Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was uncharacteristically candid over the last week about the state of his current roster after an unprecedented offseason.
New England lost quarterback Tom Brady, linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins, and depth pieces Danny Shelton, Ted Karras, and Elandon Roberts in free agency.
Then, a league-high eight players opted-out due to the coronavirus, including star linebacker Dont’a Hightower, starting strong safety Patrick Chung, and starting right tackle Marcus Cannon.
“We paid Cam Newton $1 million. I mean it’s obvious we didn’t have any money. It’s nobody’s fault. That’s what we did the last five years. We sold out and won three Super Bowls, played in a fourth, and played in an AFC championship game. This year we had less to work with. It’s not an excuse, it’s just a fact,” Belichick said on WEEI this week.
The question that led OMF to ask him about New England’s salary cap situation was in response to Belichick’s conversation with former Pats offensive coordinator Charlie Weiss.
Weiss pointed out that the Pats are playing more young players, to which Belichick responded, “you’re right, Charlie. We’re playing more young players than we’ve played in the past.”
Belichick then went on to explain that the Patriots’ lack of cap flexibility and opt-outs led us here, ending his thoughts with, “this is kind of the year that we’ve taken to, I would say, adjust our cap from the spending that we’ve had in accumulation of prior years. We just haven’t been able to have the kind of depth on our roster that we’ve had in some other years.”
We all knew of the drastic roster turnover, but it was still unexpected to hear Belichick, even if he’s stating a fact, speak about “selling out” for Super Bowls in the last five seasons.
But instead of jumping on the Pats head coach for making excuses or drafting poorly to replace those departures, let’s listen to what Belichick is saying and decode the evil genius.
Bill Belichick admitting that his roster isn’t as deep as past years speaks volumes; even the head coach believes their 2-5 record reflects a talent-depleted team.
Belichick and Weiss’s evaluation that the Patriots are playing tons of young players seems like a stretch on the surface, but there are several key spots where it’s the truth.
Let’s look at Belichick’s comments through the lens of one of those young players, third-year linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley, who is playing 83.9 percent of the defensive snaps this season.
The 2018 fifth-round pick is taking his fair share of criticism for the struggles on defense of late, posting a PFF grade that ranks 78th among 83 qualified linebackers (32.5) in seven games.
“Ja’Whaun’s gotten a lot of playing time. He’s gotten a lot of snaps in multiple personnel groups. He’s had a good leadership role for us in terms of calling the defense and making adjustments and those kind of things. Yeah, he’s a young player who needs more playing experience, he’s getting a lot of it, and he’s getting better,” Belichick told CLNS Media.
Belichick would never throw a player under the bus publicly for under-performing, but his answer was still telling; the Pats linebacker has way more on his plate than he should.
Bentley was slated to take over for Roberts as an early-down run stuffer and a physical presence alongside Hightower. He’s a nice complimentary piece to a stud like Hightower, but he isn’t meant to be the rock of the defense or play so often in passing situations.
Last season, Roberts was on the field for 32 percent of New England’s snaps on defense, with only 70 in coverage a far cry from Bentley’s usage this season.
While the Patriots try to integrate rookies Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings, Bentley is the early-down presence against the run and plays more in passing situations than expected.
The Purdue product has played 132 snaps in coverage already, allowing 16 yards per catch into his coverage with a 50.9 grade as opposing play-callers search for no. 51 in those spots.
The Pats linebacker’s solid play against the run in his first two seasons is also suffering due to his expanded role, with a 29.9 run defense grade and five missed tackles in the last three games.
Typically, New England would have the flexibility to play Bentley as a run-stuffer, the role he should be in, and then take him off the field in passing situations, but now he’s the guy.
As a result, the Patriots are 27th in expected points added on early-downs this season. Again, they’re asking too much out of Bentley and their defensive backs with a depleted roster.
The kicker for New England’s defense is that they are still a very stingy unit when things go as planned, but they’re struggling to get into favorable down and distances.
On third-and-four or longer, the Patriots defense has the fourth-best conversion rate in the league, allowing opposing offenses to convert only 23.1 percent of the time.
Plus, the Pats have the second-best turnover rate in those spots with five interceptions, leading to the second-most points saved in third-and-medium or longer, per Sports Info Solutions.
For example, the Patriots got their fifth third-down interception of the season last Sunday, second-most in the NFL. Facing a third-and-eight, New England got into their “dollar” defense with seven defensive backs on the field without the threat of a run. The Pats then played man-free coverage (single-high safety) with six defenders rushing Bills quarterback Josh Allen on a blitz. The rush forces a quick and errant throw by Allen, and cornerback JC Jackson picks it off.
Later, New England got Buffalo into another third-and-eight situation. This time, the Pats had seven defensive backs on the field with only a three-man rush in their cover-one double robber scheme, or “Bronx” in their terminology. The design gives the Pats three help defenders in the middle of the field: a post-safety deep and two robbers splitting the field at the sticks. Allen has no downfield options, and when he takes off to run, Uche closes quickly to make the stop.
Although they’re dominant with favorable third-down distances, the Pats’ 33 plays of that variety are tied for the fewest in the league; they’re still tremendous, but they aren’t getting to them enough.
Furthermore, the Patriots defense is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum on third-and-short, ranking 29th, allowing a conversion of 76.2 percent on those 21 plays.
Now many of Belichick’s critics will point to poor drafting in recent years as the culprit for lacking depth and a poor salary cap situation, leading to holes in their current roster.
But Belichick’s plan to play lockdown pass-coverage and flood the field with defensive backs works when the opportunities present themselves. Instead, early-downs is a significant issue.
And even the Hoodie couldn’t have predicted that Hightower would opt-out of the season, thus moving Bentley and the rookie linebackers up a peg in the pecking order at off-ball linebacker.
Uche looked good in his first NFL action, while Jennings is also playing out of position at times as a known edge guy, but both rookies were supposed to be the gravy, not the meal.
Potential excuse-making was never Belichick’s thing during the Brady years, and it’s out of the ordinary to hear him speak so honestly about the situation the Patriots are in this season.
Still, it’s hard to view what he said as anything other than fact, not an excuse, and it’s playing out on the field that way too.
The Patriots built their roster defensively with Hightower at the center, and he’s no longer there, forcing them to play younger players in larger roles that don’t necessarily suit them.
Instead of bashing Belichick for extenuating circumstances, let’s see what he does to rebuild his roster moving forward.
After six Super Bowl titles, he has earned some leeway, and has proven more than capable of turning around a franchise.