The AFC Championship was pretty anti-climactic in comparison to the Seahawks-Packers loony finish, with the Patriots putting on a clinic to put the Colts away long before the third quarter was over. While the actual game might have been on the boring side for all non-Patriot fans, one reason I enjoyed it was that it turned out to be a good example of how Bill Belichick and Tom Brady utilize their personnel to their advantage.
It's hard to defend New England. I realize this isn't a nuanced piece of analysis. But, it's true.
Week in, week out, Belichick, with Brady and Josh McDaniels, have been known to drastically alter play-calling tendencies and they frequently change up the focal points in their offense based on the matchups they believe they can exploit. One week it might be the Shane Vereen Show, then the next, it's all LeGarette Blount. Throw in a little Jonas Gray and you got yourself a stew going. You may get a heavy emphasis on tight ends in the pass game in one game and then in the next, more focus on running the ball. Defenses are thus forced to react and adjust during the game because I'm sure in many cases the scout team was emphasizing the wrong things.
Making the Patriots even harder to game plan for, Belichick and company aren't afraid to push the envelope when it comes to exotic formations and funky alignments. In their win over the Ravens last week, New England took some heat for a formation that had only four offensive linemen, with running back Shane Vereen aligned outside as an ineligible "fifth lineman," and Baltimore wasn't quick enough to react to what they were seeing, giving up a big play. Against the Colts this week, they frequently used a six-offensive linemen personnel grouping and even scored a touchdown with a tackle-eligible pass to Nate Solder.
The Super Bowl presents an interesting matchup, schematically and thematically. On one side, you've got the Seahawks -- an exceedingly vanilla, fundamental, yet devastatingly effective defense that prides themselves on staying consistent and running "their stuff," but running it to near-perfection. On the other side, you've got the Mad Scientist Belichick cooking up dangerous schemes and consulting old playbooks to find wrinkles that could expose particular defensive personnel. It's going to be great.
With that in mind, let's quickly take a look at a few plays from the Patriots' big win over the Colts, in order to illustrate why it's so fricking hard to defend Brady and the Patriots' offense.
1-1-IND 1 (10:21 1ST QUARTER) C.Fleming reported in as eligible. L.Blount right guard for 1 yard, TOUCHDOWN.
This play is nothing too special. It's just smash mouth football from the one-yard line. With a first and goal from the 1-yard line, the goal is to get push up front and punch it in. New England lines up with a sixth offensive lineman in Cameron Fleming, two tight ends, a fullback, and a running back, the classic "run" formation. And, guess what? They run it.
LaGarrette Blount is a battering ram of a man, and he takes care of business. No big deal. Sometimes even the most obvious play is the play you make, and in this case, they execute.
We wouldn't have the term "goal-line stand," though if these short runs were always successful, and as Seattle proved in the first quarter against Green Bay when they held the Packers to three points after stuffing them on second-and-goal and third-and-goal from the 1-yard line, you gotta have a few more cards up your sleeve to win in the red zone.
And on the Patriots' next possession, they came to a similar situation.
2-1-IND 1 (1:25 1ST QUARTER) T.Brady pass short right to J.Develin for 1 yard, TOUCHDOWN.
With a second-and-goal from the Indy 1-yard line, the Patriots now line up with three tight ends, a fullback and Blount in the backfield.
Here's the conundrum that Tom Brady and the Patriots present for, say, the Colts defensive coordinator, presented in inner monologue form:
Ok, checklist. Let's do this:
1. Prevent the dive by the Blount. He's a 250-pound Car Ramrod. Gotta clog up the middle.
2. Watch for the Tom Brady sneak. It's not super likely here with about four feet to go, but the Pats are among the best in the game at that damn sneak play.
3. Gotta focus on Rob Gronkowski He's a matchup nightmare, he's enormous, fast, strong, and had excellent hands. He's really damn good at boxing out defenders. Seriously, just watch where Gronk goes, this guy had 12 touchdowns this year.
4. Oh! And, keep an eye on Tim Wright, the "move/joker" tight end in this system. Wright's got good athleticism and presents matchup issues for defenders that are trying to peek into the backfield to stop any potential runs. This dude had six touchdowns this year.
5. Oh yeah -- also keep an eye on Mike Hoomanawanui. He's a guy that the Patriots could go to if everyone else is covered up.
6. One last thing -- make sure they don't play-action fake and swing it to Blount. Gotta watch for that too.
Ok, here we go.
Oh, come on, seriously? God dang it. They really just threw it to the guy that had six catches all year? I don't even know this guy's name.
Tying to win the chess match with Tom Brady, one of the all-time greats at the line of scrimmage -- well, it is not easy. After motioning his tight ends all over the place to identify coverages, Brady hits James Develin out of the wing-back spot and he breaks one tackle to dive in for the score.
3-1-IND 16 (10:10 3RD QUARTER) N.Solder reported in as eligible. T.Brady pass short left to N.Solder for 16 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
Ok, now imagine you're a Colts defender. I won't pick out one in particular, but over the course of your week, you've been drilled on your responsibilities and your job in certain coverages and against certain personnel groupings. The Patriots come out with six offensive linemen -- which is common -- but instead of Cameron Fleming declaring himself eligible, it's left tackle Nate Solder.
This specific scenario is probably not something you practiced in your four or five days of prep work. You've seen it before, maybe. But it wasn't a big emphasis and it's weird enough that the plan for defending it isn't instinctual. You're now thinking, processing, trying to figure out your responsibility, and while you're doing that - whether you're the defensive end, a linebacker or a safety, it's too late.
The Patriots delay-release their left tackle -- meaning the defensive end, rookie Jonathan Newsome's first thought is that, "OK, this is a normal pass rush play, I'll rush". However, Solder shakes the block, releases like a tight end out into the flats, and Brady quickly hits him.
Solder, who was one of the most athletic offensive tackles in his draft class, apparently still has some giddyup. He wins a footrace with a late-reacting safety, and gets to paydirt. Great playcall, great execution, and great exploitation of a rookie defensive end.
That touchdown put the Patriots up 24-7, and the rout was on. New England's next drive would nail the coffin shut.
3-1-IND 5 (3:24) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass short right to R.Gronkowski for 5 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
I'm not really giving you any new information when I tell you that Rob Gronkowski is a matchup nightmare. Still, in a third-and-1 situation, where the Colts are more or less forced to crowd the box and look to prevent a run, he's an even worse matchup nightmare.
Pretty much the only thing that Brady has to watch for is a linebacker/safety dropping into the passing lane, so when he comes on a blitz, it's over.
The coverage isn't even that bad -- Gronk is just too big and too fast and too strong.