Lazar: Belichick Building Patriots Defense For Mobile Quarterbacks, Option-Football Era

Belichick is building his defense for where the league's best offenses are heading. 

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Patriots head coach Bill Belichick always builds his defenses with an eye on where the league is heading offensively. 

Belichick had schematic innovations over the years, such as implementing alongside Nick Saban in Cleveland a pattern-matching coverage system. Then, it was hybrid defensive fronts with both one and two-gap responsibilities for defensive linemen. 

Staying ahead of the curve also makes its way to team building, where Belichick is always finding versatile personnel to evolve with offenses. 

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick always builds his defenses with an eye on where the league is heading offensively.  Belichick had schematic innovations over the years, such as implementing alongside Nick Saban in Cleveland a pattern-matching coverage system. Then, it was hybrid defensive fronts w

The Pats head coach began blurring the lines between positions with hybrid defenders, starting with players that were a mix between defensive ends and outside linebackers. The hybrid role allows the Pats to play principles of both 3-4 and 4-3 fronts without changing personnel while having the versatility to defend the run, rush the passer, and drop into coverage at the end of the line. 

The trend started with Mike Vrabel, who passed the torch to Rob Ninkovich, who eventually gave way to Kyle Van Noy, and now it could be rookie Anfernee Jennings in that role.

Next, Belichick started using hybrid defensive backs bringing us to longtime Patriots Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty. McCourty transitioned from a full-time cornerback as a rookie to a safety that plays man coverage like a corner in certain situations, but it took a reunion to figure out Chung’s best role.

During his first stint in New England, Belichick openly admits to misusing Chung. Chung was playing more as a traditional deep safety, where his limitations to flip-and-run at the top of his backpedal were costly. 

“We took [Chung] in the second round,” Belichick said back in 2018. “For a combination of reasons, I’d say a big part of it [being] mistakes that I personally made — it didn’t work out the way we hoped it would. But we got it right the second time.”

After one season in Philadelphia, Chung returned to the Pats, and Belichick got it right by using him in the box as a hybrid defensive back and tight end stopper.

Chung plays the majority of his snaps as a pseudo-linebacker or in the slot, where he can guard tight ends and holds up against the run thanks to his physicality and quickness. 

Chung came back before the 2014 season, and that’s when Belichick saw a “strong trend” in the league towards safeties that can play in the box as linebackers. 

“I think you are definitely seeing a strong trend in the league towards bigger safeties that play linebacker,” Belichick said. “You see less of the big run-stopping Ted Johnson, Brandon Spikes type players. It’s just harder when the offense spreads you out.”

Fast-forward to the present, and the Patriots currently have nine safeties under contract, tied for the most in the NFL. 

Along with Chung, they signed veterans Terrence Brooks and Adrian Phillips over the last two off-seasons then drafted the uber-athletic Kyle Dugger in the second round to give Belichick a quartet of hybrid safety-types. 

The team also signed veteran Cody Davis this spring and 2019 second-round pick Joejuan Williams is expanding his skill set to play safety as well as corner, according to ESPN’s Mike Reiss. 

Belichick might be searching for successors to Chung and longtime teammate Devin McCourty, but both 32-year-old’s got contract extensions this offseason, and the Pats are cross-training most of the defensive backs on their roster.

With all these redundant players, the question is, what does Belichick have in mind? Per usual, there’s a method behind his madness. 

Belichick builds his roster with the upcoming season in mind, and this year features a heavy dosage of mobile quarterbacks and option offenses (RPO, zone read, etc). 

New England will face five of the top six quarterbacks in rushing yards from last season, and the Dolphins and Chargers might have mobile passers as well in first-round picks Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert (or Tyrod Taylor). 

Factoring in Buffalo’s Josh Allen and potentially Tagovailoa twice a year, the mystery Chargers quarterback, and Patrick Mahomes and the RPO-heavy Chiefs; the Patriots will need to worry about mobile quarterbacks in over half of their games in 2020. 

Belichick’s thinking might be to put safeties at linebacker spots to shut down RPO and run-option offenses that aren’t going away any time soon.

PATRIOTS USAGE OF SAFETY-HEAVY PERSONNEL

The Pats already use several successful schemes with three or more safeties in passing situations. 

The Patriots played 497 defensive snaps with three or more safeties a year ago. Most of New England’s three-safety packages consisted of McCourty, Chung, and the recently-traded Duron Harmon. But with Harmon now in Detroit, things will look different. 

Playing with extra safeties on the field takes slower linebackers out of coverage while keeping a traditional backend structure, a massive plus in pass defense. 

Here’s an example of the Patriots playing a personal favorite: one-cross. With four safeties, the Pats can man up against Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (Chung) and pass-catching back Spencer Ware (Brooks) while still keeping two safeties deep to defend Tyreek Hill (McCourty, Harmon). 

As we roll the play, Chung and Brooks take their respective assignments in the flats, but the focus is on Hill (outside slot right) on a crossing pattern. The point of one-cross is that the safety on the far hash (McCourty) can “cut” Hill’s over route rather than asking slot corner Jon Jones to stay with the speedster across the field. Hill runs right into McCourty, forcing Mahomes to the crosser in the other direction, and JC Jackson undercuts it for an interception. 

With a standard two-safety defense, the Chiefs either get great matchups with Kelce or Ware on linebackers, or the Patriots can’t implement the one-cross rotation on the backend. 

Another way the Patriots use their safety-heavy personnel is in their third-down packages on cover zero blitzes and bluffs to confuse opposing quarterbacks. 

On this sack in Week 4 against the Bills, the Pats walk all four safeties up to the line as threats to blitz, giving them tons of speed to get after Allen. 

The Patriots rush eight defenders, forgoing a deep safety on the play. They overload the left side with four rushers against three blockers, and Harmon as an unblocked blitzer provides the initial pressure before Van Noy cleans up the sack on Allen. 

Later on, the Patriots give Allen and the Bills a similar look with four safeties on the field and nobody deep. Harmon (deep middle) and McCourty (robber) bail out of the rush after the snap to get into a cover-one robber structure. Brooks takes the running back in the flat, and Chung drops to spy the quarterback with the rest of the defensive backfield focused on their man coverage assignments. 

Along with the more complex schemes above, the Pats will also use safeties to drop into hook/curl zones with more effectiveness than linebackers. 

DEFENDING RPO, READ-OPTION, MOBILE QUARTERBACKS WITH SAFETY-HEAVY PACKAGES 

Playing with defensive backs in the box instead of linebackers sounds like it would be difficult to stop the run. But defending the run with lighter personnel is working at all levels of football. 

First, it helps to have run-stuffing defensive linemen and linebackers such as Lawrence Guy and Dont’a Hightower that can make up for the lack of bulk and sometimes fewer defenders in the box. Chung rotates out of the box into the deep-half in the play above, meaning this is a “light” box. But the Pats still stop the run thanks to Guy’s excellent two-gapping abilities. 

The Patriots already use their “big” nickel and dime packages by having defensive backs spy mobile quarterbacks with man coverage.

Here, the Browns and Baker Mayfield are facing a third and short. Baker is no Lamar Jackson, but he can run when given a chance. The Patriots play man-free coverage, which means man-to-man with only a single-high safety with three safeties in the box, four safeties on the field. Chung is guarding Ricky Seals-Jones in the slot, and McCourty takes the running back with Brooks spying Baker. 

The Pats did something similar against the Ravens with Jon Jones, their fastest defensive back, as the spy on Lamar Jackson last season.

We know the Pats can contain scrambling quarterbacks with spies, but what happens when there’s a read element to the play?

New England held Lamar to a modest 61 rushing yards on 16 carries in their loss to the Ravens last season. But Baltimore’s running backs averaged nearly six yards per rush (25 carries, 149 yards, touchdown), pacing the Ravens to a season-high 37 points against the Pats defense. 

To get better at defending option football, Belichick might use safeties in the box even on first and second down to keep up with the speed of the split-second reactions against option plays. 

The Pats failed to bully Jackson and the Ravens out of their base defense in the loss a year ago, with eight linebackers and defensive linemen on the field at times.

Baltimore ran a series of gap-read plays, different from zone-read, to combat New England’s two-gapping system. With gap reads, Baltimore pinned the defense at the point of attack to create rushing lanes. If they stuck to zone-read runs, the Pats two-gappers would’ve flowed with the blockers and held things up while the backside defenders ran down the ball carrier from behind. 

Belichick needs a new plan after the Ravens exposed New England’s two-gapping system for the Week 10 rematch this November (COVID-19 permitting). 

TITE FRONT

The Pats could look to the 2018 Chargers defense that shut down a still-developing Jackson to punch their ticket to Foxboro for a Divisional Round tilt with the Patriots as inspiration. 

(via SB Nation)

Los Angeles’s strategy was to play either dime (six DBs) or quarters (seven DBs) packages with safeties as linebackers. One of those safeties playing linebacker was Pats free-agent addition Adrian Phillips (no. 31). 

The Chargers ran a “tite” front with safeties at linebacker to pack the middle of the field. In the tite front, the defense has five players inside the tackles that can “spill” runs to the perimeter where athletic defenders setting wide edges will be waiting for them. One of the critical chess pieces to the game plan was versatile safety Derwin James, who played on the line of scrimmage at outside linebacker on 17 snaps. 

Unlike the Patriots last season, the Chargers stuffed Baltimore’s inside running game, holding the Ravens to 17 points and 90 rushing yards on 23 carries. 

Another scheme the Patriots might implement, which is also working its way up the ladder from the college ranks like the tite front, is a three-deep safety structure. 

THREE-DEEP SAFETY STRUCTURES

(via Pro Football Focus)

Pro Football Focus’s Seth Galina wrote an excellent breakdown on college football’s innovations to “big” packages by putting three safeties across the deep part of the field. 

“Against RPOs, these teams sort of have to perform what is called ‘slinging the fit.’ Because you don’t have enough players in the box, you can steal an extra player on RPOs based on where the quarterback is looking,” Galina writes. 

“Almost regardless of the direction of the run action, the overhang player who the quarterback is looking at needs to freeze in the passing window. The opposite overhang can now attack the running play. The quarterback can only throw the RPO where he’s looking.” 

Here’s an example that Galina uses: “take a look at this clip against Texas Tech. Because the quarterback looks to the top of the screen, the weak safety freezes and covers the potential glance post by the receiver. The cornerback is low to protect the speed-out. On the bottom side, the overhang can attack the box and make the tackle.”

Another example that Galina uses brings the three-deep safeties into play. By playing the safeties back, it keeps them unblocked to work through the trash and find the ball. Remember, the idea is to force the runner to “spill” to the outside. As long as the ball carrier is moving towards the sideline, it’s a win for the defense. The defender to the quarterbacks right sets the edge, and the middle safety chases down the quarterback. 

With mobile quarterbacks making up over half their schedule, Bill Belichick responded this off-season by adding more versatility and athleticism to his defense.  

The Patriots’ first three picks in the draft were Dugger (99th percentile athlete), and linebackers Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings, who didn’t test at the combine but offer enticing athletic profiles. 

And the Adrian Phillips signing in free agency adds another veteran safety alongside Chung and Brooks that has experience playing in the box and slowing down Lamar. 

New England’s defense is exceptional against traditional pro-style concepts and drop-back passing games. But they’ve had some trouble with option-based systems as they continue to grow in popularity. 

With evolving personnel, Belichick is building his defense for where the league is heading on the other side of the ball.