Brady and McDaniels will outsmart the Eagles’ defense to win Super Bowl LII
Last week, I thought Eagles had enough to beat the Patriots, but after watching film, that combo is too good
After the Super Bowl, New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is likely to be named the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. In this, his second head coaching opportunity, he will be entrusted with the rarest of NFL commodities: a true franchise quarterback, Andrew Luck. The accomplishments of the Patriots’ offense under McDaniels warrant the hire. But, after watching many of the Patriots’ offensive plays this season, I was surprised at how the Patriots’ offensive game plans were simple. I expected to see McDaniels show off his football wits and cook up a slew of new and inventive plays every week.
Instead, he did the opposite. From week to week, the Patriots have run the same passing concepts for the entire season. Of course they have some wrinkles that seem only to be used in the second half of close games, but for the most part, McDaniels, who built an unorthodox offense around Tim Tebow in Denver, seems content to keep it basic and get out of Brady’s way.
Down & Distance Doesn’t Even Matter
Most teams have passing concepts, offensive philosophies or players they like in certain downs and distances. For the Patriots, that isn’t really true. The passing concepts that they like on first and second downs are pretty much the same as the concepts you’ll see them run on third down. So, while many teams design plays to gain 4 or 5 yards on early downs to “stay on schedule” and set up manageable third downs, the Pats run plays that avail quarterback Tom Brady of options on all levels of the defense. That often leads to the Pats converting before getting to third down. The Patriots have gotten past the sticks before third down 280 times this season, 29 times more than the next team.
Brady’s uncommon combination of football IQ, vision and accuracy allows him to find and exploit defensive weaknesses down the field in all down and distances and use all of his weapons. Despite the fact that Rob Gronkowski is the biggest name, Brady spreads the ball around. Here are the number of targets for the Patriots by down:
- Brandin Cooks 48
- Gronkowski 40
- James White 22
- Chris Hogan 21
- Danny Amendola 19
- Cooks 37
- Amendola 36
- Gronkowski 35
- White 22
- Hogan 18
- Amendola 29
- White 26
- Gronkowski 26
- Cooks 25
- Hogan 20
From a defensive perspective, these numbers make it really hard to decide who to stop. First down is the only down with a big enough gap between the top two (Cooks and Gronkowski) that a defensive coordinator might want to tilt the coverage to one or both of them. But the problem with that is the Pats are more likely to run the ball and go deep on those downs. So if the defense chooses to double one or both of them on first down, the box will be weak against the run. That might be why, despite not being known for their rushing attack, the Pats have three running backs averaging more than 4 yards per carry, one of whom — Dion Lewis, the Patriots’ leading rusher — averages 4.9.
Brady uses formation shifts and motions more than any quarterback in the league. He even uses them when they go no-huddle, which gives the Patriots a significant advantage. Shifts and motions force the defenders to adjust, and based on how they adjust, a smart quarterback can decipher the coverage and from where a blitz might be coming. In no-huddle situations, communication for the defense is difficult, so they often rely on basic calls to ensure that there are no blown coverages. No-huddle also gives Brady more time at the line of scrimmage to audible based on what he sees.
Against man coverages and blitzes, Brady likes to attack mismatches with deep and shallow crosses, rub routes, screens to the backs and receivers, and play-action deep shots. If the Patriots expect Cover 3, they like to spread their formation and throw seam routes, comebacks and hitches to the widest part of the field. They also like deep in routes from the outside receiver with the slot running the seam. When they see Cover 2, slot/TE option routes are their favorite, along with running the ball. Occasionally against Cover 2 and 3, the Patriots have attacked the flat defender with a wheel route and a shallow combination. The flat defender is supposed to carry the wheel route deep, and then the shallow cross enters the flat zone that’s vacated. If the flat defender stays to protect the zone, then the wheel route is open down the field. To stop this play, one of the hook defenders must see the wheel and follow the shallow, but most importantly the D-line must get pressure.
I Don’t Know
Last week, I was sure that the Philadelphia Eagles were going to win Super Bowl LII. But after watching Brady outthink and out-execute defensive coordinators all season long, I am much less sure. Obviously, I wouldn’t be shocked if the Patriots won another Super Bowl. The truth is I really don’t know who will win, but I will foolishly do again what I did last year: pick against the greatest of all time and wait to be wrong and amazed.