Patriots head coach Bill Belichick’s team-building strategy is known for zigging when the rest of the league zags.
When the rest of the league is moving towards speed over size and playing strength to combat pass-heavy offenses, Belichick is still employing 260-pound linebackers, nose tackles, and run-stuffing defensive ends.
Belichick is building a modern-day bully on defense to overpower offenses at the line of scrimmage while integrating more zone coverages to defend play-action and spread formations.
New England isn’t trying to slip blockers while flowing the ball against the run; they go through them. Led by two old-school thumpers at inside linebacker in Dont’a Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley, Belichick is up to his old tricks thanks to a physical front seven.
“We kind of want to be a-holes on the field,” Patriots linebacker Matthew Judon told CLNS Media following Thursday night’s shutout victory in Atlanta. “We play within the rules, but we’re a nasty group. That’s how we like to play, and that’s how we gotta play in order for our team to win.”
With Belichick’s 3-4 “Okie” front as the base, the Pats’ big-bodies on the defensive line (Guy, Godchaux, Barmore, and Davis) and the edge force (Judon, Van Noy, Phillips, Dugger) allow the second-level to stay clean to come downhill at the line of scrimmage.
Hightower and Bentley are then destroying pullers, preventing climbing linemen in zone schemes from generating movement and flying to the ball with excellent block recognition and tackling ability to stop ball carriers in their tracks.
Belichick’s linebackers crushing blockers and running backs is nothing new in Foxboro. However, the Pats’ defensive mastermind is modernizing the way he’s playing coverage.
Although the shift is partially personnel-driven, New England’s defense is holding up in middle of the field coverage out of zone structures.
In a complete turnaround from last season, the Patriots nearly went from first to worst in middle of the field pass defense and yards per attempt allowed off play-action.
As a result, New England is a significantly improved first and second-down defense, leading to more opportunities on second and third-and-long to create turnovers and negative plays.
Even with bigger linebackers in the game, the Pats are seldom fooled by play-action. With Hightower and Bentley working as downhill missiles, one would think it would be easy to influence them out of passing lanes.
This season, the Patriots are allowing 6.4 passing yards per play-action attempt (third-best in NFL) and are shutting down play-action by using zone coverage to take away crossing routes.
On early-down zone calls, Hightower and Bentley are sniffing out run-fakes and falling underneath crossing routes seamlessly despite their stressful responsibilities against the run.
The Patriots are also leading league in pressure rate on play-action drop-backs at 40 percent, according to PFF.
“Sometimes it depends on the call that we are in, sometimes it’s the alignment, sometimes it’s just me having the instinct or beat on what they’re doing. Sometimes if we are in this coverage, then they’ll try to do this type of play-action because this whole is open, knowing where the offense wants to attack,” Hightower told me about the Pats’ play-action success.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) November 19, 2021
On Thursday night, the Patriots took away the one dangerous threat in Atlanta’s offense, rookie tight end Kyle Pitts, with 80% zone coverage as their middle of the field zone-droppers took Pitts away over the middle of the field (three catches, 29 yards).
“They tried to throw a bunch of play-action passes. I thought Bentley, Hightower, Phillips, and Dugger had some good awareness on some of the over routes,” Belichick said.
The Patriots are also pressuring quarterbacks at a high rate, and they’re doing it without blitzing, thanks to the marriage between coverage and pass rush.
Belichick’s post-snap coverage rotations are forcing quarterbacks to hold the ball to read out the defense, making it easier for the Pats to get home with four-man pressures.
Here, the Patriots show cover-one robber before the snap, then bait Baker Mayfield into an interception by falling into cover-two zone, where the hook/seam (Dugger) and flat defender (Mills) squeeze tight end David Njoku’s route with Dugger jumping it for an interception.
In this play, the Pats rotate Dugger back before the snap like they’re going to form a cover-two shell, but Devin McCourty comes down into a shallow zone, and it remains a post-safety structure (cover-three). The rotation gets Matt Ryan to take the underneath throw, and the Pats make the stop well short of the sticks on third down.
New England runs stunts or pick plays in many of their four and five-man pressure designs to get rushers free, utilizes their linebackers as stand-up rushers, and a two-headed monster in offseason additions Matthew Judon (10.5 sacks) and rookie defensive tackle Christian Barmore (31 total pressures).
In certain situations, mainly on third down, we’ll see the Patriots return to their cover-one man roots, and Pats assistant coach Steve Belichick made it clear that the team still wants to play man coverage as often as possible.
“We’ve always been a man [coverage] team. Everybody around here likes to play man coverage. We got good cover corners. So we mix it all up.”
When you have eight championship rings spanning four decades, there are obviously several timeless elements in Bill Belichick’s defensive system.
But one of his strongest attributes as a coach is Belichick’s ability to adapt to the newest innovations on the offensive side of the ball.
Belichick knew the Patriots needed to improve in coverage between the numbers and against the run this season, and they’ve done a complete 180. Mainly due to personnel improvements but also schematic adjustments.
The Patriots’ head coach’s latest zig has held his last two opponents scoreless on their last 19 offensive drives. New England is second in scoring defense (16.1), fourth in expected points allowed and rising, and fifth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric and rising.
And although the short-handed Falcons and Browns aren’t juggernaut offenses, it feels sustainable because of its multiplicity in schemes and personnel groupings.
As the competition wraps up over the next month, New England’s defense has its formula.