This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Sept. 18 NFL Preview Issue. Subscribe today!
BILL BELICHICK HAD barely lowered the Lombardi trophy before he began reloading. A new receiver (Brandin Cooks), a new cornerback (Stephon Gilmore) and re-signed linebacker Dont'a Hightower help make the Pats prohibitive favorites, with a 32 percent chance to win the Super Bowl, according to FPI. It's not just the personnel moves that make New England so dominant, though. It's the playcalling. Here are some schemes that show why this team looks unstoppable.
A five-receiver play becomes a one-on-one win
This scheme allows the Patriots to carve out space for Brandin Cooks underneath, with Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell pushing the top of the secondary down the field. The play puts Cooks in position to win a one-on-one matchup: He releases up the field after the snap and creates separation when he cuts toward the now-vacated area of the coverage. Tom Brady gets a clear target on a high-percentage throw, and the play allows Cooks to make the catch in the open field. With TE Rob Gronkowski on the backside dig route and RB James White releasing to the flat, Brady has options elsewhere. But Cooks is his first choice on a route that will move the sticks -- every time.
How to sell the run and fuel a safety's nightmares
The Patriots have the NFL's best play-action because they dress up the passing concept with formation and false-run keys. With Danny Amendola aligned in a reduced split and two tight ends on the field (Dwayne Allen, Gronkowski), this play is a run alert for the defense. The scheme is sold even harder at the snap, when the guard pulls to the open side of the formation and RB Rex Burkhead carries out a fake. If it's a good sell -- and it almost always is -- the linebackers move a couple of steps to tackle Burkhead. This removes the second level of the defense and creates a window for Gronk on the seam route. The result is a 15-to-20-yard gain that requires the safety to make an open-field tackle on Gronk. That's trouble.
Wait, Belichick just put the running back where?!
The Pats' running backs -- White, Burkhead and Dion Lewis -- are hybrids who can morph into versatile receivers, which creates matchup problems. Here, the Patriots use three wideouts, a tight end and a running back, and deploy White as the receiver wide right. The move forces the defense to walk out a linebacker to cover White -- giving the Pats the matchup advantage. With Gronkowski occupying the inside defender on the shallow cross and Cooks widening his coverage on the flat route, the Patriots have once again created a window for Brady to deliver a high-percentage throw. Against a linebacker, White more times than not wins the route, breaking the slant back inside with room to run after the catch.
Decoys! Mayhem! Brady's piercing blue eyes!
Here, the Pats move both backs (H, F) outside as decoys. This widens the defense and allows Brady to focus on three inside targets: Hogan, Cooks and Gronkowski. At the snap, Hogan and Gronkowski release down the field on seam routes. Brady can now manipulate the defense with his eyes, checking to see whether it uses one or two safeties, and create an inside throwing window. Underneath, Cooks carries the drag route across the field against zone coverage or, facing man-to-man, converts to a quick-cutting pivot route. All of this generates multiple matchup problems and caters to the talents of Cooks, Hogan and Gronkowski.
SO, SURE, THE Pats are great, but they're not invulnerable. From the Seahawks' defensive speed to the Falcons' schemes to the Steelers' loaded offense, here's how contenders might attack them.
Falcons: Foil 'em with "1 jump" coverage
Atlanta's defense had a pick-six against Brady in the Super Bowl and dominated for three quarters, helped by its "1 jump" scheme, which takes away the Pats' underneath crossing routes. Here, the Falcons show a two-deep safety alignment with man coverage underneath. At the snap, though, strong safety Keanu Neal sneaks down. Neal can then "jump" Cooks on the underneath crosser. This allows the nickelback, Robert Alford, to drop his coverage and lie in the weeds. With Gronk on the deep crosser, Alford can slide underneath the route and bait Brady into the throw.
Steelers: Match 'em TD for TD
While other teams focus on bottling up Brady, the Steelers can put up loads of points. They have two of the NFL's most dynamic threats in Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell. Here, the Steelers show a bunch look to the left side and run the "spot" or "snag" combination (corner, curl, flat). To the back side, the Steelers flex Bell out wide, with Brown aligned inside him. The double-slant route combo pressures the Patriots to account for both. If the Patriots bracket Brown with a safety or leave the safety in the post, Brown can occupy two players on the inside release. That leaves Bell in a favorable one-on-one matchup with a linebacker or safety on the outside slant. Bell's ability to separate means a quick six in the red zone.
Seahawks: Beat 'em with team speed
With a healthy Earl Thomas manning the deep middle and a pass rush that never stops, the Seahawks don't have to be exotic in their game plan vs. Brady. In fact, Seattle's core cover 3 is an ideal scheme to play on third down. Here, the Seahawks show a two-deep look before Thomas rolls to the center and Kam Chancellor moves up to the sticks, creating a four-across scheme underneath. The Seahawks sit at the first-down marker and let the DL hunt down Brady and force him to dump the ball underneath. They drive on the throw -- with speed -- and tackle. That's a win for Seattle.