New England’s Empty Passing Game

Josh McDaniels

Over the course of Tom Brady’s career with the New England, the Patriots have relied heavily on throwing the ball. When watching New England it is apparent right away how much they will pick teams apart out of an empty formation. What makes their empty sets so hard to defend is they’ll go to it out of any personnel they have in the game whether that be 10, 11, 12, 21, 20, 22, etc.

Not only is their personnel crucial to how they pick defenses apart but how they align those players. For instance when in an empty formation New England will often place RB’sFB’s and TE’s out widest to get a clue on whether the defense is playing man coverage or zone coverage. If a LB follows the RB, FB or TE out wide, it’s a dead giveaway they are in man-coverage. If a corner is out wide over a RB, FB, or TE then they will have a mismatch over the middle with a WR like Edelman or Amendola working against a LB.

Since Tom Brady’s suspension ended, the Patriots went to an empty formation 125 times, the most being against Atlanta in the Super Bowl while going to an empty formation 25 times. That is an average of 8.33 empty sets per game over Tom Brady’s 15 games played this season. That is an average of 12.6% of their plays occurring out of empty.

Hoss Y-Juke

The play that has become synonymous with New England is a play they refer to as ‘Hoss Y-Juke’. Bill O’Brien says Hoss means, “Hitches on the outside, seams by #2.” This is an example of New England’s simple verbiage to communicate plays. The Juke is the name of the route ran by the #3 WR to the trips side. With the Juke route, the WR will sit if he is not matched by a defender, he can run a return route if he’s being walled inside, or if the defender is playing him straight-up he can run up his toes, juke him, and run across his face.

This play is best against zone coverage where a quick WR is working against the middle dropper, usually a LB. New England will almost always use Edelman or Amendola, a quick WR, as the Juke route runner. This gives Brady a good match-up, with one of those two usually matched up with a LB. Since Brady’s return against Cleveland, New England ran this play 33 times, completing it 25 times for a 76% completion percentage.

 

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Here is an example of Brady hitting Edelman on the ‘Juke’ route as he is matched up against a LB over the middle. The LB plays Edelman straight up here so Edelman runs the ‘Juke’ route across his face.

Here is an example of Edelman running the return when the LB is walling him to the inside:

This play is a progression read for the quarterback so he is reading; hitch-seam-juke-seam-hitch. When the defense plays an off and soft coverage, Brady will hit the hitch route.

When the flat defender begins to stress covering the hitch route by #1, it opens up the seam route behind it. Here is an example against Denver after Brady had hit the hitch several times earlier in the game:

Below is 18 examples of New England running ‘Hoss Y-Juke’ from the 2016 season:

Drive-Levels

Another New England play ran from empty often is Drive/Levels concept to the three-man side with a fade-out concept to the two-man side. In New England, the quarterback reads go as follows; Progression reads. These are reads that go from right to left or left to right. On one side of the concept is the vertical portion of the read and on the other side is the horizontal side of the read. The quarterback is reading vertical side first, then horizontal side. The other type of read is a man side and zone side. To one side will be a man-beater concept while the other side features a zone-beater concept.

With the Drive/Levels concept, New England will attach a vertical portion of the route to the two-man side with either a fade-out, or hitch-fade. On the three-man side of this concept, #3 in the trips will run a 10-12 yard dig with #2 running a shallow crossing route underneath of him. The #1 WR running a 5-yard in route.

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This is an example of a progression read for New England where the quarterback is reading the vertical side, two-man side, to the horizontal side, the three-man side. The ball was most often completed to the out route by #2 on the two-man side or to the shallow route by #2 to the three-man side.

Here is an example where New England motions running back James White out to the right into an empty set. On the right, the two-man side, James White, and Gronkowski run the vertical concept, double verticals. On the three-man side, Martellus Bennett runs the 10-12 yard dig with Edelman running the shallow underneath of him. Malcolm Mitchell is one the three-man side running a 5-yard in route.

The double verticals clear out the weak side linebacker to give Edelman and Bennett space to work their Hi-Lo concept on the linebackers. On this example, Brady hits Edelman on the shallow but could have hit Bennett on the dig route behind had he gone there.

This is an example of New England running the concept vs man-coverage. Edelman motions out of the backfield and runs a quick, 5-yard out. Here Brady takes what New England calls the match-up. If Brady sees a mismatch in coverage, he will go there and abandon the read.

This is another example in which Edelman motions out of the backfield to the two-man side where Brady hits him on a 5-yard out. Brady clearly liked this match-up when faced with man-coverage of Edelman against a nickel corner.

Here is an example vs a Cover 3 look from the Jets. The two-man side is taken away by coverage so Brady comes back to the three-man side where Gronkowski and Edelman run the Hi-Lo, shallow-dig. Brady takes the shallow route once again as the weak side linebacker drops to take away the dig coming from Gronkowski.

D-Slant

This is a concept that is as simple as it gets in football. The ‘D‘ stands for a ‘diagonal’ route. This is a quick out route in which the WR will release 1-step up the field and run at a 30-degree angle towards the sideline. The ‘slant’ behind it is run as a 3-step slant. Here is an example from the 2004 New England Patriots playbook:

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When New England runs this concept out of empty they will generally have the two-man side run a fade-out or double slants or possibly some sort of pick play versus man-coverage.

To the three-man side, New England will run slant-diagonal-slant, and diagonal-slant-slant depending on the play. The Patriots will commonly go to this play when they are seeing a lot of 1-high safety looks that cue man coverage or cover 3. The slant-diagonal concept creates a natural rub versus man-coverage or a flat defender read versus cover 3.

With double-slants coming from the same side it is imperative that the first slant is run at 1-steps while the second slant is ran at 3-steps. This is to clear out space to give second slant more space to work behind it. Generally the ball will always be completed to the second slant unless the first slant has leverage or is the ‘hot’ off a blitz.

 

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Here is an example is which the Patriots use motion to clarify man-coverage. Due to Edelman having clear inside leverage on this play versus man-coverage, Brady goes to him across the middle for an easy throw.

This is another example of New England running ‘D-Slant’ versus a 1-high safety look. To the two-man side New England runs a ‘pick’ play with Malcolm Mitchell running a spot route to try and create a natural rub for Chris Hogan to come open on his wheel route. To the three-man side New England is running a slant-diagonal-slant. With man-coverage once again the first slant by Edelman clears out the middle and Brady has slant-diaganol read with White and Bennett. Once the LB turns to run with Bennett on the diagonal route Brady knows where the ball is going.

This example versus Denver is a blitz-0 pre-snap look. There is no middle of the field safety, indicating a blitz with man-to-man coverage. Brady takes the throw to James White once again on this clip once he clears the safety covering the #2 WR in the trips, Chris Hogan.

In the Super Bowl New England was facing a lot of man-coverage from Atlanta and went to this play a few times.

X-Follow

A constraint off the ‘Hoss Y-Juke’ play for New England is known as ‘X-Follow’. This is another progression read for the quarterback in which they are reading ‘Hoss’, hitch and seam, to the follow concept. Instead of #3 running the ‘Juke’ route he will either run a return route or a sit route. He will not ‘juke’ and run across the formation due to the follow route coming from the backside. On the two-man side the #2 WR will run a return, or pivot route. He has to come back out as he has the follow route coming in behind him. The #1 WR to the two-man side will run a ‘follow’ route. This is a 8-10 yard speed in cut. The ‘return-follow’ creates a Hi-Lo on the weak side LB.

This play first appeared in Urban Meyer’s 2004 Utah playbook. Here is an example from that playbook:

 

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This is another concept that is good against zone-coverage but not so much against man-coverage. It is known that Meyer and Belichick have met on several occasions to discuss offense. I am not sure if Belichick got this play from Meyer or vice versa but it is a staple in both offenses.

Here is an example of New England running it in which Brady hits the hitch route, which is hit first read on the play. This is another progression read in which he is right-to-left.

This is an example against Baltimore where Brady takes the match-up of Bennett versus a LB.

The New England Patriots are extremely multiple in what they do. They can attack you from so many personnel groupings out of every formation. What is most impressive about Belichick and McDaniels is how simple they keep the offense at times. They do not over complicate things for their quarterback allowing him to make quick reads and get the ball out quick.

 

Duo/Double: The Best Play in Football

Duo header

In the NFL, things aren’t always as they seem. An example of this is the increasingly popular run play known as Duo, or Double. The Duo stands for two double teams. Duo is often referred to as “Power without a puller.” Bob Wylie, Cleveland Browns offensive line coach, said he started using this play in the late 1990’s while at the Chicago Bears to find a way to get the backside Will linebacker blocked.

Many observers of the game see this play as Inside Zone at first glance as it appears similar in terms of double teams up front with offensive lineman climbing to linebackers. The main difference between Inside Zone and Duo is who the Center is ID’ing. On Duo the Center will ID the Will, on Inside Zone he will ID the Mike. A key indicator that the play is Duo and not Inside Zone is the Center will work backside and not frontside.

The only examples I could find of Duo/Double in an NFL playbook was from the the 2005 Carolina Panthers playbook:

Another difference in Duo and Inside Zone is the Running Back’s read. The  Godfather of the zone run game, Alex Gibbs, says, “The RB reads the 1st down lineman past the OC, a shade NT does not count as a read. If the 1st DL past the Center goes wide or sits, you cutback. If the read goes down, read the next man out.”  

Duo Diagram

With Duo the Running Back is reading the Mike linebacker. The Running Back will press the ‘B’ Gap and read the movement of the Mike. If the Mike plays over the top and outside of the second double team, the Running Back can bend it back to the first double team. If the Mike presses and steps up into the line of scrimmage the Running Back can bounce the play out and cut off the Tight End’s block.

A player like Le’Veon Bell was born to run this play as he is the best back in the league at setting up the blocks on the Duo play. Teams that employ the Duo play often are the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys; two teams that pride themselves on being physical, powerful run offenses.

The Duo play is most commonly ran out of 12, or 13, personnel with the offense in an overload formation. This helps the offense get the front they like as many offensive line coaches, such as Herb Hand, prefer to run it to the 3-technique. Also the more blockers you have up front, the more double teams you will get.

Here is an example of Duo from Dallas in their regular season match-up versus Green Bay. In the clip below Green Bay is in their 2-4-5 Nickel defense. The Center has ID’ed #47, the backside linebacker, as who he is working up to. The Left Guard and Center will double the Defensive Tackle up to the Will while the Right Guard and Tackle double team the other Defensive Tackle to the Mike linebacker, #50.

Screen Shot 2017-03-25 at 3.02.04 AM.pngRunning Back Ezekiel Elliot is reading the Mike, #50, on this play. He will press the ‘B’ gap and react to the movement of the Mike. On this clip the Mike presses and fills inside giving Elliot a bounce read as the linebacker is pinned inside. With the offense in a wing set they are able to get three double teams up front here as the two Tight Ends double team the Outside Linebacker up to the Strong Safety, #42. The blocks by the Tight Ends are what allow Elliot to bounce this play to the edge and pick up a big gain.

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This clip is from Dallas’ match-up with Pittsburgh from the regular season. This is another example where the Mike linebacker, #50, pressed the line of scrimmage so Elliot bounced the play.

Against a 3-4 Over front the two double teams will move to the Right Guard and Tackle as well as the two Tight Ends. The RG and RT will now double team with the RG working to the Will and the TE’s will double team the Sam to the Mike. Dallas brings #83 in motion into the box here to block the SS, the force player.

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Below is an example of Pittsburgh running the Duo play vs Dallas’ 4-3 Over defense. The DE to the field spikes inside the ‘C’ gap on this play almost disrupting the play but the TE washes him down inside. With Le’Veon Bells vision and acceleration he has mastered setting up the blocks on Duo.

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The best way to counter the Duo play is to play an ‘Eagle’ front, also known as a ‘Bear’ front. An ‘Eagle’ front involves the Center and both Guards to be covered by a defensive lineman leaving the offense with only being able to generate one double team up front. This is exactly what Green Bay did to Dallas.

Duo vs Eagle Front

The key to this play being successful is the Running Back’s patience. Ezekiel Elliot allows his Left Guard to turn the Defensive Tackle over him out while pressing the play side ‘B’ gap to hold the Mike linebacker. This play is extremely difficult to run into an ‘Eagle’ front but with Dallas’ offensive line and Ezekiel Elliot’s vision, the play can still be successful.

Bob Wylie was at the annual Mushroom C.O.O.L. clinic in 2013 where he presented a clinic speech on the Duo play. It it a great resource for anyone wanting to take a deeper look into the play and hearing an explanation from an NFL offensive line coach.

Geoff Schwartz did an X’s and O’s video on Duo/Dbl as well. Here it is below:

Atlanta’s Offense vs Oakland

Matt Ryan

The Atlanta Falcons are headed to Super Bowl 51 in large part due to their resurgence of the offense. Atlanta is 1st in points (33.8 ppg) and 2nd in yards (415.8 ypg). In Kyle Shanahan’s second season as the Offensive Coordinator this offense has come into its own. In preparation for the Super Bowl I decided to take a look at the offense.

Double Wing Split-Zone

On the second drive of the game Atlanta went into a Double Wing formation out of 12 personnel ( 1 RB and 2 TE’s) with the two tight ends aligned as wings. In this formation the wide receivers to each side were aligned in a “Nasty” alignment, 5-6 yards from the offensive tackle. Oakland responded to this with a “Bear” front.

From this look Atlanta ran a Split-Zone concept with the ‘Y’ or ‘U’ kicking out the backside linebacker with the other one running an arrow route to the flat. With Atlanta in this 12 personnel tight formation, Oakland was showing a lot of man coverage. The TE running an arrow route to the flat consistently pulled a player out of the box, leaving Atlanta with huge running lanes on the cutback. Below is the first play from the video diagrammed;

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Kyle Shanahan is great at showing you different looks with different personnel yet running the same core plays. Atlanta lined up in 21 personnel as well in a I-Far Y-Off formation. This is essentially the exact same formation with a fullback lined up offset in the backfield instead of a tight end.

When Oakland started to overplay the Split-Zone play, Kyle Shanahan dialed up their play-action off the Split-Zone action. Instead of the TE kicking out the backside OLB, he slips by and runs and arrow route into the flat. This plays look identical to the Split-Zone play in essence of the ‘X’ appears he is blocking down on the Mike and the ‘Y’ looks like he is coming to kick out the Jack. Once again, Atlanta ran this play out of Double Wing, I-Formation as well as I-Far formation.

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Bunch Z-Post

Twice on short-yardage situations Atlanta motioned to a Bunch set and ran ‘Z-Follow’ or ‘Z-Post’ however you define it. This play is designed to get Sanu the ball as he trails the under route by the #3 receiver in the bunch. Oakland is playing a “Traffic and Triangle” defense on this bunch meaning the Sam linebacker will take all of the point man in man-to-man coverage while the SS and C play a ‘Banjo’ on the ‘Z’ and ‘W’ receivers. The toughest part about defending a bunch set is when two receivers release in the same direction. The SS takes the under route from the ‘W’ while the S has the ‘Y’. When the ‘Z’ releases outside initially the C is picked from defending him due to the point mans seam route. With two minutes left in the game up by 7, on 3rd & 3 this is the play Atlanta went to for a first down. This play was a staple in the early St. Louis Ram’s offense led by Kurt Warner.

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2-Point Play

Every team only carries a handful of 2-Point conversion plays in their gameplan going into a game. In the first half Atlanta had a 3rd & Goal from the 3 yard line. Atlanta lines up in Pro Bunch Right and motions out the tailback to the bunch. Atlanta runs a quick screen to the tailback trying to pick up a touchdown. Atlanta missed a block at the POA and ended up not scoring on the play. This play was important due to how Oakland defended it. Oakland left the box completely empty from linebackers.

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Later in the game when Atlanta scored to go up by 5, they decided to go for 2. Remembering how Oakland defended the Empty Quads Bunch formation earlier in the game with leaving the box open, Atlanta came back to this play except this time they attached a QB Draw to it. With no linebackers in the box, this was as easy as 2 points come.

Empty Tailback Rub

Another great use of 13 personnel by Kyle Shanahan occurred when he went Atlanta motioned to Empty. When Atlanta went to 13 personnel they were getting exclusively all Cover 1. A tailback, specifically Tevin Coleman, matched up with a linebacker is a mismatch. On this play when Atlanta motioned Coleman out left, Ryan saw a linebacker run with him assuring man coverage. Pre-snap Ryan knows the ball is going to Coleman when he saw this. The double verticals from the two tight ends lined up left picked the linebacker covering Coleman leaving him wide open.

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The play design and execution by Kyle Shanahan and this offense is a huge reason why they are heading to Super Bowl 51. Atlanta can attack you from many different personnel groupings while having a very efficient quarterback in Matt Ryan, but as always, Atlanta wins in the trenches first.