Patriots film study: Zone defense against Tom Brady? Don’t even think about it

Tom Brady “knows the answers to the test,” as he likes to say.
Tom Brady “knows the answers to the test,” as he likes to say.barry chin/Globe Staff

A tip to opposing NFL defenses: Don’t play zone coverage against the Patriots’ passing attack.

Tom Brady knows before the snap where all the holes will be. And the Patriots receivers are smart enough to recognize the coverage and find the soft spots in the zone.

“You have to play man-to-man,” a former NFL general manager told me last week. “You’re going to need undersized and fast linebackers that can get off the field on third down by playing man-to-man.”

The Dolphins learned that in one series in the Patriots’ 43-0 win Sunday.

Antonio Brown’s three catches on the Patriots’ opening drive all came against Cover 3 zone, which made it easier for Brady to target Brown. Brady knew where all the holes would be, and didn’t have to worry about Brown beating a defender off the line of scrimmage.


The first catch was an 18-yarder over the middle on the second play of the game. James White went in motion, and no Dolphin defender followed him, giving away the zone coverage and telling Brady that the middle of the field would come open.

The second completion was a quick out for 10 yards. Cornerback Eric Rowe was sprinting back to cover the deep ball while Brown was calmly cutting toward the sideline for an easy catch.

And Brown’s third catch was an 8-yard hitch route. Once again, Rowe was sprinting back while Brown took the easy underneath throw.

The Dolphins learned their lesson, switching to man-to-man coverage for the rest of the day against Brown. They even double-teamed him several times in the second half. It mostly worked, as Brown struggled to get open and had only one catch for 20 yards after the first drive.

If opposing defensive coordinators were watching, the message was obvious: Don’t play zone coverage against the Patriots.


Other observations after re-watching the All-22 tape:

Patriots on offense

■   One of Brady’s favorite sayings is that he “knows the answers to the test” — that he’s been playing football so long, he knows how to read all of the coverages and where to go with the football.

Brady’s 20-yard touchdown throw to Brown late in the second quarter was a perfect example.

The Patriots came out in a shotgun, two-by-two formation, with White in the backfield. White went in motion to the outside, and a safety trailed him, signifying man-to-man coverage. This left free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick as the lone deep defender, patrolling the middle of the field. It also left the deep corners wide open.

Brady saw this, and called an “alert” at the line of scrimmage. Brown was lined up in the left slot one-on-one against Jomal Wiltz, a former Patriots practice squad cornerback, and Brady wanted to get him the ball.

Brady took the snap, and immediately looked right, toward Julian Edelman. Fitzpatrick initially shaded over toward Brown’s side, but broke toward Edelman when he saw Brady’s body pointed that way. After moving Fitzpatrick out of the way, Brady bounced back to the left and fired a perfect back-shoulder throw to Brown at the goal line for the touchdown.

■   Brady’s best throw of the day was an 18-yard laser to Phillip Dorsett on third and 17 in the second quarter. The ball had great velocity, and perfect placement — low and away from Dorsett, where the receiver could use his body to box out the defender.


Brady doesn’t look like a 42-year-old, at least early in the season.

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■   Brown struggled against Rowe’s press-man coverage for much of the second half, and was held without a catch on four targets. Brown had trouble fighting off the jam at the line of scrimmage, and it knocked him off his timing. Something to watch moving forward.

■   Matt LaCosse looked impressive in his debut, playing 42 snaps after missing the season opener with an ankle injury. He was solid in the run game, helping spring Sony Michel on a 10-yard run with a nice seal block. LaCosse did a great job of selling a run block on a play-action fake, then leaking out down the field for a 23-yard catch.

And the Patriots tried to hit a big play down the middle to LaCosse on a play-action pass out of a jumbo package (two tight ends and a fullback). But Shaq Mason got bullied by Jarvis Jenkins and allowed a sack.

■   Michel ran better this game, gaining 85 yards on 21 carries (4.0 average). But watching him run, you get the sense that he only gains the yards that his offensive line creates for him, and that he rarely picks up extra yards on his own. He also seems to get tackled by his shoestrings a lot.

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Patriots on defense

■   Jamie Collins filled up the stat sheet with two interceptions, a touchdown, and half a sack. But when Bill Belichick greeted Collins in the locker room after the game, he raved about a play early in the first quarter.

“Started with that speed sweep,” Belichick said.

The Dolphins ran a misdirection play on the second play of the game. While the entire offense flowed to the right to fake a run play to Kalen Ballage, Ryan Fitzpatrick coyly handed off to receiver Jakeem Grant on a jet sweep to the left. Ten players on the Patriots defense fell for the fake to Ballage, and so did the cameraman. But Collins didn’t bite, stayed home on the edge, and stuffed Grant right into the turf for a 4-yard loss.

The play was the epitome of Belichick’s mantra, “Do your job.”

■   Speaking of Collins, not only has he played 83 defensive snaps through two games, he also has played 28 special teams snaps, on field goal and punt units. It is not often you see a veteran player who has earned as much money as Collins be willing to play so many spots on special teams. But Collins has been a terrific addition so far this year, in two phases of the game.

■   The Patriots are showing through two games that their base defense is probably going to be mostly a traditional 3-4. On Sunday, they had Danny Shelton on the nose, Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler at end, Collins and Kyle Van Noy at outside linebacker, and Dont’a Hightower and Elandon Roberts at inside linebacker. It’s a bigger, physical package designed to stop the run.


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■   But the Patriots also got plenty creative with their packages in Miami. Cornerback Jonathan Jones lined up at safety for much of the first series. And on their first third down of the day, the Patriots showed a 1-4-6 dime defense, with Butler as the only down lineman. They had Chase Winovich and Van Noy playing wide on the edge, Collins and Hightower filling the inside gaps, and Patrick Chung playing at the line of scrimmage on top of the tight end.

The similar skill sets and versatility of all those guys up front make it tough for the offense to diagnose who will be rushing and who will be dropping into coverage.

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin