It’s no secret that the Patriots focused on using their running backs in the passing game this season. That tendency was on full display in their AFC Championship Game victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.
Play 1: 3rd & 4, 1:13 remaining in the 2nd quarter, Patriots leading 7-0
We’ve got a slant/wheel combo on the right side out of a tight formation. I’ve talked about the benefit of running things out of a tight formation in the past, but let’s revisit that love here. One of the reasons I love this look is because it compresses the defense to the middle and can allow for more room on the edge. If you can disrupt the defense inside, you can have a lot of field to work with.
With the single high safety shaded to the other side of the field, all the Patriots have to do is delay the defense and they’ve got the edge. The slant is able to do that, forcing the defender over James White  to take a wide path. That allows White to get the edge with a lot of space to work with.
It’s not a great throw from Brady – White makes a great adjustment back to the ball – but it gets the job done. 5 yards and a 1st down. You can see the big-play potential off a relatively easy throw on this concept.
Play 2: 1st & 10, 12:56 remaining in the 3rd quarter, Patriots lead 14-7
The tight end runs straight up the field from off the end of the line, looking to disrupt the interior defenders. That action would help spring the wheel route from the offset back. If the wheel route isn’t open, the other running back is running a flat route underneath.
The linebacker gets wide up the disruption and picks up the wheel. That’s fine. They still have the flat route.
But the Chiefs are looking for it. Justin Houston  looks like he’s rushing off the end of the line, but he ends up dropping back and under the flat route.
It’s a nice call from the Chiefs, but the pressure doesn’t get to Brady so he’s able to wait it out. Rex Burkhead  heads upfield and Brady hits him past Houston and outside of Reggie Ragland .
Great concept, great execution and great protection.
Play 3: 2nd & 7, 12:11 remaining in the 4th quarter, Patriots lead 17-14
Pretty simple. You know the song by now. Sing along with me.
Tight formation. Tight end off the end of the line is running a curl, which serves to disrupt the interior defense. James Develin  runs to the outside and into the open space.
The route from the tight end does just enough. Also, the linebacker takes a step towards the line, giving him a tougher angle to the ballcarrier. Easy 9 yards.
Play 4: 2nd & 7, 10:45 remaining in the 4th quarter, Patriots lead 17-14
I’ve been talking about tight formations, so I wanted to make sure we looked at this one. It looks different from the others – we have an actual wide receiver here – but all that means is that they’ll find another way to get the edge.
The outside receiver gets an inside release and continues on a crossing route. The slot receiver runs a curl/disruption route. He basically makes himself as wide as possible to disrupt the defender. It works perfectly. Look at the defender: he has to go over the curl, then go back underneath after the cut of White.
That gives White the ball in space. The defender going over the top cuts off the outside and the converging interior defense helps limit the yards. Overall, it’s a good defensive play by the Chiefs, but it’s still a nice concept from the Patriots and it still picked up an easy 5 yards.
Play 5: 1st & 10, 7:45 remaining in the 4th quarter, Patriots behind 17-21
Like the previous play, we start with an outside receiver running a crosser. We don’t have a slot receiver, but we do have a pro set backfield with the quarterback in shotgun. The right running back is running a wheel while the left running back is running a flat route after play action.
That’s Cordarrelle Patterson  as the left running back. Like the previous play, the Chiefs cover it well and limit the damage. It’s a good idea, but the Patriots were running so much to the flat that the Chiefs were keying in on it.
And why is that so important?
The Patriots didn’t go to the middle on this particular pass, but you can see the opening the running backs out of the backfield helps to open up. The linebackers kick out wide to pick up those routes – both of which start out looking like flat routes – opening up a nice area in the middle of the field. The Patriots love running dig routes, and if you can open up a spot that big in the middle, you can do a lot of damage with them.
Set up your tendencies. Get the defense leaning. Then hit them in the area they were forced to vacate. Like taking candy from a baby. From several large, angry babies.