for Faulk, stood no chance against Yates on the second level as the latter served as the pulling guard on the resulting screen.

On 1st and goal Sammy Morris ran off left tackle (Ace 3 WR) for no gain, but the Patriots drew Ellis offsides on the next snap; with the free play (run from an unbalanced flexbone?), Cassel patiently rolled right and hit Welker near the sideline to give New England a 3rd down goal line opportunity at the NYJ 1.  Using their Jumbo goal line package (with Spach and Vrabel as the 2nd and 3rd TEs), the Patriots only needed one shot to break the plane.  Gostkowski’s extra point put them on top 13-3, and that would be all the scoring New England needed.

Conclusions:

 The Jets were content to jettison the most accurate passer in NFL history in favor of the most durable.  If they were fed up with Pennington’s weak arm and injury woes, the move makes sense on paper.  But will Favre ultimately be worth the price?  In calling for a truncated play book he’s limiting their options offensively.  And while his high-risk, linebacker-at-quarterback mentality may have worked against a Miami squad in year one of a Parcells overhaul, its far less likely to succeed against elite defenses such as New England’s.  But at least he’s durable!  So much in fact that Green Bay will get New York’s 3rd round pick if he takes 70% of the Jets offensive snaps (which he’s certain to do).

From the Patriots side, it was a satisfying, solid team-wide effort we haven’t seen since perhaps they defeated San Diego in the 2006 Divisional Round.  And while it certainly wasn’t perfect (as Coach Belichick was ever quick to point out), the Patriots are nevertheless 2-0 against AFC opponents (one within the division) with Miami, a bye and San Francisco on tap.

Comments

  1. Fantastic entry, Tyler! Very informative. I especially appreciate the calling out of the draw play on 2nd and 15 as an important play.

  2. Awesome analysis. Francesca noted yesterday that it was among the 1st times he can say that Mangini was clearly outcoached. His decision to keep an aging punter who can’t kick for any distance is a problem with a trick or treat qb who often leaves you deep in your own territory with 3 and outs. Graham is more of a match for a Pennington-led offense that can typically get you a few first downs.

  3. A picture says a thousand words. Instead of listing the players in the formation why not have a simple graphic with X’s and O’s depicting the formation and the jersey numbers next to each position. This will greatly enhance the readability of the column.

  4. I like to think ten thousand words say a thousand words.

  5. Whenever possible I try to link to diagrams representing the presnap formations, however most are too generic to describe everything that’s going on and may be confusing. Perhaps I could make my own diagrams using PowerPoint, Paint or Visio; but Scott, how might those look pasted into a column?

  6. What formation did the Adalius Thomas sack come on?

    It looked like the Pats were in a 4-3 Angry Stepfather-farmer and the Jets were in the ol’ Red headed stepchild riding a rented mule.

  7. Nopointe, just broke this down. The Pats were in a Nickel 3-3-5 (with Vrabel lined up at LDE and Harrison at MLB). The Jets were in a standard Shotgun 3 WR set. Thomas lined up over TE Keller, who went into a pass pattern. That left Washington all alone to try and stop Thomas off the edge. The latter powered through, shook off Favre’s shove to the face and used good technique/leverage to bring down the both of them 20 yard loss.

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