No quarterback in the NFL is more dangerous passing out of an empty-backfield set than New England’s Tom Brady.
Brady was 4 for 5 for 103 yards and two touchdowns from an empty set in the Patriots’ 41-25 rout of the Buffalo Bills Sunday. With the Patriots’ receiving weapons spread out across the width of the field, how can they be stopped? The Bills did not have an answer.
Here were the 10 Plays That Shaped the Game:
1. Matchup nightmare. Brady’s 53-yard TD pass to tight end Rob Gronkowski late in the first half put the Patriots up, 21-10.
Brady had two receivers left, and Gronkowski was the middle of three receivers to the right. Everyone was in off coverage, and 5-foot-8, 165-pound Nickell Robey-Coleman was matched up on the 6-6, 265-pound Gronkowski. Maybe Robey-Coleman could have played better inside leverage, but Gronkowski gave him a shake to the outside and easily cut inside to give Brady a giant target.
“It was definitely a two-call play,” Gronkowski said. “You get two calls and whatever looks better, he’s going to change it to. So he did a great job reading the play.”
Empty sets make it easier for the quarterback to read the pass rush but require receivers to win vs. man coverage. New England led the NFL last year in passes out of empty sets (15 percent), according to Football Outsiders. To use a favored phrase of broadcaster Jon Gruden, Brady was reading Rex Ryan's mail on the TD.
“It all comes down to everybody being on the same page,” said Pats receiver Julian Edelman. “He audibled to a new play in the empty set. It was just Tom improvising, getting us in the right play, and all the wide receivers being on the same page.”
2. Deep confusion. Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore got beat on the 53-yard TD pass from Brady to Chris Hogan in the first quarter. The Bills had the Pats stuck in a third-and-13 situation, but Gilmore didn’t hear the defensive call passed across the field. Gilmore gave Hogan a weak chuck then trailed the receiver downfield, thinking he had safety help. He didn’t.
“We had two calls come in from the sideline,” safety Jonathan Meeks said. “He didn’t get the second one. Everybody had to communicate the second one once it came in. We switched it up from a Cover 2 to a man-type of concept. We’ve just got to communicate. We changed the call. It didn’t go across the board. He was the far corner, the last person to get the call.”
“Once I got off the line and I looked back, the ball was already in the air,” Hogan said. “It seemed like the ball was in the air for a long time. Tom made an awesome throw. I didn’t even have to stop.”
3. Six-point play. Dan Carpenter’s miss from 49 yards with 27 seconds to go in the first half turned out to be a six-point play. It set up the Pats at their own 39 and led to . . .
4. Gostkowski FG. Brady completed three passes for 28 yards to set up Stephen Gostkowski’s 51-yard field goal to end the half. Instead of being down eight at the half (21-13), the Bills were down, 24-10.
5. Rout city. Danny Amendola’s 73-yard kickoff return to start the second half helped break the game open. Amendola bobbled the ball at the 3 then broke a tackle attempt by Brandon Tate at the 20. Robey-Coleman missed a tackle at about midfield before Amendola was brought down at the Buffalo 24.
“It kind of jumped up in my hands a little bit but I snagged it,” the 5-foot-10 Amendola said. “Guys blocked it up really nicely. We had a good double-team block, and I made a move off that and tried to get as many yards as I could.”
6. Dirty work. Amendola’s block on Robert Blanton on the edge gave Julian Edelman the room to score on a 12-yard receiver screen pass to the right, two plays after the big kickoff return. It put the Pats ahead, 31-10.
“Dola-mite made a good block after an insane return,” Edelman said. “I’m happy to get to play with that little guy.”
7. Option C. The Bills had Gronkowski blanketed on the Patriots’ first TD. But Brady escaped the pocket, rolled right and made a good throw on the move to Amendola for a 9-yard TD. Jonathan Meeks was peeking to the middle of the field as Brady extended the play and didn’t get over to Amendola in time.
8. T-mobile. The Pats had 10 men at the line of scrimmage and man coverage across the board midway through the third quarter on a fourth-and-3 play. Tyrod Taylor burned a five-man blitz by running 26 yards for a TD.
9. Power TD. Fullback Jerome Felton put a wicked block on Dont'a Hightower to pave the way for Mike Gillislee’s 3-yard TD run.
10. Busted bone. Anthony Lynn drew up a creative opening script the Bills used on a 70-yard opening drive. Too bad there was a mix-up on a second-and-goal play from the 6. The Bills had a Wishbone formation, no one stepped up to take Taylor’s handoff. He was stuffed. The Bills settled for a field goal.