After a bitter contract dispute in 2006, Bill Belichick and Deion Branch decided to split ways (Branch being traded to Seattle). No one would know that this was the beginning of Belichick's journey voyage into being an offensive innovator.
In trading Branch, Belichick left his WR cupboard almost bare. He carried four WRs in regular season and only three in the postseason.
In Branch's absence, Josh McDaniel and Belichick would need to formulate an offense for the upcoming season.
With only Troy Brown, Reche Caldwell and Jabbar Gaffney (who joined the club in October) as their pass catchers, the Patriots would have to be creative in finding ways to produce on offense.
In the preseason, they toyed with the TEs and RBs, moving them around into WR positions and in group formations.
2006 saw Tom Brady have his 9th best year statistically, but maybe his overall best career performance. Spreading the ball around and using the TEs and Backs more prominently created a certain dynamic in the matchups that were made. Having a RB on the line against a LB that isn't that good in pass coverage is an advantage. So is having a TE who is suddenly matched up against a slot CB who is at a big physical advantage.
The spread offense was developed by Urban Myer, who devised it while the Head Coach of the University of Utah. He then became the Head Coach of the University of Florida in 2005 and brought his potent offensive playbook with him.
He now could match the high octane offense with top level explosive talent. This was the opposite of the Patriots situation in 2006 where they were void of elite talent except for QB at the skill positions. What Urban Meyer had, Belichick saw as innovative and also something that could work at then NFL level.
The spread isn't a gimmick offense like the 'Wildcat". It's a full blown system that has proved the theory that an offense could be successful operating out of the shotgun. It was the first time in NFL history when the Patriots ran it as a base for more than 50% of their offensive plays out of the shotgun.
The spread forces defenses to cover the entire field by lining up WRs /TEs/RBs in all 5 positions on the LOS. Meyer used mostly WRs because of the speed and explosive plays that could be run. Belichick in his infancy in using the philosophy utilized this in 2006 without the WR portion as they did not have any speed WRs.
What makes the spread offense so difficult is the multiple option aspect of it. This forces defense into basic coverages, as playing man to man against it would be a mistake. The use of empty sets further forces defenses into simple schemes.Belichick was trying this out literally as the 2006 season progressed - looking for mismatches and changing the way he thought about offense.
In early 2007, Belichick and Josh McDaniels took a trip to Florida for a scouting mission on the spread offense. What they first learned is that they needed fast WRs and a highly productive slot.
He traded for Randy Moss and signed Donte Stallworth, both speed demons. Belichick then signed RFA WR Wes Welker away from Miami and kept Jabbar Gaffney, who was an ideal number four WR in a spread offense.
In breaking down the principles, we'll use the 'Double slot set' where the Flanker, Split end and both slot positions are lined up. The QB and WRs are looking at the Safety position to see what the coverage is.
A 'Cover 1' means both man to man with safety help, or a three deep four under. This translates that there are six men in the box. If there are six in the box, the call is to run the ball.
A 'Cover 2' means there are five in the box and the call is to run the ball. Finally, no safety called a ‘Zero’ means there are five men in the box and the call is to pass.
The logic goes against traditional pro concepts that if there's 5 or 6 in the box, you should run. The QB looks to throw underneath against press man to man with receiver 'rubs' to free guys against man. It deploys routes against man to man, such as options and whip routes.
The QB and WR will work the routes according to the defensive alignment (see route tree below). Inside routes are even numbered and outside are odd numbered for play recognition.
The running game has the HB positioned next to the QB and he pass blocks from this as well. The action is similar to a draw, except the QB isn't dropping back; he's in a stationary position. The principles for running the ball are similar to a single back set. There is no fullback or lead blocker unless it comes from someone in motion.
In New England’s version, TEs are incorporated into the WR sets and prove to be integral not only as mismatches in the passing game, but as blockers who can motion and wham block along the line. This creates a dimension of deception as all the movement can result in counter plays once the defense plays it the first few times.
The Patriots used the running game less than 50%, but that doesn't mean they didn't value it. Remember that the rule is run when it's 6 or 7 in the box and pass when it's five. The blocking concepts for the Patriots were zone based and matched what was required to block for the spread offense. The standard runs are the inside zone, the counter and the trap.
What makes the New England spread so dangerous is when play action is incorporated.
The QB has the HB next to him so he can hand the ball off quick and defenders have to react (most defenses as rule, play run first and pass second). A play action fake with the HB freezes the LBs and CBs (catching them looking into the backfield), and gives the WRs/TEs time to get off the line and into their routes. Also having the QB in the shotgun allows more options in running play action reverses, a staple in the Patriots offense. Play action also helps with the draws as now DLs and LBs are looking for the fake and this slows down their reaction time.
There are many facets to the New England offense, but the spread brought a traditional offense into an innovation that became a trend in the NFL.
Bill Belichick is known as a defensive genius; however, one might want to rethink both offense and defense.