Over the last two weeks, the Patriots defense has turned things around after a shaky start to the season.
In Jacksonville and Detroit, Patriots fans likely had flashbacks to the 2017 defense as the Pats put up little resistance on that side of the ball.
However, the turnaround on defense, which was sparked by a terrific performance against the Miami Dolphins in Week 4, has seen the Pats fix most of the issues that plagued them since the start of the 2017 season.
The improved defensive play is due in large part to better execution on first and second down.
Against Miami and Indianapolis, the Patriots defense allowed an average of 4.7 yards per play on first and second down, a massive improvement from the 5.8 yards per play they allowed on early downs in the first three weeks.
The progress in early-down defense has forced New England’s opponents to convert a higher number of third and longs, as the Dolphins and Colts had an average 8.2 yards to go for a first down on third down over the last two weeks.
Now New England’s last two opponents aren’t exactly the 2007 Patriots offensively, but the improved execution and schematic adjustments are apparent on the tape.
Below, we’ll go through some of the areas where the Patriots have improved, and some of the ways they’ve adjusted to how opposing offenses are attacking them:
As the chart indicated above, the Patriots run defense has improved dramatically over the last two weeks, thanks mainly due to much better play along the defensive line.
After the Lions rushed for 159 yards against the Patriots in Week 3, I wrote a column on how the Patriots stressed that playing with better fundamentals was the key to turning things around up front.
Patriots defensive line coach Brendan Daly said, “one of the things is just creating separation extension and using our hands a little bit better I think would go a long way for us right now.”
Although they haven’t faced an elite rushing attack, the Patriots’ defensive line took the coaching from Daly and applied it on the field in the last two games.
On this play, you can see both Dont’a Hightower and Deatrich Wise engage the Miami offensive line with quick hands inside their frames and arm extension to control the point of attack. That prevents the left side of the Dolphins offensive line from pushing the two Patriot defenders backward. Kenyan Drake is forced to look elsewhere for a rushing lane, and when he cuts back inside, Kyle Van Noy is waiting for him on the backside of the formation.
The Patriots run defense played with decent gap discipline in the first portion of the season, but they weren’t getting any separation with their arms or playing with sound hand usage to shed blockers.
There has been a lot of improvement in technique along the line of scrimmage these past few weeks.
MAKING PLAYS IN THE BACKFIELD
Along with improvements in technique, the Patriots’ defensive tackles have also started to make some plays in the backfield with a more aggressive style.
Here, defensive tackle Danny Shelton shows off some quick feet to go around the center at the snap. Instead of trying to hold his ground, it was nice to see Shelton get upfield, and it likely caught the center by surprise as Shelton isn’t known for making moves like this at the snap. The inside penetration by Shelton and teammate Lawrence Guy blew up this running play.
TAKING ON DOUBLE-TEAMS
We’ve also seen the Patriots’ defensive tackles sharpen their technique when taking on double-teams, especially from what it looked like against the Lions.
The Patriots got pushed off the line of scrimmage by Detroit’s double-teams in Week 3, but they’ve been able to play with improved pad level to take on those types of blocks.
Above, you’ll see Lawrence Guy lower his shoulder pads and shoot the gap before the Colts can close the line and execute this double-team block. Guy’s get-off and play strength allow him to slip his way into the backfield, and Colts running back Nyheim Hines has nowhere to go.
The Kansas City Chiefs and running back Kareem Hunt will bring the fifth-ranked rushing offense to Foxboro next Sunday night, so we’ll see if the improvements the Patriots have made can stand up to one of the league’s premier rushing attacks.
Entering Thursday night’s matchup, Colts head coach Frank Reich said the most significant improvement on defense for the Patriots was the pass rush.
“The pressure on the quarterback,” Reich said. “I thought their pass rush looked good and they were getting a lot of pressure on [Ryan] Tannehill.”
The Patriots’ pressure percentage has increased from 34.8 percent in Weeks 2-3 to 45.2 percent in the last two games.
And they’ve done it mostly without blitzing utilizing four-person pressure schemes.
One of those schemes is in every defensive coordinator’s arsenal, but the Patriots’ pass rush has been extremely effective on simple tackle/end stunts.
On Patrick Chung’s interception of Andrew Luck, defensive end Adrian Clayborn and defensive tackle Adam Butler execute a T/E stunt to perfection, and Clayborn gets a free run at Luck. Butler does an excellent job of occupying two blockers while Clayborn angles behind Butler’s penetration to take a straight shot at the quarterback. The pressure causes Luck to panic, and he makes a poor decision throwing the football directly to Chung.
Another signature call from Patriots defensive play-caller Brian Flores is the linebacker/tackle stunt, and the Pats run this scheme both with the tackle as the penetrator and the linebacker.
Let’s start with using the tackle as the penetrator to free up the linebacker. Once again, Adam Butler occupies two blockers which allows Kyle Van Noy to loop around behind the penetration. However, Dolphins left guard Ted Larsen initially does an excellent job of recognizing the pressure design and prevents Van Noy from penetrating the line. But Van Noy answers by using Larsen’s momentum against him to jab-step around him and makes contact with Tannehill’s arm as he releases the football. That was a terrific play by Van Noy to continue working through the blocking rather than giving up when Larsen stopped his initial progress.
The Patriots will also reverse roles in this scheme to give offenses a different look. On Adam Butler’s third-quarter sack of Ryan Tannehill, Van Noy creates a rushing lane for the Pats’ defensive tackle. Van Noy gets excellent inside penetration, which allows Butler to wrap tight around him with Van Noy occupying the left guard. Butler was double-teamed on the play, but the looping action causes the center to lose leverage and Butler goes right through the gap behind Van Noy for the sack. Adrian Clayborn also provides good edge force here to force Tannehill to step up in the pocket into Butler.
The Jaguars and Lions erased the Patriots’ pass rush from the equation, but they’ve been able to get after the quarterback these last two weeks thanks to some creative play calling by Flores.
Although the pass rush deserves credit, the coverage also did its part to keep the Dolphins and Colts under wraps on the whole.
DEFENDING CROSSING ROUTES
As we all know, the Jaguars torched the Patriots defense with a variety of crossing concepts that also plagued this defense during the 2017 regular season and Super Bowl LII.
The Chiefs will undoubtedly go back to these designs in Week 6, but over the last two weeks, the Patriots defense has done a much better job defending them thanks to some adjustments by the coaching staff.
The Patriots kept their initial adjustment to these concepts that they deployed in the second half against Jacksonville last week versus Miami. The Pats opt to pass off the crossing routes in zone coverage, where the “robber” safety, in this case, Devin McCourty, drops down to take out one of the crossers while the far boundary corner (Gilmore) takes the crosser going the other direction. That allows the slot corner in the middle of the field to occupy that area to avoid the spot route that both the Jaguars and Eagles tormented the Pats with over the last year. With his first read eliminated, Tannehill takes a sack, but the Pats did lose the running back out of the backfield with all the attention on the middle of the field.
Fast-forward to Thursday, and the Patriots adjusted again to account for the running back. The Patriots are in man coverage here, and Gilmore and Jason McCourty navigate the trash to stick with their assignments. This time, the Pats drop Chung and Van Noy from the edge in short zones to support the corners on the mesh or take the running back out of the backfield if he does sneak out. Although Luck eventually completes a pass along the sideline, the Patriots shut down his first read with strong execution and scheme, and it takes a perfect throw from Luck to beat the coverage.
JASON MCCOURTY STEADIES #2 CORNERBACK SPOT
Speaking of Jason McCourty, the veteran brought stability to the cornerback spot opposite Stephon Gilmore, and that has also led to improved coverage in the secondary.
The Colts threw at McCourty twice on back-to-back plays in the red zone on Thursday night, and he was up to the task both times.
First, the Colts try McCourty (top of screen) on a fade route from a “nub” alignment for tight end Eric Ebron, which means Ebron is in-line as the widest player on that side of the formation for the offense. Indy loves to throw fades to Ebron near the goal line, and McCourty likely anticipated the route based on film study, which is why he’s all over it on this play.
Then, the Colts attack McCourty (bottom of screen) on an island with a double-move. Colts wide receiver Zach Pascal tries a little stop-and-go move on McCourty, and the veteran isn’t having any of it staying with Pascal the entire way. The tight coverage gives Luck nowhere to place the ball, and the ball lands out of bounds as he tries to hit a tiny window over Pascal’s shoulder.
This season, opposing quarterbacks are averaging 4.5 yards per attempt and a 62.3 passer rating when targeting McCourty in coverage.
The Patriots defense, thanks to improved execution, has performed significantly better over the last two games than it did dating back to the start of the 2017 season.
Overall, the Pats rank 16th on defense in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric (through Week 4), a stat they ranked dead-last in last season, as they’ve been a better unit so far in 2018.
Although many will still doubt their overall talent, as the tape illustrated above, they’re currently playing clean football at all three levels of the defense.
Sure, the Colts offense moved the ball in the second half due to some breakdowns in the Pats’ man-to-man coverages and even some slip-ups in run defense.
But when you play as much man coverage as the Patriots do you aren’t going to win every single play for 60 minutes.
In Week 6, the Patriots will welcome arguably the best offense in the National Football League when quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs come to Gillette Stadium.
As every defense has this season, the Patriots will lose some one-on-one matchups against the Chiefs’ loaded skill group that includes wide receiver Tyreek Hill, tight end Travis Kelce and running back Kareem Hunt.
However, if they can continue to play fundamentally sound football, and execute the game plan, they’ll force the Chiefs offense to beat them with spectacular individual performances rather than handing them yards as they did against the Jaguars and Lions.
If they regress to the defense that took the field in Weeks 2 and 3, it will be a long Sunday night for the Patriots.
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