Imagine you're lining up across from Dolphins wide receiver Tyreek Hill on a typical Sunday afternoon in the NFL.
You're already thinking about your responsibilities. What coverage the defense is in, what routes you know he likes to run from this formation and down and distance, anything to anticipate where the fastest receiver in football might go once the ball is snapped. Then, Hill takes off across the field in motion. If it's man coverage, you probably need to chase him. If it's zone coverage, it causes a chain reaction of communication to handle the motion with several of your teammates. Hike!
Motion at the snap is not a revolutionary scheme, but the Dolphins, under head coach Mike McDaniel, are trailblazers in what some teams call "cheat" motion, where receivers will run horizontally across the field to gain speed and then roll into their routes. With league rules prohibiting offensive players from moving toward the line of scrimmage at the snap, it's the closest thing the NFL has to a head start, like Arena or Canadian football.
Due to Miami's success with using motion at the snap, other offenses around the league are starting to adopt these schemes, including Bill O'Brien and the Patriots. Over the last two weeks, the Patriots ranked third in the NFL with a motion rate of 72.7%. On plays with motion, the Patriots have a league-high 58.3% play success rate. So, the motion is working and will likely stay for New England's offense.
"We always tease around as receivers like 'man, we motion every time,' but it's very important for what Mac [Jones] sees," wide receiver Kendrick Bourne told Patriots.com. "It gives him ideas of what the defense is doing and stuff. It gets tiring sometimes, but it's important for our success. The faster we motion, the better. But it does get tiring, like when we are in two-minute, you're like, 'oh, I don't want to motion.' But it's good for us."
"It helps Mac, and it helps us be a better team. Sometimes, it gets you open, too, which is a win. It's a love, hate thing," Bourne continued.
Although it might be tiring for the receivers, with Bourne joking about wearing an Apple Watch to track his steps, it's paid huge dividends. Along with giving a coverage indicator to the quarterback, the Patriots are spreading out the defense to create more space while setting up foot races for their faster skill players into the voids generated by the motion.
"I definitely enjoyed that part of the game. We do that to get guys open, create areas in the defense that become open because of that, and you see that around the NFL, a lot of teams use motion. High school football, it's big now. College football it's been big for a while. I definitely enjoy watching other teams use it as well and what you can learn from that information," Patriots quarterback Mac Jones told reporters this week.
|Mac Jones vs. Man Coverage||Last Two Games||First Five Games|
|Yards Per Pass||8.1||4.2|
Specifically for the Patriots, adding more motion at the snap into the offense has helped New England solve its issues against man coverage. This season, the Pats offense has faced the 11th-highest percentage of man coverage defense (25.1%), while Jones and the passing offense has mostly struggled against those coverages. In the first five weeks, Jones ranked 33rd out of 34 qualified quarterbacks in expected points added per drop-back against man coverage (-0.66). However, with O'Brien dialing up more motion to help create separation, Jones is now adding a league-best +0.72 expected points when defenses play man-to-man in the last two weeks.
A big reason for the turnaround has been the emergence of wide receiver Demario Douglas in last week's upset win over the Bills. The Pats were easing in the rookie to start, and then he missed their Week 6 loss to the Raiders with a concussion. But Douglas was unleashed with a season-high 74 scrimmage yards on five touches against Buffalo last Sunday.
On the very first play from scrimmage for the Patriots offense, O'Brien used Douglas on a "cheat" motion to manipulate man coverage. With the Bills in man coverage, slot corner Taron Johnson had to chase the first-year jitterbug across the field as the Pats ran a quick-game concept to get the ball out quickly to the explosive rookie in the left flat. Douglas put Johnson in a blender as he turned upfield with the ball, gaining nine yards on first down.
Later in the game, the Patriots would hand the ball off to Douglas on a jet sweep again against man coverage. This time, wide receiver Jalen Reagor blocks the man on Douglas to spring the rookie, who makes another defender whiff on a tackle, for a 20-yard gain.
Like the Dolphins, the Patriots will build motion into their running game. Above, Bourne mimics an end around with "orbit" motion, which forces the play-side edge defender to respect the outside run and gets the linebacker level to bump over a gap, opening an easier rushing path through the middle of the defense for RB Rhamondre Stevenson.
"I did that a lot in college at Liberty, especially my last year we did a lot of motion. Probably every play," rookie wide receiver Demario Douglas said. "Motion can be like just to see if the defense is in man or zone, and then that can help us run our play. In certain plays, it can help me get leverage on a defender."
During his weekly media availability, we asked O'Brien about the uptick in motion for the Patriots offense over the last two weeks. According to the Pats OC, how often the Pats motion will be dictated by their game plan each week. But it's hard to argue with the results.
"Anything that we do is definitely week to week. How does that affect the defenses that we're going against, and how does that affect us? How does it affect us relative to what we're trying to get done," O'Brien told Patriots.com. "Every week is a different game, a different opponent. So we have to assess, okay, what's the best way to go against these guys, and make that determination early in the week and then practice it. There's a lot that goes into all that. It's definitely week to week."
"We're going to do what's best for our offense to try to move the ball weekly, whatever that might be. Might be no motion. Might be motion. Some defenses it doesn't affect at all. Other defenses, it does affect them."
From a defensive perspective, the Patriots will be challenged this week by the team that popularized the motions that O'Brien has installed this season. Although he has been on the injury report this week, Hill (hip) told reporters on Thursday that he'll play on Sunday. Over the years, when healthy, veteran CB Jonathan Jones has been tasked with covering Hill.
"I think it's a good scheme. Offenses that put guys in motion make it a little bit harder to press guys, and it gets them into their route quicker. Speeds up their timing," Jones told me. "I think it's a good concept and just something we have to adapt to. A lot of teams throughout the league are picking up on it, and it'll continue to catch on."
"They're getting a running start. It's not necessarily how the CFL is to where they can run vertically five yards back, but they're able to get a start horizontally, now they make you expand, and once the ball is snapped, now they're getting vertical," Pats defensive back Myles Bryant added. "It's just a matter of them trying to get the defense moving. They use it to get defenses on their heels, and now that they're doing it and running routes out of it, it's pretty unique."
On both sides of the ball, Sunday's game at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami will feature two of the most motion-heavy offenses in the NFL. The Patriots are catching on to the fad to create more horizontal space in the defense for their quick-hitting passing game, while it's also making it easier for receivers to separate against man coverage and open holes in the running game.
As for the Dolphins, McDaniel continues to feature heavy amounts of motion with complementary plays off their staple concepts when receivers have a running start. Clearly, it's something that the Patriots defense is preparing for all week heading into Sunday's matchup.
If continuing to use motion helps the Patriots offense build off last week's season-high 29 points, New England can start stringing some wins together to turn their season around.