Analysis Notebook: TNF, Week 2
The biggest errors in football games tend to be mental rather than physical ones. It usually takes some work to physically impose your will on an opponent, but walk-in touchdowns can happen in an instant over a simple mental error from anybody on the field. Top draft picks are almost universally great athletes, that’s rarely in question, and what prevents them transitioning smoothly to the NFL is the mental side of the game.
Usually that means picking up the complexities of scheme and the additional technique and information imparted to them once they reach the pros — but sometimes it’s the simplest of mistakes that can blow things open, something that happens at the lowest levels of the game and, as we’ll see, in the NFL as well.
This wasn’t a high scoring game, but one of the two touchdowns scored in it highlights just such a mental error, from Jets top pick, Dee Milliner. The man selected to essentially replace Darrelle Revis was ultimately benched later in the game for blowing a couple of plays according to Rex Ryan, and this was the biggest mistake of the bunch, leading to a simple touchdown by the Patriots.
13:01, 1st Quarter – New York Jets @ New England Patriots
To New England’s credit, they started the ball rolling with an unusual personnel grouping and formation on 3rd-and-2 from the Jets’ 39-yard line. They came out with six offensive linemen, three wide receivers and tailback Stevan Ridley in the backfield. This immediately caused some confusion in the middle of the Jets’ defense and several players could be seen gesticulating before the snap looking for clarification, including Antonio Cromartie as he headed out toward his receiver at the top of the screen. Luckily for Cromartie, in this situation he is always going to be on an island in man coverage so he can get away with just playing it by feel without needing clarification.
The Patriots both amplifed the confusion and took advantage of it with the speed at which they broke the huddle, got up to the line of scrimmage and snapped the ball. Though everybody talks about the hurry-up offense and up-tempo, no-huddle offenses being the current trend, there are many more ways to use tempo and speed to your advantage, some going back as early as you can imagine. The Patriots know they’re breaking out an unusual personnel and formation combination, so the less time they give the Jets to survey it and adjust to it the better.
While Cromartie headed out to take the isolated receiver to the top of the picture, the Patriots lined up their other two receivers in tight end formation to either side of the line — in tight, but in a two-point stance ready to either block for the run or release into a pass pattern. Milliner and Cromartie were typically playing on opposite sides of the field all evening, and when the Jets had to cover three receivers, Milliner was not the corner that made his way to the slot. That player was Antonio Allen (such as with 9.16 to go in Q1 or when he lined up in coverage over Edelman with 14.18 to go in the same quarter), who here settled down in the box on Julian Edelman’s side of the line, ready to cover for his release or come down against the run. Milliner should have been aligned to the bottom of the picture covering Aaron Dobson, but when the teams broke the huddle he had too many bodies between him and Dobson to see him.
Milliner was looking at the back of the huddle for the second receiver to tell him where to align, but he simply never saw there was a third receiver in the formation on the far side of the field. The most basic of mistakes — failing to see exactly who the Patriots broke the huddle with — leads the Jets to not cover one side of the field entirely. To be fair to Milliner, nobody else on the Jets helps him out by pointing out the screw up. Allen didn’t correct him when he lined up right next to him, covering the same receiver, and FS Dawan Landry only noticed something was amiss just before the snap. Even then all he did was point to the double-covered receiver without making any adjustment to cover Dobson.
When the Patriots snapped the ball the Jets crashed toward the run, with only Cromartie in isolation on the backside, and Milliner — incorrectly covering the backside release from Edelman — hanging back to contend with the play action fake. By the time they realized this is a pass play it was already game over, as Dobson leaked through behind the defense and found himself with an entire half of the field in which to run free. Brady simply lofted the ball over the top and waited for him to cover the final yards into the end zone.
This was a terrible mental error from Milliner, and was likely a big part of the reason he got benched later in the game, but the irony is that it wasn’t a schematic mistake, or a misunderstanding of concept or any of the usual Xs and Os quirks that usually trip up young defensive backs. It was the most basic of football errors — simply misreading what came out of the offensive huddle.
When people talk about making your own luck this is the kind of play they’re referring to. The Patriots caught a break when the Jets failed to read what was coming out of the offensive huddle and consequently left a receiver completely uncovered for a touchdown. However, it was an unusual personnel and formation combination that started the ball rolling, and the speed with which they got to the line and snapped the ball that ensured the Jets didn’t have time to spot their error and correct it before it was too late that ensured this mistake cost 7 points.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam