Film Review: the Patriots Defense Finally Has a Productive Pass Rush

Over the last few years, the Patriots defense has struggled to get after the quarterback, but this season they're changing that narrative.

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FOXBOROUGH, MA - DECEMBER 02: Trey Flowers #98 and Adam Butler #70 of the New England Patriots sack Kirk Cousins #8 of the Minnesota Vikings during the first quarter at Gillette Stadium on December 2, 2018 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)

FOXBORO, MA — If this is the new version of the Patriots defense under de facto coordinator Brian Flores, then Pats fans should be very excited.

During the bye week, I wrote about how the Patriots defense with Flores calling plays wasn’t all that different than what we saw under Matt Patricia last season.

However, some droplets existed, most notably when it comes to putting pressure on the quarterback, that were trending towards a significant change in philosophy.

And after the bye week, the shift is now complete, as it’s clear that Flores wants his defense to play with a more aggressive approach using multiple schemes to disrupt opposing quarterbacks.

As a result, the Patriots defense has officially found a pass rush.

This season, the Patriots defense is tenth in pressure percentage, pressuring quarterbacks on nearly 39 percent of their drop-backs, up from 35 percent last season (27th), according to Pro Football Focus.

Furthermore, they’re blitzing on 31 percent of passing plays defensively which is a four percent increase from a year ago (27 percent).

That doesn’t seem like much, but as we’ve seen over the last two weeks, the Patriots’ pass rush is more successful than it has been in recent years.

The Patriots lead the NFL in unblocked pressures (63) in 2018, or free runs at the quarterback and their pressure percentage when they blitz is up ten percent from last season, a massive increase in productivity.

Against the Vikings, we saw the Patriots’ pass rush sack quarterback Kirk Cousins only twice, but they blitzed him 17 times and turned the Minnesota offense known for its explosive plays from its receivers into a dink-and-dunk operation with Cousins averaging 4.6 yards per attempt.

The Patriots also disguised coverages and pressures introducing a scheme known by some as the “scramble” defense, which left Cousins rattled in the pocket.

Below, we’ll go through the film to illustrate how the Patriots defense threw Cousins and the Vikings offense off its game by unleashing their newfound pass rush.

DEFENSIVE LINE STUNTS

One of the main reasons why the Patriots lead the league in unblocked pressures is that they’ve been terrific all season on defensive line stunts or games as Bill Belichick often calls them.

These schemes make things easier on pass rushers to get to the quarterback by straying away from the “beat the guy in front of you” pass rush moves predicated on an individual player making a spectacular move on an offensive lineman.

If you don’t have a Von Miller or Khalil Mack, those types of rushes can go stale very quickly.

The Patriots have a number of different stunt schemes in their playbook, but here are a few main ones that they’ve used often this season.

LONG T/E STUNT

The Patriots call their fair share of basic tackle/end stunts as we saw on this crucial third-down sack of Aaron Rodgers back in Week 9.

However, against the Vikings, it was a “long” tackle/end stunt that led to Trey Flowers’ sack on the first play of the fourth quarter on Sunday.

With these schemes, the wrap player (Flowers) loops into the interior off of two penetrators (Butler, Van Noy) instead of one as you see on the standard T/E stunt against Green Bay.

On the play, the Patriots come out with one deep safety shaded towards Vikings wideout Adam Thielen, but they drop Devin McCourty into an underneath zone at the snap with Duron Harmon bracketing Thielen at the top of the screen with rookie JC Jackson. The excellent coverage forces Cousins to hold the ball, and Flowers comes through off of good penetration from Butler and Van Noy to sack Cousins on third down.

Flowers’ sack was a perfect example of the coverage and rush working in tandem which is what you want to see if you’re Bill Belichick and Brian Flores.

DOUBLE T/E STUNT

The Patriots will also occasionally utilized a double tackle/end stunt to create pressure on the quarterback.

The name says it all with these as you’ll see the Patriots run two stunts on either end of the defensive line to create two wrap players entering the middle of the defense.

On this third down pressure, the Patriots put both Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower over the Vikings’ guards to eventually create one-on-one matchups across the board. On the right side, they have Adrian Clayborn in a two-point stance playing off the line of scrimmage. Clayborn runs a “long” stunt of his own around two penetrators combined with Wise’s more conventional T/E stunt on the defenses left side. The running back goes to chip Wise, but he’s not coming off the edge, and the right guard picks up Wise’s wrap on that side. However, with the running back chipping then releasing, there’s nobody left to account for Clayborn who comes through the line unblocked and forces a short throw on third and long.

With this pressure scheme, the Patriots get a free run at Cousins for Clayborn despite only rushing five defenders which allows them to still play coverage in the deep part of the field on third and 17.

LINEBACKER/TACKLE STUNT

Besides the basic T/E stunt, the Patriots’ favorite scheme is probably the linebacker/tackle stunt.

Not very many defenses use these types of schemes frequently, and the Patriots have two linebackers, Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower, that are very good as the wrap players.

Here, we see the rush and coverage working together once again to create a third-down stop. The Patriots bracket Thielen (bottom of the screen) and use Devin McCourty as a robber on the left side of the defense to help out on Stefon Diggs. On the rush, the Patriots are in the same front that we saw with the Clayborn pressure above. This time, they have Butler and Hightower slant towards Van Noy so he can wrap around their penetration to get to Cousins. This play really highlights the importance and excellence of Adam Butler on these schemes as he occupies three Vikings players to take the attention off of Van Noy, and Van Noy also does an excellent taking a few steps into the line of scrimmage timing his wrap perfectly before dropping the hammer on Cousins.

As these three plays illustrate, the Patriots have both terrific scheme and execution on defensive line stunts which explains why they lead the league in unblocked pressures.

BLITZ PACKAGES

As stated earlier, the Patriots are also getting home on blitzes at a considerably higher rate this season compared to a year ago when they ranked dead-last in pressure percentage when they brought extra defenders.

From this perspective, the main reason for that is that they are no longer blitzing as frequently from off the line of scrimmage.

Patricia liked to fire his inside linebackers from five yards off the line, which gave opposing quarterbacks time to react and find the openings in the coverage.

Under Flores, the Patriots are bringing pressure closer to the quarterback, and are using their defensive backs more often to add speed into the equation.

COVER-0 BLITZES

Above anything else that Flores has done this season, the most glaring difference is the introduction of cover-0 blitzes or disguising looks as cover-0 before rotating into a different coverage.

For those that don’t know, cover-0 means that there’s no deep safety on the play.

The Patriots forced Kirk Cousins to check it down on a fourth and long late in the game with a cover-0 blitz.

The Pats are in their “scramble” defense before the snap with everyone besides Trey Flowers in a two-point stance and have four safeties on the field (McCourty, Harmon, Chung, Melifonwu). They end up blitzing three out of four safeties bringing seven players at the quarterback. The running back slides inside to pick up Melifonwu taking the most immediate threat, but that leaves Harmon as a free runner of the edge. All Cousins can do to avoid Harmon is throw the ball to Treadwell on the slant well short of the sticks.

If Cousins had more time, the Vikings had Thielen and Diggs running vertical routes at the top of the screen that was likely his first read in the progression, but he had to go to his hot route because of the blitz.

COVER-0 DISGUISES/SLOT CORNER BLITZ

Schematically, this was one of the plays of the game for the Patriots defense because it sums up their strategy in recent weeks perfectly.

Let’s take a look at the overhead angle first. As you can see, the Patriots show a “scramble” cover-0 look when the Vikings break the huddle with eight defenders near the line of scrimmage. Right before the snap, Devin McCourty rotates to deep safety. Then, at the snap, Patrick Chung drops back into center field, and the Patriots only bring four rushers at the quarterback one of which is slot corner Jason McCourty. McCourty blitzes from the slot, his brother, Devin, takes his man, and smartly, the Patriots have Kyle Van Noy drop underneath Thielen’s route to prevent the quick throw from Cousins.

On the end zone angle, you can see that the blitz from McCourty gives Trey Flowers a one-on-one matchup with Vikings center Pat Elflein. Elflein is no match for Flowers, who goes with a swipe to a counter snatch move to throw the Vikings center off of him flushing Cousins out of the pocket and forcing an incomplete pass on third and six.

The Patriots are confusing opposing offenses with their disguises, and when they do bring either extra or unexpected defenders, they’re dropping defenders into areas where receivers typically run hot routes, forcing quarterbacks to hold the ball.

CONCLUSION

Although the players always deserve credit for execution, there’s no denying that the Patriots’ coaching staff has become more creative and aggressive when it comes to dialing up pressure this season.

As a result, their pressure numbers are up across the board, especially when they blitz the quarterback.

The days of rushing four players directly into offensive linemen or blitzing linebackers from five yards off the line of scrimmage are over, and they’re relying on their veteran safeties to disguise coverages adding another element of surprise.

The new approach has allowed the Patriots defense to dictate the terms to the offense which explains all the short throws on third and fourth and long by Cousins on Sunday.

We are also starting to see the coaching wrinkles impact where this defense ranks in a few vital statistics.

They’re now 17th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric compared to 31st a year ago, they’re tied for ninth in points allowed (21.6) after a slow start to the season in that department, and they’ve already created 20 turnovers this season after tallying 18 takeaways all of last season.

The Patriots defense, statistically, isn’t among the NFL’s elite yet, but this is the kind of scheming and play-calling that we’ve all been waiting for from this coaching staff.

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