Breaking Down the Best Third-Down Playcalls of the New England Patriots' Season

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Breaking Down the Best Third-Down Playcalls of the New England Patriots' Season
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
The Pats are the best in the league at converting third downs.

The New England Patriots face the Houston Texans on Monday Night Football, and we've got a third-down battle brewing.  As Bleacher Report columnist Mike Dussault pointed out in his game preview, this critical conference matchup features the Pats' top-ranked third-down offense against the Texans' top-ranked third down defense. 

In that context, let's look at a few of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' best third-down playcalls, to see how the Pats have managed an NFL-best 53-percent third-down conversion rate. 

Keep in mind, these are just some of my favorites—if you remember any other plays that had you jumping out of your seat on third down, leave them in the comments section below.

 

Patriots at Jets, 3rd-and-1—FB Fake HB Toss

I was lucky enough to attend the Thanksgiving Day Buttfumble Rumble, and let me tell you—despite the lopsidedness of the 49-19 final score in favor of New England, that first quarter was nerve-wracking.

While the game was still tight, this playcall had me out of my seat and screaming (never a good idea in hostile territory) about how brilliant it was.

Remember Robert Griffin's 46-yard read-option scamper against the New York Giants? This playcall operates on the same tenet—draw the end inside and shatter the defense's contain.

Here's a look.

The Pats line up in a variant of the Big I-formation, with both TEs on the short side of the field.  While generally the I-formation includes a fullback between the QB and HB, the Pats are creative with this position and fill it with other skill players (often blocking TEs).  

In this case, it's another HBStevan Ridley (green circle).  In the traditional tailback role is the speedy Shane Vereen (red circle). 

The Jets actually counter with a 3-3-5 nickel, with three CBs in Kyle Wilson, Ellis Lankster and Antonio Cromartie.  Still, with the Pats only sending out one WR (Julian Edelman), the Jets bring eight into the box by cheating S Laron Landry up to the line.

The playcall is a FB fake, HB pitch left.  The key to the success of the play is fooling OLB Demario Davis (orange circle) into coming in to stop Ridley instead of maintaining outside contain. 

As you can see, an overaggressive Davis is fooled by the fake—he sees Brady handing off to Ridley and comes in to make the stop.  Once Brady makes the pitch, it's too late for Davis to recover.  

LT Nate Solder lets Davis go to the inside—allowing the LB in to break his own contain—and moves upfield to block LB David Harris, the last potential tackler to that side (Harris and Solder are in the green circle).  WR Julian Edelman (top right) seals off Cromartie beautifully, leaving a huge hole for Vereen.

Davis is fast (4.53 second 40 yard dash) but not quite as fast as Vereen (4.5), and the Pats' RB already has a step.  He's able to scurry through that huge hole for seven yards and a key first down.

Why It Was Brilliant:  This was the perfect playcall to catch an overaggressive defense—which was playing at home in a key divisional game on national television—off-guard trying to make the big play.  The Jets had a fast, athletic front on the field with Davis and Harris at the LB positions, and the Pats took the Jets' athleticism and turned it against them.  

This conversion was part of a six-minute drive that ended with the Pats' first TD of the game.  After that, things got ugly for New York.  Beautiful play.

 

Patriots at Rams, 3rd-and-1—Bunch Formation, Deep Post

This is another example of a game for which the final score (45-7 Patriots) doesn't reflect the tension at the beginning of the game, when the Pats were down 7-0 after a 50-yard TD pass by St. Louis' Sam Bradford.

During the broadcast, the announcers mentioned a pre-game interview with Rams coach Jeff Fisher in which he talked about making sure the Pats settled for FGs, not TDs. This play was a red-zone opportunity that could have swung either way on third down.

Let's break it down.

The Pats line up in the shotgun, with a three WR bunch formation on the short side.   The two inside receivers—Deion Branch and Wes Welker—run a smash concept with Welker (red arrow) running a quick out from the slot and Branch (orange arrow) breaking in before settling just inside the numbers.

Brandon Lloyd (green arrow) is the outside receiver, and he runs a kind of soft flag/deep post that sees him run a go-route angled toward the middle of the field before a late break towards the back-right corner of the end zone.

The bunch formation confuses the Rams—Brady has multiple options to convert this first down.   Most importantly, he's got a clean pocket (with RB Danny Woodhead in for blitz pickup) and space to step into the throw.  

The Rams double Branch (though the spacing is questionable—Branch is still open to the outside) and have Welker reasonably covered to the outside.  

But they have no idea how to handle Lloyd.  

Janoris Jenkins (green arrow pointing towards Lloyd) is actually the slot CB on that play.  After the snap, Jenkins moves in to cover Branch—then he realizes Branch is already double-covered, locates Lloyd and flips his hips to chase him.  By that point, Lloyd is already breaking toward the back-right pylon, and he's wide open.

The playcall also freezes safety Craig Dahl (red circle) who is caught flat-footed in the deep middle.

Jenkins is nowhere close, and the safety is way too late breaking on the ball.  Lloyd is wide open in the back of the end zone, and Brady throws a strike for the touchdown.

I'll let Darth Vader provide the advanced football analysis on that completion:

Why It Was Brilliant:  Confusion is the name of the game in football—especially on offense.  You want the defense scrambling, desperately trying to figure out what in the sam-heck you're doing.  That was absolutely the case on this play.  There is no way that the Rams meant for Jenkins—the slot corner on the play—covering the outside receiver on the deep route.  Between that mix-up and the safety being absolutely frozen on the play, that bunch formation caused the Rams plenty of confusion.

 

Broncos at Patriots, 3rd-and-14—Desperation Out to Woodhead

All right, this isn't so much a great playcall as it is great execution between Brady and Woodhead.  The Pats are backed up in their own territory on 3rd-and-14 late in the first half, and this huge conversion continued a drive that ended in a field goal to put the Pats up by two scores.

Let's see what happened on the play.

The Pats line up in the shotgun with a three-WR, one TE formation, and the Broncos counter in the nickel.  Very little of that matters because there are pretty much four players that shape this play.  

The first, of course, is Tom Brady.  The second is LB Von Miller (orange circle), who destroys RT Sebastian Vollmer to the inside with a spin move that would make Dwight Freeney proud.   The last two? Danny Woodhead (red circle) who goes up the right B-gap to (seemingly) block, and LB Joe Mays (green circle), who tries to engage with Woodhead

Here you see Miller with inside leverage on Vollmer, which forces Brady to boot to his right in the next slide.  In the green circle, Woodhead appears to square up with Mays as if to block him, which causes Mays to settle as he prepares to engage with his blocker.  

It looks like this play is about to be blown up to end the drive.

Amazing job by Brady to keep his eyes downfield and his feet moving with pressure baring down on him.  

Also, Woodhead does a great job of slipping Mays and making himself available to his QB as the safety net.  Woodhead has been there for Brady in countless key third-down situations this year, and this is yet another crucial one.

Now it seems the Pats might just make something of a busted play.  

Woodhead catches the ball by the numbers, keeps his eyes downfield and motors past Mays for the first down and then some.  

Why It Was Brilliant: We'll never actually know how good the playcall was—unless the Pats intended for Miller to blow by Vollmer.  But this was yet another example of Brady managing pressure and buying time for routes to develop and his guys to get open.  It's a great play by Woodhead to get by his man and get open on a short dump-off for his QB under pressure, and then to take a pass short of the sticks and turn it into a big gain.

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