NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
The 6’3”, 200-pound Aaron Dobson was a prominent figure in the second halves of New England Patriots preseason games this summer. No. 17 stood on the football field, acclimating against fringe players who would be cut in the coming weeks, all while fellow rookie wide receivers, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins, stood on the sidelines with veterans.
Those reps may have been humbling for the second-round draft pick, but they were needed for the high-upside Marshall product to transition from Conference USA to the NFL. And nine weeks into the regular season, that transition is well ahead of schedule.
Through Dobson’s first seven games this fall, the 22-year-old collected 26 passes for 324 yards and two touchdowns. The “X” wideout tallied more than 50 yards and three receptions in four of those contests, showing an ability to break open down field, with longs of 26, 39 and 53 yards.
However, on the other side of the coin, Dobson also tallied a league-leading seven dropped passes and served as the intended target on two interceptions over that span, according to Pro Football Focus. The former portion of that trend continued against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 9, as two passes from quarterback Tom Brady hit the turf. Although, what resonated more than those two incompletions on Nov. 3 was what Dobson did with two completions.
He scored touchdowns.
17-Yard Back-Shoulder Fade
Over the first three quarters of play on Sunday evening, Dobson registered three catches for 32 yards. But as the fourth and final quarter opened up, so did the rookie.
Up three points at the 13:51 mark in the final frame, the Patriots left huddle for 2nd-and-7 in “21” personnel with halfback Brandon Bolden and fullback James Develin in the backfield, as well as tight end Rob Gronkowski shadowing right tackle Marcus Cannon.
From the Pittsburgh 17, that jumbo set kept the Steelers in a 3-4 base defense, committing right inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons to Bolden, free safety Ryan Clark to Develin, and left inside linebacker Stevenson Sylvester to Gronkowski.
For Brady and Co., the outside was identified as a three-on-two battle, with strong safety Troy Polamalu occupying centerfield, left cornerback Ike Taylor monitoring flanker Julian Edelman, and right cornerback William Gay engaged with Dobson.
For Dobson, this matchup would be the venue for a back-shoulder fade down the left sideline – reminiscent of the pattern he ran to no avail in overtime versus the New York Jets in Week 7.
As Brady handled the snap from center Ryan Wendell and took a five-step drop, Dobson released off the line with a hop-step. His downhill lean and low-angled arms left the 5’10”, 190-pound corner on his heels, grounding his right foot and preparing to backpedal.
A yard off the line of scrimmage, Dobson’s arms were activated, swinging like pendulums in rhythm with his strides. And those strides became more certain as he encroached on Gay.
The route-runner rose his right leg up in an effort to plant and propel towards the boundary. Concurrently, Gay’s balanced backpedal shortened as he veered away from the eyes of the QB, who was waiting for his first read to exploit the single-coverage with little help over top.
Dobson’s foot touched down, and he sent his right arm along with it to optimizing his quickness out of the cut. He bent inside out, causing Gay’s arms to thrust back and turn to face the edge of the field.
This would be a critical fraction of a second for Dobson. If he could get enough burst out of the break, he could get even with his man. And if he could get even, he could get open.
That fraction of a second was vital for Dobson. The receiver got up to speed and headed for the straightaway with little wasted movement. Gay was with him step for step, but the gap between the seven-year pro and the greenhorn had been closed.
Brady saw that, and rifled a pass Dobson’s way. The pass-catcher oriented his left foot towards the hashes and redirected towards the incoming ball. His eyes locked on it, while Gay’s were locked on him.
The defensive back extended his arms, bumping his foe’s facemask and shoulder pad. Dobson’s arms extended as well, in search of last-second separation against a Steeler who could not see the destination of the pass.
“I just feel like it’s tough adjusting to it and just seeing it quick,” Dobson said postgame about the back-shoulder fade. “You just got to get your head around and when you see the back throw, you just got to adjust to it.”
Dobson did adjust to it. He got himself in a stance that coincided with retreating, back to the out-of-bounds line.
Dobson’s feet squared back to the pass, sticking in-bounds in the process, right as the pass zeroed into his grasp. Albeit with some ricochet off his forearms, Dobson was in possession of the football.
He would not relinquish possession. Tucking the ball with his hands to his chest as he backed in across the plane and inside the pylon, it was a focused catch that Gay could not wrestle out.
Dobson skidded into the end zone with his right hip in-bounds before Gay collided overhead. After review, it was confirmed as a 17-yard touchdown, stretching New England’s lead to 10.
“It was a good time to catch one, I think it is my first back-shoulder catch,” Dobson said afterwards. “It feels really good; it shows that the hard work is paying off,” he added.
81-Yard Vertical Route
Just over eight minutes later with the score 41-31, New England’s offense displayed “13” personnel from its own 19-yard line. “Big Back” LeGarrette Blount geared deep behind Brady, and tight ends Matthew Mulligan, Michael Hoomanawanui and Gronkowski hunkered in three-point stances on right side of the offensive line.
That run-exuding showcase forced Pittsburgh to crunch its 3-4 alignment up, shipping nine of its 11 defenders within shouting distance of the football. Yet once again, running the ball was not in New England’s plans. Only two of the tight ends on-line were prepped to block.
Instead, New England’s plans were to exploit the play-action fake to Blount and free up either Dobson or Gronkowski with their respective variations of out-and-up vertical routes.
Gay and Polamalu played the strong side in the territory of the tight end trio, Taylor and Clark played the weak side in the territory of Dobson.
Brady took the snap and meandered towards Blount, selling the football out. This subtlety was enough to draw the linebackers and four members of the secondary in.
Head-to-head with Dobson, the 6’2”, 195-pound Taylor created a jam and tied the receiver up prior to the five-yard bubble. That jam, though, left Taylor flat-footed as his assignment stayed low with his arms up, speed-releasing around the 33-year-old’s outside shoulder.
Brady saw the second level unfold after the fake handoff transpired. He accounted for the two DBs ahead of Gronkowski towards the right numbers, but he also accounted for the two DBs behind and inside Dobson towards the left numbers.
He chose the left numbers.
As Brady launched the ball Dobson’s way, the receiver – seeing his coverage beaten – launched his hand up into the air.
Brady’s throw soared out in front of Dobson, who was able to make contact with it palms-up. His gallop and slant didn’t stop him from staying on his feet through the catch.
Pulling the ball in, Dobson was able to keep pace and direct back towards midfield. Clark swept behind him.
At that juncture, he gazed back to see that Clark’s momentum had carried him out of bounds. With that sight, Dobson knew that he had surpassed the final obstacle in the Steelers defense.
Dobson jogged the final 10 yards into the end zone. It was his second TD of the tilt and fourth of his career.
“(Taylor) just kind of jumped the run,” Dobson explained later, referring to his 81-yard catch-and-run. “I knew I had him beat, so me and Tom connected on the long ball.”
Not only did the long ball make the game a decisive 48-31 one, but Brady managed to make history, passing Fran Tarkenton for seventh on the all-time passing yardage list and amassing his third-highest passing output with 432 yards.
The long, athletic field-stretcher was an integral part in making that happen.
Dobson finished with five catches for 130 yards and the two aforementioned touchdowns. It was a game of firsts for the downfield threat; it was his first career 100-yard game, and it was also his first career multi-touchdown game. That set him ahead, as The Boston Herald‘s Jeff Howe pointed out, Dobson only needs 13 more catches and 36 yards to have the most productive rookie season of any wideout in the Brady era.
Now Dobson is only eight games into his professional resume, but he’s not the same player he was in April. He’s not the same player he was in August or September. He’s ahead of his trajectory. And there’s no telling where he will land.
“I’m getting more comfortable with the offense, but I still have a long way to go,” said Dobson.