In his first career start, New England Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo completed 72.7 percent of his passes (24-of-33) for 264 yards and a score in the Week 1 win over the Arizona Cardinals. Those numbers -- along with a Total QBR of 73.0 -- mesh with the tape on the young quarterback. Garoppolo showcased his quick release, pocket management and ability to run the Patriots' offense with efficiency.
More importantly, the Patriots didn't have to reduce or simplify the game plan with Garoppolo taking the snaps. This was the call sheet that we see with Tom Brady running the show. Today, let's examine how Brady-like Garoppolo looked in Josh McDaniels' system producing against one of the NFL's more aggressive defensive units.
Wide receiver Julian Edelman caught seven passes for 66 yards, and the routes didn't differ from what we see him run with Brady at QB. These are underneath, high percentage throws (crosser, out, option). That's why the air yards per target on passes thrown to Edelman on Sunday night registered at 5.86. Get the ball out -- quickly -- on concepts that create space for the cat-quick WR.
Here's an example from early in the game, with the Patriots facing a third and long situation. Bring three-wide receiver personnel on the field in a Dakota alignment (tight end aligned as the backside receiver in a 3x1 formation), and target Edelman on the out route.
The Patriots run tight end Martellus Bennett on a backside dig route (paired with a flat), but the ball is designed to go to Edelman off the clear-out. It's a post-wheel concept out of trips. Run off the secondary, and expose the inside matchup with Edelman versus linebacker Deone Bucannon (who is playing with inside leverage).
Look at the space the Patriots have created for Edelman with the two outside receivers getting down the field. That allows the wide receiver to separate on the break from Bucannon and burst to the outside. With Garoppolo getting the ball out quickly, the Pats can move the sticks.
The route? It should look familiar; it's one of the top calls in McDaniels' system. Here's an example from the 2015 divisional playoffs against the Kansas City Chiefs, with Brady targeting Edelman to move the sticks.
Instead of running the post-wheel out of trips, the Patriots use double clear-outs. But the concept remains the same: three-wide personnel with Edelman finding space to run the out route.
It's like clockwork, really. That didn't change with Garoppolo in the lineup.
Pulling the guard on play-action
The Patriots have the best play-action game in the NFL because they pull the guard. It's a false run key that forces second-level defenders (linebackers and strong safeties rolled down) to step to the line of scrimmage. That opens a pocket or window for the quarterback to deliver an inside pop pass (slant) or dig route.
Last season, the Patriots ran this route out of double-tight end personnel with Brady under center against the Indianapolis Colts. Show the off-tackle power play, and expose the middle of the field with Rob Gronkowski.
With the Patriots pulling the guard, both Colts' linebackers read run and put their eyes in the backfield. That gives Gronk a free release up the field to run the dig route as Brady flips his hips off the run action and sets his feet. Now he has the window to deliver the ball.
Look at the space for Gronk. With both linebackers removed, the TE only has to catch the ball and make the safety miss to put six on the board.
On Sunday against the Cardinals, McDaniels ran a very similar route with a small adjustment. Given that Gronk missed the game because of an injury, the Patriots utilized the same pulling guard action with Edelman as the primary target on the inside pop pass.
Operating out the shotgun alignment, the Patriots show the same play-action. This looks like a one-back power run to the defense, and that forces the strong side linebacker to attack downhill at the snap, thereby vacating his zone. That creates space for Edelman to stem this route inside.
Check out the throwing window for Garoppolo -- and the ball is coming out quickly. This is perfect execution from the QB.
Yes, the formation is different, and so is the personnel. But the concept didn't really change. Show the ball on play-action, and use that lightning quick release to throw the inside pop. That's stealing.
The pick routes
On Sunday, Garoppolo was 10-of-11 for 126 yards, five first downs and a touchdown when targeting Edelman and Chris Hogan. Along with the underneath routes and the deep ball to Hogan, the Patriots utilized the pick route to move the sticks on third down.
Take a look at this example with Hogan aligned as the No. 3 receiver (count outside-in). The route? It's SLAB concept (Slant-Bench) out of trips. The goal? Create traffic for Hogan to run the bench (flat).
Another man-coverage beater from the Pats. Run the outside slant to rub (or pick) the defender aligned over Hogan. Yes, the outside receiver has to sell the slant to avoid a flag, but the Patriots have been running this with Brady forever. Force the defender to make a choice: Bubble over the top of the pick, or go under. Either way, you will be beaten in this situation.
This is easy money for Garoppolo, Hogan and the Patriots. With the pick set, Hogan can run the bench route, make the grab and start pushing the ball up the field.
Remember, McDaniels will run this route out of every formation and personnel grouping in the book to create a matchup he wants. That's what the Patriots did last season against the Pittsburgh Steelers in a deep red zone situation.
The Patriots brought four tight ends onto the field on this play, reduced the formation (which is a run key for the defense) and then shifted to a 2x2 spread look. Smart stuff. This forces the Steelers to walk linebackers out into coverage, which gives the Patriots another matchup advantage.
Again, we are looking at the SLAB concept. The same route out of a 2x2 look with Gronk on the slant and Scott Chandler running the bench.
Brady knows this is six before the ball is even snapped with Gronk on the inside release. That forces the linebacker to work over the top, which creates a free run to the flat for Chandler. Strike up the band -- again.
Unlike most quarterbacks who lack game experience, the Patriots didn't have to make major adjustments with Garoppolo under center. It was the same show because of Garoppolo's skill set and ability to run the system. The underneath routes to Edelman, the play-action, the pick routes and the combination concepts that create space for receivers to work -- Garoppolo showed he could do it all in his first regular-season start.
Even with Gronk on the shelf, this offense can continue to produce. The Pats look to be in good hands with Garoppolo throwing passes until Brady returns in Week 5.