NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
There was a halftime shift in the New England Patriots’ comeback win over the Denver Broncos in Week 12. And while that was apparent in the 34-31 final score, it was also apparent in the use of rookie wide receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins.
As the second-round pick opened the game at “X” receiver, the undrafted free-agent opened the game No. 4 on the depth chart. Yet after intermission, their roles were switched. The 6’0”, 195-pound Thompkins found himself on the field, and the 6’3”, 200-pound Dobson found himself predominantly observing from the sidelines.
The beneficiary, whose first passing play came with five seconds left in the first half, ultimately finished with six catches on nine targets for 56 yards. On the other end, Dobson finished catchless over his 37 snaps, relieving an injured Thompkins for just two plays in the third.
At first glance, the personnel switch suggested that the 22-year-old Marshall wideout had been benched in favor of the 25-year-old Cincinnati product. But in reality, the decision delved deeper than that. Dobson was not spotted at Patriots practice on Wednesday due to a foot injury, and Thompkins’ skill set and route tree best suited Denver’s defense.
Now both pass-catchers have their respective penchants. Dobson excels on deeper patterns, finding openings and using his frame to box out defenders. Conversely, Thompkins excels in quick-separation patterns, breaking off the line of scrimmage and into the underneath-to-intermediate territory.
And versus the Broncos, the latter was more effective, as Denver diversified with press-man, press-bail and off-man coverages to absorb space. To figure out why that was the case, here is a closer look at how the two first-year pros were implemented, and how the Broncos countered them.
Aaron Dobson’s Route Tree
Dobson ran nine different types of routes against Denver. Here is a breakdown of the variety, as well as the methods employed to cover them.
- Fade Route: Four Plays
Four of Dobson’s patterns were fades, veering gradually towards the sideline and downfield. But when it came to the coverage facing him during these fades, the Broncos employed two off-man techniques – standing seven-to-10 yards deep in man coverage – and two press-bail techniques – lining up and exuding press at the line, but bailing out before snap to area of responsibility. Those measures inhibited Dobson from beating the defensive backs vertically off the snap.
- Dig Route: Eight Plays
Dobson’s most prevalent route on Sunday night was the dig. Varying between short five-yard digs and deeper 10-yard digs, Dobson got off the line while angling up and eventually in. With his size, Dobson is often a problem for defenses on this particular route. But Denver kept him at bay playing three press-man, three press-bail and two off-man coverages in his vicinity.
- Drag Route: One Play
For one snap in the Oct. 24 tilt, Dobson ran a drag across the underneath. And although he shed press-bail coverage and found a soft spot underneath the zone of linebackers after, he wasn’t the recipient of a pass.
- Sluggo Route: Two Plays
The sluggo route, or slant-and-go, has been a dynamic play in Dobson’s arsenal this season. Planting inward to draw defensive backs close before swinging back up, it is a play that can stretch the field. Although in the two times Dobson ran it versus Denver, the Broncos didn’t do much biting. The corners used off-man and press-man technique to force Dobson to beat them with late acceleration and physicality out of breaks.
- Fly Route: Three Plays
In a display of straight-line speed, Dobson also ran three fly routes. The “9” is simple in theory, but it requires subtle movement to outlast a defender by running straight. On Dobson’s three attempts, he was unable to do so because Denver played a mixture of press-bail and off-man. He had to reach the defender, and then he had to surpass the defender.
- Curl Route: One Play
For one snap, Dobson lined up in the seam and ran a curl route, bending back towards quarterback Tom Brady. He was well covered, however, with press-man shading just behind him.
- Out Route: One Play
For one play, Dobson lined up on the line and pedaled ahead for a 10-and-out. He did so opposite off-man, which made it difficult to find a medium for quarterback Brady. He looked elsewhere.
- Corner Route: One Play
Down in the red zone, Dobson was shipped out right on a corner route. The off-man coverage allowed him to cross the plane unruffled, but it did not allow him an opportunity to catch a touchdown pass. Press-man likely would have.
- Slant Route: One Play
Nearing the goal line, Dobson sprinted diagonally over the middle on a slant. The defensive back press-bailed on him, conceding the inside ground and playing Brady’s eyes. The play was ultimately a touchdown, but to slot receiver Julian Edelman.
It marked the last route for Dobson. Thompkins’ injury was minor enough for him to return on the next offensive drive. Whether or not Dobson aggravated a muscle remains to be disclosed, but he did not reappear.
Kenbrell Thompkins’ Route Tree
Thompkins’ route tally wound up more evenly distributed than Dobson’s. Thompkins ran 10 different route variations against Denver, and he performed nine of them at least twice.
- Sluggo Route: Three Plays
On the first play of Thompkins’ evening, the Patriots took a shot at the end zone before halftime. Thompkins was the intended receiver and was running a sluggo route. It was a pattern that the former El Camino College standout repeated twice more. The defense played off-man and off-zone against it, and the pass-catcher was targeted twice to no avail.
- Quick Out Route: Two Plays
Thompkins also ran two quick outs, playing the flat underneath and finding openings. The cornerbacks played off zone and off man for both, which helped Thompkins reel in two timely passes.
- Slant Route: Three Plays
Thompkins found clearance on three slants as well. Brushing inside against two press-bail and one off-zone techniques, he was thrown at twice and managed one reception. The quick cut afforded him space, with the defender grazing his outside hip.
- Fade Route: Three Plays
Thompkins checked off three fade routes, which was one less than Dobson. He was not thrown in this pattern, though as press-man and off-man coverage jammed him and shadowed him efficiently.
- Drag Route: Two Plays
For two snaps, Thompkins worked the drag route and curved parallel to the line of scrimmage. He combatted off-man for one of those snaps, snaring a pass in press-man on the other.
- Curl Route: Two Plays
Thompkins negotiated two curl routes against the Broncos. Both came during off-zone techniques. And one netted a catch, as the backpedaling send the corners downfield simultaneous to Thompkins’ pivot back to Brady.
- Out Route: Two Plays
Thompkins ran two out routes versus Denver. He was not targeted on either, as press-bail and off-man coverage stuck with him through the boundary cut. And the safety help shielded the interior.
- Skinny Post Route: Three Plays
Thompkins ran three skinny posts, driving directly downfield before merging towards the hashes. But the press-bail, off-zone and off-man coverage Thompkins fended off through safety territory did not yield a pass attempt in his direction.
- Corner Route: Two Plays
Thompkins shipped out on two corner routes, combating press-bail and off-man coverage. The byproduct of those techniques kept the opposition ahead of him. He wasn’t the first read on either pass play.
- Dig Route: Six Plays
Six plays saw Thompkins run an assortment of dig routes in the foreground. One less than Dobson, Thompkins fought three off-man techniques, two press-bail or zone techniques, and also one press-man technique. His one target and one reception on this route came when the defender was in press-bail, alleviating the inside cut.
Upon reflection, the reason for Dobson’s lack of impactful routes in the first half could be attributed to his running style, his routes, and his unideal matchups with defensive backs. And while Dobson’s departure in the second half was seemingly injury-related, Thompkins’ entrance in the second half was seemingly a schematic advantage for New England.
Both first-year pros have served important roles in the Patriots offense this season. But in many ways, their differing tendencies have seen one’s reps have come at the expense of the other. Their fits have varied based on the opponent. And in turn, their purpose is subject to change from one week to the next.