The New England Patriots are finally back in the Super Bowl, a spot they clinched after a 23-20 win over the Baltimore Ravens with a dramatic finish. They’ll be facing the NFC champion New York Giants in a rematch of Super Bowl XLII, and once again the Patriots will have their work cut out for them on the offensive side of the ball as they look to beat the Giants’ daunted defense.
Before we further delve into the Super Bowl matchup, it’s important to identify how each team got there, and for today’s post the focus is once again on the Patriots’ passing concepts. Bill Belichick’s club utilized a plethora of horizontal stretches to counter the Ravens pass coverage, even when the pass catchers were outnumbered by defenders.
An example of this was seen on a 21-yard pass to monstrous tight end Rob Gronkowski from Tom Brady on what is called a “Mesh” concept.
The personnel grouping featured three wide receivers and two tight ends, with one of those tight ends in the backfield. This is problematic for defenses as they struggle to identify if it will be a run or pass play, even though they’ve identified it on film from previous games.
Baltimore countered New England’s complex personnel grouping with their ‘Dime’ package that consists of three down linemen, two linebackers and six defensive backs.
The Mesh concept consists of two pass catchers on opposite sides of the formation running crossing routes over the top. In this case it’s Gronkowski (red) and wide receiver Julian Edelman (blue). The goal of this concept is to create a “rub” or a “pick” on defenders in man coverage when the two pass catchers cross each other — Gronkowski runs his route under Edelman’s — consequently freeing up one of the pass catchers outside of the hashes.
Defensively, the Ravens would only rush three, thus dropping eight in coverage to cover the Patriots’ five pass catchers. With the cornerbacks and strong side linebacker in man coverage, three defenders were left in zone — two deep safeties and middle linebacker Ray Lewis.
The routes ran around the Mesh concept, which are again diagrammed below in black, played a significant role in stretching the field horizontally, while also creating space for crossing routes in the open field.
Starting at the top of the diagram, receiver Deion Branch runs a Go route that serves as a clear-out. His job is to take the cornerback out of the picture with a vertical route.
Meanwhile, from the slot, Wes Welker runs an Out route that also clears out the underneath defender across him (the cornerback showing blitz).
Lastly, Aaron Hernandez’s route (in blue) into the flats out of the backfield draws in the cornerback (22) on the far right of the image.
As you can see, these routes played a pivotal role in the completed pass on Gronkowski’s crossing route by clearing out space for him to run into.
Furthermore, the two crossing routes ran by Gronkowski and Edelman that create the Mesh concept are not as simple as they may seem. With the Ravens dropping eight into coverage, it is the combination man and zone coverage which can complicate things for the Patriots.
In this concept, the crossers are taught two things: keep running vs. man coverage, and sit-down vs. zone coverage. But what if it’s both?
In this case, the two pass catchers would continue to run their routes up the field because despite Ray Lewis sitting in zone coverage as the ‘hole’ defender underneath, the strong side linebacker and cornerback are in man coverage.
This concept will be something to watch for against the Giants in the Super Bowl because of how many horizontal stretches that the Patriots run against defenses. The Giants mix in zone coverage, but they also play a significant amount of 2 Man (Man Under), which has two safeties in zone coverage while the rest of the defenders are in man coverage.
Against man coverage, the Patriots’ pass catchers will continue to run their routes and look to find open field. This concept is very difficult to defend because it has many variations and adjustments to the various coverages played by defenses. Against any zone, the receiver finds the hole to sit in, while against man coverage, the defender is left in trail position when the route is continued downfield.