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.