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How Josh McDaniels and the Patriots Create Mismatches to Burn Defenses

It’s not just the magic of Tom Brady—New England uses a creative mix of personnel groups and formations to frustrate talented defenses and keep its own offense churning

AP Images/Ringer illustration

There’s no shortage of intriguing Super Bowl LII story lines, narratives, or potential keys to the game, but there’s nothing I’m more excited to watch for this Sunday than what Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels dial up against the Eagles’ talented and deep defensive unit. New England’s offense was not only one of the league’s most prolific this year, finishing first in yards (394.2 per game) and second in points (28.6), but it was the NFL’s most efficient, too, ranking first in offensive DVOA. At 40 years old, Brady has shown few signs of slowing down, his ability to change plays at the line of scrimmage remains unrivaled, and his field vision and lightning-quick release make the Patriots incredibly difficult to defend. And if the future Hall of Fame quarterback is the engine that makes that group go, the high-octane fuel he runs on is McDaniels’s nimble, versatile scheme.

The Patriots adapt their game plan from week to week more than just about any team in the league, using an array of personnel groups, formations, and plays—all the while mixing tempo—to best attack the specific vulnerabilities of an opposing defense. In short, they’re better than anyone at finding a weakness and attacking it mercilessly. Of course, against a top-tier defense like that of the Eagles, identifying that key pressure point isn’t going to be easy, but could be the difference between the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl ring or another disappointing loss.

The Patriots had to get past one of the league’s other top defensive groups to get to this point in the first place. In their AFC championship game win over the Jaguars, Brady and McDaniels took advantage of slight coverage deficiencies in Jacksonville’s linebackers group while capitalizing on the Jags’ soft coverage on the outside.

Right out of the gate, we could see New England’s brilliant scheming at work, and on the game’s second play, the Patriots first used their personnel and formation to create and exploit a mismatch. When New England came out of the huddle in a personnel group comprising two running backs and one tight end, Jacksonville countered with its “base” defense (including linebacker Paul Posluszny), a package of players best capable of stopping the run against the Patriots’ “heavy” look. But New England had no plans of putting the ball on the ground; when Dion Lewis and fullback James Develin flexed out to opposite wings, and Jacksonville’s cornerbacks stayed out there with them, it was clear that the Jags were running a zone-coverage scheme. That left receiver Brandin Cooks, who lined up in the right slot, aligned across from linebacker Telvin Smith, a speed mismatch in favor of Cooks that Brady took advantage of without a second thought.

The Patriots repeatedly attacked the Jags’ linebackers group with smaller, shiftier pass catchers, and they were able to do so because of the creative use of formations and personnel. The talent of cornerbacks like A.J. Bouye or Jalen Ramsey is wasted when they’re left defending decoy running backs or fullbacks on the wing; all they can do is watch as lightning-fast slot receivers run circles around slower linebackers in the middle of the field or up the seam.

Of course, teams play plenty of man coverage too, and on a fourth-and-2 from Jacksonville’s 30-yard line, the Patriots again used their personnel and formation to create a big play. Coming out of the huddle, receivers Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola lined up tight to the formation, with Lewis in the slot and tight end Rob Gronkowski on the outside. When Ramsey and cornerback Aaron Colvin both left their normal spots on the field and came in close to the formation to align over the top of Hogan and Amendola, Brady could see it was a man-coverage scheme—and thus knew the man-beater play they’d dialed up would work like a charm. Lewis set a pick on Colvin (a legal one because it came within 1 yard of the line of scrimmage), and that let Amendola get outside and over the top of Telvin Smith, who switched when he saw the pick but was too slow to keep pace.

The Jaguars, apparently reticent to get beat deep by the speed of both Hogan and Cooks, played plenty of soft coverage on the outside throughout the game. Brady took what the defense was giving, though, and heavily targeted his wideouts on routes to the outside, underneath that soft cornerback coverage.

We saw this give-and-take strategy all game, with the Patriots alternating between attacking advantageous matchups or simply playing into what the coverage gave them. Brady and McDaniels dialed up man-beating plays when motions and formations revealed man coverage, zone-beating schemes when zone looks were apparent, and a few screens and quick throws to temper Jacksonville’s defensive-line aggressiveness. And they did it for most of the second half without their mismatch-making monster Gronkowski, whose injury limited the volume of personnel groups the Patriots could deploy.

Gronk has yet to be cleared for the Super Bowl as he goes through concussion protocol. All signs (and a vague Instagram post) point to a New England offense at full strength on Sunday, and it’d clearly be a boon for the Patriots if the big tight end can play. I expect Gronk will be the first point on a multi-pronged plan to attack an Eagles defense that finished fourth in points allowed (18.4) and second in weighted DVOA and is coordinated by former Belichick protégé Jim Schwartz. Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins will likely draw some of the responsibility for lining up against Gronkowski, and while he’s one of the best safeties in the game, he’s had a few issues with the league’s most athletic tight ends this year. In Week 2, the 30-year-old vet gave up a big play to Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce on an isolation route up the sideline.

In Week 13, Jenkins gave up a touchdown to Jimmy Graham in man coverage.

Jenkins’s coverage wasn’t even that bad, but it’s simply tough to match up with a guy that’s 6 or 7 inches taller. That size factor is something the Patriots are sure to exploit, and Gronk’s likely to see his fair share of one-on-one routes on the outside and up the seam. Per Warren Sharp’s Super Bowl report, the Eagles have been vulnerable to tight ends deep down the field in particular, where they’ve surrendered an opponent passer rating of 135 on passes to that position to the deep left, 117 to the deep middle, and 104 to the deep right. It’s a weakness that teams have failed to exploit often enough—Eagles opponents have targeted tight ends deep just 13 times all year, notes Sharp—but Philly’s allowed an NFL-worst 62 percent success rate on those throws, surrendering 17.9 yards per attempt (31st) and a 131.1 passer rating (29th). That vulnerability is almost surely on New England’s radar, especially after we all watched Philly give up a deep touchdown to Kyle Rudolph in the NFC championship game. But if, or rather when, the Eagles dedicate two defenders to covering Gronkowski, the Patriots will have to look elsewhere to move the ball and score.

Part of New England’s game plan may be to simply acknowledge that Brady is going to have to deal with pressure all game long. The Eagles’ defensive line is unquestionably its most talented and deepest group, a unit led by Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox that can play seven guys in a rotation all game long, keeping everyone’s legs fresh and the pressure on. But while Brady’s always been good even in the face of oncoming defensive linemen, it behooves New England to do what it can to avoid hits and sacks. The first thing the Patriots can do to mitigate what looks like Philly’s biggest advantage is to play up-tempo, no-huddle ball on offense, a strategy that forces the Eagles to keep the same personnel on the field and could help tire them out as the game goes on. Brady’s always been comfortable operating in a hurry-up scheme, and Philadelphia’s defense has struggled against no-huddle defenses this year.

The Patriots could try a heavy dose of quick screen plays, swing passes, and pick plays near the line of scrimmage, too—throws that protect Brady from hits by getting the ball out quickly and into the hands of the team’s playmakers. As Arif Hasan notes, Philly’s been susceptible to catch-and-run receivers, and the team’s cornerbacks gave up more yards after catch than any team in the league. Take this play against the Giants in Week 15, for example.

The Patriots will likely employ “heavy” personnel groupings, with two or three tight ends or a pair of running backs, often, a strategy that could force the Eagles to play in their base defensive personnel or dedicate an additional player to the box. That’d leave the defense in primarily single-high safety looks—which is common for Schwartz’s teams, but does leave cornerbacks out wide with little support over the top. And while Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills have both played well this season, each have been susceptible to double moves for big plays downfield.

Don’t be surprised to see the Patriots work to get other positions out onto islands on the wing, too. In Philly’s Week 13 loss to the Seahawks, Seattle spread the field out, with running back J.D. McKissic motioned out wide on the wing. McKissic drew coverage from linebacker Mychal Kendricks, who also bit on an in-breaking route to get beat on the sluggo (slant-and-go) route to the back corner of the end zone.

Sunday’s game has a different feel than many of the Super Bowls of the recent past, and Brady vs. Foles isn’t quite the quarterback heavyweight-championship bout the NFL may have been hoping for. But the fact the Eagles are starting their backup signal-caller is overshadowed by a more important matchup, anyway, pitting the best quarterback of all time against one of the most tenacious, stingy, and talent-packed defensive groups in the league. Brady has his work cut out for him, but with McDaniels’s savvy play-calling and cunning use of personnel groups and formations, the Patriots are better equipped than any team in the league to find a weakness, exploit it, and hoist the Lombardi Trophy once again.