Film Study: How another old friend stymied Belichick

Sunday’s 34-10 drubbing in Nashville was the New England Patriots’ most lopsided defeat since a 41-14 collapse at Kansas City — which prompted Bill Belichick’s famed “We’re on to Cincinnati” presser — and the worst loss during Belichick’s tenure in which the Patriots were turnover-free.

It was also New England’s second time losing by at least 16 this season, which hasn’t happened to a Tom Brady-led team since 2005. Of course, both defeats came at the hands of former Patriots: Matt Patricia’s Lions in Week 3 and Mike Vrabel’s Titans on Sunday.

Mike Vravel and Bill Belichick
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Tennessee’s win was comprehensive. Marcus Mariota again looked sharper and more comfortable after shedding his two-fingered glove two weeks ago, and Corey Davis had perhaps his best NFL game. Special teams did its part, as the Titans’ average drive started at the 34, compared to the 24 for the Patriots. (Tennessee was fortunate not to lose any of its three fumbles, including two on special teams.)

But the defense, orchestrated by Vrabel and former Patriots coordinator Dean Pees, drove the victory, as New England was held to 10 points and under 300 yards for just the second time since October of 2016. The other time — you guessed it — came against Patricia in Week 3.

Patricia, who spent 14 years with Belichick, stymied his mentor with a very specific third-down approach keying on Rob Gronkowski and James White (Julian Edelman was out due to suspension). Using a rare personnel package with seven defensive backs, the Lions doubled Gronkowski with a cornerback AND safety, and put a safety (not a linebacker) on White, while also running an edge rusher at White to disrupt him off the snap. With seven DBs, Detroit still had three cornerbacks left to match New England’s three wideouts, and Brady struggled to find open targets all night.

Vrabel and Pees took a similar coverage approach on third downs, playing dime (six defensive backs) with four linebackers (two ILBs and two OLBs, leaving just one DL) for extra speed. With Gronkowski out, the Titans put Pro Bowl safety Kevin Byard on White for most of the game and sent deep-safety help toward Edelman and Josh Gordon, whom Adoree’ Jackson smothered on several key plays.

Where Tennessee differed from Detroit was in its pressure concepts, as Vrabel and Pees called myriad “safe” blitzes and zone exchanges, sending four or five rushers at the snap while others dropped into coverage. Inside linebacker Wesley Woodyard (1.5 sacks, three QB hits) was outstanding as a blitzer, and the Titans bothered Brady all day despite tallying just three sacks and six hits.

New England wound up 3-of-15 on third downs, as almost all of its success through the air came on early downs off play-action. The Tennessee defense was well prepared for Josh McDaniels’ staple misdirection near the line of scrimmage, like screens and jet sweeps, and it even stopped Brady cold on a QB sneak.

Considering the pair of resounding victories, it’s fair to ask: Have Vrabel and Patricia revealed a blueprint to stop the Patriots?

I’m skeptical, mostly because Gronkowski was out Sunday and Edelman sat out Week 3. The Patriots also missed right guard Shaq Mason (calf) and left tackle Trent Brown (illness, left mid-game) in Tennessee, and replacements Ted Karras and LaAdrian Waddle struggled. Between Gronkowski, the line and Rex Burkhead (IR, eligible to return Week 13) the offense should be healthier and more dangerous for the postseason, and Gordon should be more comfortable as well.

Still, the Titans’ dominance was eye-popping. At the very least, Belichick might have more to worry about if these teams meet again in January.

Mayfield breaks out the cannon

Baker Mayfield
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Baker Mayfield is no Uncle Rico, but he can absolutely fling it. For those who doubted the top overall pick’s arm, Sunday’s first touchdown against the Falcons was a jaw-dropper.

Interim coordinator Freddie Kitchens called a “throwback” route for Jarvis Landry, who snuck from the right side at the snap* across the formation and wheeled up the left side, while Mayfield play-faked. But there were two problems: Free safety Damontae Kazee recognized Landry’s route and helped over the top, and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett busted through the line into Mayfield’s face.

Seeing Landry’s window closing and feeling Jarrett’s pressure, Mayfield quickly rolled right, killing any opportunity to hit the designed route. But with Kazee shading to Landry, Mayfield knew that Rashard Higgins’ route — a post designed to occupy Robert Alford and Kazee — was left to only Alford.

Of course, Mayfield still had to get it there. With Jarrett chasing and Foyesade Oluokun closing in his face, he uncorked a laser off one foot while running right. The ball traveled 41 yards on a line to Higgins, who snared it before Alford could arrive.

That was just one beauty in a day full of them, as the former Heisman winner had as many touchdowns (three) as incompletions in the Browns’ biggest win of the year. It also served as a reminder that the short-statured Mayfield has a very high ceiling.

*Side note: Mayfield pointed to a safety presnap while Landry was in motion — as if telling the wideout whom to block — to help sell the defense that a run was coming. Not many rookie QBs are canny enough to use a dummy point.

Andy Reid and Tyreek Hill are toying with defenses

Tyreek Hill
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He’s not the best wideout in football, but Hill might be its most unique weapon, simply because his speed shatters the rules of NFL physics. That’s an almost unfair advantage for Reid, perhaps the league’s most creative mind.

Hill is scary enough when lined up outside, which practically requires a safety over the top. But things get terrifying when Hill goes into the slot, especially the inside slot of trips, where both of his touchdowns came from Sunday against Arizona.

Many teams rely on zone against the Chiefs so defenders don’t have to chase their man all over (presnap and postsnap) against K.C.’s myriad misdirection concepts. But more and more often, Reid is punishing those zones by spreading out and putting Hill in the slot, forcing defenses to cover a cheetah with wildebeests (safeties) and water buffaloes (linebackers).

On Hill’s first score, Kareem Hunt motioned wide right to create an empty set, with Hill in the inside slot. When the defense didn’t shift and Patrick Peterson aligned over Hunt, Patrick Mahomes knew it was zone. Two safeties deep showed him the deep middle would be open. Underneath safety Budda Baker aligned over Hill, but from 4 yards off the line, he had no chance to reroute him. Hill gave a simple juke and came wide open down the middle for a 37-yard TD.

A quarter later, the Chiefs burned the Cardinals with a variation of the same look. On third-and-goal from the 14, Hill aligned in the inside slot of an empty set against Arizona’s Tampa-2 zone and again ran vertical. All too wary of Hill’s speed, middle linebacker Josh Bynes tried desperately to keep pace, only for Hill to slam on the brakes. Knowing Hill would get free, Mahomes threw early and on the money for six.

Reid also sprung Hill for a 20-yard run and 16-yard reception out of the slot, both on plays where he crossed the formation behind the line after the snap and outflanked the defense. The closer Hill is to the formation, the more creative Reid can be with screens, jet sweeps, shovel passes and more.

Perhaps the scariest thing is how easy it all looks. Hill and Mahomes usually leave at least one long touchdown on the field each week, whether because of poor accuracy, a drop or miscommunication. Reid is always working in new wrinkles, and he’ll surely have more in the playoffs, after having a first-round bye to strategize.

Frank Reich’s tight-end wizardry

Andrew Luck
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Who would have guessed that Eric Ebron — released by the Lions before his fifth-year option became guaranteed — would have four more touchdowns (10) than any other NFL tight end through 10 weeks?

Ebron has indeed impressed, a reminder that tight ends often blossom a bit later than other positions (Greg Olsen, Delanie Walker and Zach Ertz come to mind). But much of his success is owed to Reich, who has weaponized the position masterfully in Indy, as he did in Philadelphia.

Reich sprung Ebron for three scores in Sunday’s win over the Jaguars, two on wide-open receptions and one rushing. The second TD catch was a completely blown coverage, but the first, a 53-yarder on the opening possession, was brilliantly schemed to defeat Jacksonville’s playcall.

The Jaguars ran their staple Cover-3 “boundary lock,” in which the boundary-side (closer to the hashmark where the ball is spotted) cornerback “locks” into man coverage and everyone else plays zone. That locked Jalen Ramsey on T.Y. Hilton, who ran a spot route inside while Ebron ran a corner route into the deep third of the field to Ramsey’s side.

With Ramsey locked to Hilton, either hook/curl defender Telvin Smith or (more likely) flat defender Barry Church became responsible for Ebron’s route, but neither recognized it in time to turn and run vertically. Reich even sprinkled in a flat route to the same side by Jordan Wilkins to further distract Church. Andrew Luck found Ebron in acres of space, and the tight end evaded Tashaun Gipson for the score.

That was just one of Reich’s tricks. The Colts’ second touchdown came after a 27-yard catch by tight end Mo Alie-Cox, a former VCU basketball player in his second year of football since age 14. With three tight ends in a wing — a run-heavy look — Alie-Cox (aligned next to the right tackle) ran up the seam as Ebron (aligned just outside Alie-Cox) faded outside to occupy two players.

Because three-TE sets are so rare, defenses typically run only one or two different coverages against them, meaning Reich could expect a predictable look and design routes accordingly. The pair of vertical routes put heavy stress on rookie linebacker Leon Jacobs, who is primarily a run defender, and Alie-Cox came free.

Three plays after Alie-Cox’s grab, Reich got Ebron his second score on a 2-yard end-round, after the tight end motioned from a wingback position to get a head start across the formation and outflank the defense.

The design worked naturally because Reich often sends his tight ends in motion on standard run and play-action designs. This helps in the run game because none of the Colts’ tight ends is a sturdy run-blocker — Calais Campbell embarrassed Alie-Cox and Jack Doyle on Sunday — but putting them on the move creates more favorable angles.

Doyle is particularly adept as a move blocker, freeing Reich to use him on more play-action designs, including from a fullback alignment. This worked twice on Sunday, once for a 20-yard gain (would have been 40-plus with a better throw) on a wheel route and later for a near-touchdown out of the flat. One play after Doyle came up just short of paydirt, Alie-Cox caught a 1-yard TD off play-action, giving the Colts’ tight ends four touchdowns before halftime.

Paced by Ebron’s 10 scores, Indy’s tight ends have 16 touchdowns this year, including seven in the last two games. Alie-Cox has two on six career catches, while Erik Swoope has three on just 55 offensive snaps this year while battling injury. Doyle got his first in Week 9 after missing the previous five games.

With Doyle back healthy and Alie-Cox (who had a horrid drop turn into an interception Sunday) flashing at times, this position group could take an even larger role down the stretch.

–David DeChant (@DavidDeChant), Field Level Media