Aside from the quarterback position, the strength of the Patriots offense has become their two tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. This has become a very interesting offense because for a long time now, they have had one of the better passing games in the NFL despite having various personnel groupings.
At one point, their pass catchers were what many would call JAGs (just a guy): players that were not overly talented but were intelligent and blue collar. Then they went from having a group of JAGs to having the guy when Randy Moss was acquired.
Moss changed the way the offense faced defenses because of his otherworldly talent. He was able create space for his teammates because defenses were concerned with his big play ability, and they rolled coverage in his direction. Now the offense is centered around the tight ends, but the Moss effect is still present with Gronkowski and Hernandez.
Despite the change, the core concepts of the offense have remained in place regardless of the athletes on the roster. The offense continues to utilize a plethora of horizontal stretches while also mixing in vertical stretches that serve as clearouts for the underneath routes or calculated deep shots against expected coverages.
One of their main concepts is known as “Hi-Lo,” and it puts two receivers at different depths in the same area of the field. This was seen against the Giants in their week 9 matchup in the third quarter on a 27-yard reception by slot receiver Wes Welker.
The Giants defense came out with three down linemen and five defensive backs, creating a “Nickel” package. However, this was no ordinary Nickel package, and it featured three safeties — a formation that’s often used by the Giants. With three safeties, the Giants defense has a better chance of defending a run, and it appears that’s what they expected on this play.
Offensively, the Patriots came out in their 12 (1 back, 2 tight ends) spread personnel package with Hernandez flexed out (three-yard split from offensive tackle) and Gronkowski aligned in an “up-back” position.
The focus of this play is to Brady’s right (bottom of image) where Hernandez and Welker run a two-man combination concept (the Hi-Lo). Hernandez runs a square-in (“China”) route, while Welker runs a Dig route at 15 yards.
There are three keys to the success on this play. The first two are Hernandez and Gronkowski’s routes underneath, which open up Welker deep down the middle. Hernandez’s square-in draws the attention of the underneath zone defenders, creating a hole behind them. Meanwhile, Gronkowski’s route into the flats forces the flat defender to stay with him.
The third key to this play’s success is the ball placement by Brady, and his throw to Welker’s inside shoulder. While many would often say that the quarterback should lead the receiver to create opportunities for yards after the catch, that’s not the case in this situation because it’s a “leverage” throw. A leverage throw allows Welker to avoid contact and run back outside to pick up more yards.
Concepts like Hi-Lo are very effective against both man and zone coverage, which is why the Patriots have an abundance of them in their playbook. Concepts that horizontally stretch the defense from sideline to sideline stretch defenders out and create openings for pass catchers to settle into.
These concepts, along with the Patriots’ various personnel groupings, are problematic for defenses, and I expect that to continue in the Super Bowl with the Giants defense likely playing a lot of snaps in their nickel package.