Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is always evolving defensively to trends on the offensive side of the ball.
Over the last decade, the NFL has heavily transitioned to nickel packages or plays with five defensive backs on the field. In 2020, defenses are in nickel on 59.9 percent of plays, compared to only 23.5 percent in traditional base defense (3-4 or 4-3).
However, Belichick is taking things a step further, with six or more defensive backs on the field for a league-high 62 percent of defensive snaps. The Pats have played zero snaps of traditional base defense in their first four games. Zero.
New England’s new base defense, the one they use the most, is dime (six DBs), accounting for nearly 40 percent of plays. The Pats also played 54 downs with seven-plus defensive backs. For comparison, the Giants are the next closest team with ten snaps with seven or more DBs.
The offseason departures of last year’s “Boogeymen” could be the end of old-school base defense in New England, at least for now, as Belichick tries to keep pace with NFL offenses.
“Well, a major part of defense is being able to defend and react to what the offenses are doing,” Belichick told CLNS Media. “We’ve played teams that have had a certain style of play on the schedule, have had certain personnel groups and skills within those groups. So, we’ve defended them the way that we feel is best and the way we match up best as a football team.”
“What group that is and so forth, we’ll just have to see how that goes week by week. But, we’ve always been that type of a defensive team. Certainly, things that we do are reflective of what they’re doing.”
To combat offensive strategy, Belichick has loaded up on cornerbacks and safeties, with 11 rostered, opting to replace traditional linebackers with hybrid defensive backs.
Instead of deploying vulnerable linebackers in coverage or as spies, Belichick is getting faster and lighter, using higher-end coverage players and athletes in those linebacker roles.
The Patriots have an inordinate amount of elite pass-catching tight ends and mobile quarterbacks on this year’s schedule. Plus, offenses are staying with the wave of three wide receiver sets and spread formations with tons of speed at the skill positions.
Essentially, the Patriots want at least one defensive back on all five eligible receivers and have the best missed tackle rate in the league to limit yards after the catch.
Although they’re still trying to recover statistically from their Week 2 loss to the Seahawks, it’s easy to see Belichick’s plan coming together.
SAFETIES PLAYING INSIDE LINEBACKER
The first step to creating a defense largely made up of defensive backs is playing defenders listed as safeties in the box behind a big defensive line.
After defensive captain Ja’Whaun Bentley, there are six defensive backs with more snaps at off-ball linebacker than the next true inside linebacker in veteran Brandon Copeland.
The key to New England holding up against the run with light personnel in the box is a block-eating defensive line. Although the results were somewhat mixed, Lawrence Guy and company are starting to make run-stops of their own while keeping smaller second-level defenders clean.
In Week 4, the Patriots held the Chiefs to 94 yards on 25 carries despite playing the game with six or more defensive backs on every snap.
“First and foremost, it starts with the guys up front. We have a bunch of 300-pound defensive linemen as well, so it’s not like they just automatically climb up to like Phillips or any of the backers, so those guys do a great job of trying to keep the second level defenders clean,” said inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo.
“I like to say Adrian [Phillips] is a linebacker at heart. He just stopped growing a little early, a little sooner than the rest of us,” Mayo added.
Phillips and others are holding up in the box by using their speed, intelligence, and the power they do possess to defend the run while bringing significantly better play in coverage than linebackers.
“I guess the first thing would just be having a mentality that you can control the box. You’ve just got to use the tools that you’re given,” Phillips told CLNS Media. “I’m not 250 pounds or whatever, but I’m a lot faster than those guys, and I can deliver a blow. So it’s just basically creating that separation — how can I create that? Can I create a way with speed, or do I have to go speed-to-power? It’s just utilizing the assets that I have.”
#Patriots rookie safety Kyle Dugger played 34 snaps on defense this week and that number is only going to go up. Playing off the line over the left tackle here. Reads outside zone and goes right through the combo'ing center to the ball. Dude is a missile. pic.twitter.com/ErrvPuCxEy
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) September 22, 2020
Pats top-pick Kyle Dugger, a 217-pound super-athlete out of DII Lenoir Rhyne, is also impressing with his hard-nosed run defense and blitzing from a linebacker alignment.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) September 22, 2020
New England’s defensive backs notched four quarterback pressures in the first month of the season from in the box.
TIGHT END STOPPERS (AND MIDDLE OF THE FIELD COVERAGE)
More importantly, the Patriots are relying on their box safeties to defend tight ends, running backs, and handle middle of the field zone assignments.
The Patriots will face a gauntlet of elite tight ends this season, starting with Miami’s Mike Gesicki, the Raiders’ Darren Waller, and Kansas City’s Travis Kelce in their first four games. They then have future dates with Pro Bowlers George Kittle, Mark Andrews, and LA’s Hunter Henry.
“I think that’s one of the things that really jumped out when you look at the teams that we’ve been playing – I mean, you just go right down the line. It seems like there’s one every week,” Belichick said of all the difficult matchups at tight end on the Patriots schedule.
“In terms of matching up and just trying to cover them in the passing game, they’re very tough. So, yeah, we have seen a lot of them. We’ll be seeing that throughout the year it looks like.”
Despite a challenging schedule at the position, the Patriots are only allowing an average of three catches for 37 yards with one touchdown allowed to tight ends in their first four games.
The Patriots have thrown several different coverage players and schemes at opposing tight ends, from the McCourty twins to Phillips to Dugger to Williams to Brooks, and were very successful.
Here, Dugger does a great job of diagnosing play-action and closing on Kelce in the flat, tossing the Chiefs tight end to the ground before he can turn upfield to move the chains on third down.
Patriots 2019 second-round pick Joejuan Williams has also gotten in as a tight-end stopper and is having success guarding the big-bodied pass-catchers detached from the formation.
Then, more complex schemes beyond New England’s man coverages are made possible by all the DBs on the field.
On this third-down stop, the Patriots are running their “one-cross” scheme to cut off Darren Waller’s over route. Williams is the primary defender on Waller and will match any vertical or quick-breaking routes like its man, but has help on the crosser from Devin McCourty. When McCourty cuts Waller off on the crosser, Derek Carr freezes on his first read and eventually throws the ball away. The Pats can also play McCourty in that role while still having a deep safety over the top because they have six defensive backs on the field (dime).
“He’s the quarterback of our defense. Having him back there, it really – playing down, whether I’m at corner, whether I’m guarding tight ends – knowing he’s back there, it helps out a lot because I know he will be on his job and it helps me play my role a lot better,” Williams said of teammate Devin McCourty.
Playing defensive backs in the box also gives New England better spot-drop zone coverage defenders.
The Seahawks motion Greg Olsen into an inside stack alignment with Phillips following him in what appears to be man coverage. However, the Pats fall back into cover-two zone, disguising the coverage pre-snap, with Phillips playing the deep hole and slot corner Jon Jones in the hook/seam zone. New England defends Olsen’s corner route beautifully, usually a good cover-two beater, with the two defensive backs, forcing Wilson to his check down. Phillips immediately closes on the receiver to limit him to a short gain.
Most linebackers have a tougher time getting to those landmarks in their zone drops and wouldn’t close on the back as quickly as Phillips did there.
Here, Phillips intercepted a Ryan Fitzpatrick pass as a low-hole defender. Phillips reads Fitzpatrick’s eyes to fall underneath the first receiver inside on the slant then baits him into throwing to the second in-breaking route.
An excellent coverage linebacker might make that play, but Phillips makes it look easy with his safety background.
Lastly, here’s a look at how the Patriots are handling pass-catching running backs. On third down inside their own five-yard line, the Pats are in dime personnel with Phillips as an edge defender. Phillips is communicating with the players in the box on the running back. If the back releases inside, one of the McCourty twins will take him in man coverage. However, the Chiefs motion Edwards-Helaire towards the flat, and Phillips leverages his route by peeling off the edge. At the same time, the McCourty’s put pressure on Mahomes on blitzes up the middle, forcing an incomplete pass.
The Patriots can do all sorts of things in the secondary thanks to the athleticism they have on the field, including dropping eight defenders into coverage in passing situations.
New England currently leads the league in snaps with eight defenders in coverage and only three in the pass rush with 45, a third of their passing plays overall.
Most of these eight-man coverages are coming on third down, with the Patriots ranking fourth in EPA per drop-back (-0.221) and third in success rate (41.9) on the money down.
In this audio breakdown, we’ll go over the Patriots’ cover-one double robber scheme, which has three middle of the field help defenders. There are five defenders in man coverage, two defenders splitting the field in half as robbers at the sticks, and one post-safety in the deep middle. The coverage gives the Pats help on seams, crossers, deep shots, and scrambles by the quarterback.
New England replaced veteran free safety Duron Harmon by using cornerbacks Jason McCourty and Jon Jones as deep-zone defenders.
Harmon played on over 60 percent of the snaps in that role last season, and with no clear replacement on the roster, McCourty and Jones are showing their versatility by playing at free safety.
McCourty has lined up at wide corner, slot corner, free safety, strong safety, and linebacker this season. Jones has played those spots and logged snaps at edge defender, playing at every level of the defense.
“I think I spoke to you guys early in training camp and somebody asked me, with the departure of Duron (Harmon), would I be playing safety? And at that time, I told you guys, ‘Hey, whatever this team needs me to do at whatever role, I’m going to fill it and do it to the best of my ability,” McCourty said.
“It just so happened this past Monday night versus Kansas City, my role changed a little bit — a little bit in the deep half, in the deep middle, going against the tight ends and (Travis) Kelce, going against the backs a little bit.”
“Whatever is going to put us in the best situation to go out there and compete and try to win on defense, hey, I’m all for it.”
GENERATING PASS RUSH
Another logical concern with using extra defenders in coverage, and leading the NFL in downs with a three-man rush, is giving quarterbacks all day to throw.
Eventually, the coverage will break down, and the quarterback will find an open receiver, right?. Well, here’s the kicker: the Patriots are still pressuring quarterbacks at an above-average rate.
In their first four games, with help from tight coverage, the Patriots are generating pressure on 32.7 percent of passing plays, tenth-best, despite only blitzing 23 percent of the time (23rd in NFL).
Although they’re still using line stunts, the Pats are only dialing up the cover-zero blitzes from last year on four percent of their plays this season, cutting their cover-zero rate in half after leading the NFL in 2019.
Imagine studying cover-zero schemes all offseason to have Belichick go in a completely different direction; that’s the reality for opposing offensive coaches against New England.
The Patriots are getting to opposing quarterbacks by rushing four or fewer defenders on 76 percent of their plays while utilizing stunts on 34 percent of their rushes (second-most).
As the play above shows, the second-year leap by edge rusher Chase Winovich combined with effective line stunts provides enough of a pass rush to disrupt opposing quarterbacks.
Depending on your choice of statistics, the Patriots defense, bogged down by Russell Wilson’s mastery in Week 2, is not currently a dominant unit as it was last season.
New England ranks 11th in points allowed (23.0), 12th in EPA per play, and are down at 23rd in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric in the first five weeks.
But expect those numbers to turn around as the Patriots continue to maximize their personnel constructed with their 2020 slate of opponents in mind.
Belichick is the master at taking away the opposition’s strengths with his defense, and his newest shift of flooding the field with defensive backs is starting to take shape.