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The Patriots defense has delivered three consecutive dominant performances in the preseason.
Bill Belichick’s leads the NFL allowing 7.7 points and 166 yards through three preseason games.
They’ve pressured opposing quarterbacks on a ridiculous 48 percent of their drop-backs with a league-best 15 sacks and 21 quarterback hits.
And against starters Cam Newton and Marcus Mariota over the last two weeks, that pressure rate was well over 50 percent (55.6).
Yes, it’s only August, and preseason stats mean nothing in the grand scheme of things.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick will tell you that there’s no game-planning in the preseason and that what you see might not present itself in a regular-season game.
But what we saw from the Patriots’ starters on Thursday night was the aggressive, attacking mindset that led to a sixth Super Bowl title for New England a year ago.
The Patriots and others might try to sell us on this only being the preseason, but I’m not buying; this is how the New England defense is going to play this season.
Let’s go over some of the ways the Patriots got after Cam Newton and the Panthers on Thursday night:
KYLE VAN NOY SACK (46 FRONT)
We’ll start with Kyle Van Noy’s sack of Newton in the opening quarter, the first of two sacks on Newton on the night.
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The Patriots turned back the clock with a 46 front, something that Bill Belichick dusts off every year. The first tell that this is old-school 46 like the ‘85 Bears is the alignment of the defensive line. The Patriots have three down linemen aligned over the two guards and center with two outside linebackers and Devin McCourty on the line of scrimmage. Due to the play-action, the blocking up front for the Panthers plays out like duo or inside zone with the right tackle and guard doubling the interior defenders. That leaves Van Noy, who gets a tremendous jump off the snap, one-on-one with a tight end. Van Noy is around the tight end before Newton even hits the top of his drop.
The 46 front makes the Patriots extremely stout against the run with the three linemen inside, and with their pass-rushing linebackers, they can also pressure the quarterback.
Another base front that we’ve seen from the Patriots this preseason is an EX front.
In this front, the defensive tackles will typically align as three-techniques shaded outside the guards with two standup edge defenders also on the line of scrimmage.
In New England’s EX front, they’ll sometimes have the DTs aligned more inside on the guards rather than as true three-techniques.
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On this Newton throwaway, the Patriots walk Dont’a Hightower over the guard before the snap giving them a five-on-five matchup with the offensive line. The Panthers run play-action once again with the same doubles as above on the interior defenders, leaving running back Christan McCaffrey to block the blitzing Hightower. The initial coverage is good once again, and Hightower gets around McCaffrey to flush Newton out of the pocket.
The EX front is a good way to shut down zone-heavy rushing attacks while also putting the four defenders on the line scrimmage in advantageous alignments to rush the passer.
PASS-RUSHING ODD FRONTS
As we saw at times last year, the Patriots defense will also go to lighter fronts on third down.
The Patriots only have one down lineman in many of these fronts, but they still play out like a traditional odd fronts with an added pass-rush potency.
Belichick designs these pressures with “creepers” in two-point stances near or on the line of scrimmage. These creepers are threats to blitz but can drop into coverage after the snap.
Here, the Patriots are in an odd front with three players on the line of scrimmage, but two of them are up in a two-point stance. The Pats also have defensive tackle Adam Butler shaded over the centers’ left shoulder, another small tweak to make it easier to rush the passer. The Patriots can bring pressure from anywhere cycling through blitzes and four-man rushes, keeping the offense guessing.
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As we roll the play, the Pats bring six defenders at Newton on a blitz with man-to-man coverage behind the rush. Newton’s initial targets are covered nicely by the Pats secondary, and the rush closes quickly with safety Terrence Brooks and Hightower applying the initial pressure.
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The Patriots then went to another odd front standup look with defensive end Michael Bennett over the tackle instead of on the interior. The Patriots only bring five this time, but a strong interior push by Bennett and a Chase Winovich on the outside forces a bad throw.
The New England defense can spin the wheel all day long leaving the offensive line and quarterback to diagnose blitzers post-snap.
And then they have to block Michael Bennett, Kyle Van Noy, Dont’a Hightower and company.
COVER-0 PRESSURES & BLUFFS
Another carryover from the 2018 season is cover-zero pressure.
With this scheme, the Patriots take the safeties and walk them up towards the line of scrimmage.
From there, the Patriots can do multiple things such as blitz or bail out into a four-man rush.
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On Michael Bennett’s second-quarter sack, the Patriots show zero coverage but Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon bail into a split-safety coverage, two-man to be exact. The Pats only bring four, but they get a one-on-one for Michael Bennett on the center because of the various threats in the box. Bennett beats the center with a power-snatch move and then an arm over finisher for his first sack as a Patriot.
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In the Super Bowl, the Patriots brought a tomahawk blitz out of a cover-zero structure on Stephon Gilmore’s interception.
PENETRATING NOSE TACKLES
On a separate but related note, another preseason trend that’s building for the Patriots is the idea of a penetrating nose tackle.
In the past, nose tackles in Belichick’s defense mainly focus on two-gapping and holding at the point of attack; think Vince Wilfork.
This season, nose tackle Danny Shelton told me the following about the new technique that Belichick has him playing this season:
“It’s just part of being in this kind of system and being coached by Bill [Belichick]. You have to be ready for a new technique or a new defense at any time… I’d say it’s a product of being coachable. Trying to do what coach wants us to do.”
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On this tackle for loss, you can see Shelton explode off the snap and jolt the center backwards into the running back’s rush path. The Patriots get a strong edge set by Van Noy and a two-gapping Deatrich Wise at the point of attack, allowing linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley to come downhill. Bentley blows up the right guard and makes the play.
In the offseason, I wrote about the “simulated pressure” movement around the league and how Belichick is, as you’d expect, one of the pioneers of the trend.
As the plays above show, the Patriots are all-in once again on simulated pressures and other blitz packages that are hallmarks of an aggressive defense.
Of course, the Patriots and Belichick have done many of these things for years, but there was an uptick in aggressive for New England last season.
The Patriots’ blitz frequency increased by five percent from 2017 to 2018, and their usage of six-man pressures doubled.
No, the Patriots won’t hold their opponents to a touchdown and under 170 yards per game in the regular season.
And yes, Belichick may decide the best approach is to play a more “bend but don’t break” style in certain matchups.
But as last year’s playoffs and these three preseason games show, the Patriots defense is dominating with an aggressive mindset.
Stats provided by Pro Football Focus