The Patriots defense is the real deal
Bill Belichick's defense is growing and evolving, shifting from a press-man coverage group into one that has fully embraced the art of disguise
It has been a long, long, long, long, time since the New England Patriots defense had a dominant coverage group, a frisky pass-rush, a wonky scheme, and a pair of the league’s most ferocious third-down weapons.
Bill Belichick usually trades one for the other, knowing the key to great, stable defense is possessing three of those four qualities in any given season. The last time Belichick rustled up a full quartet, he led the Patriots to back-to-back championships.
The Patriots are currently sixth in the league defensive Expected Points Added (EPA) per play. They’re fifth in the league in overall defensive efficiency. They’re pressuring quarterbacks at an unholy rate on third downs. And they’re tops in my totally fictitious Woah They Really Just Did That stat.
Some of the group’s success has been opponent-specific. But the Patriots waxed the Browns on Sunday to the tune of 45-7 with the same gameplan they ran out there against the Panthers a week before. With four-straight wins – two against good quarterbacks – and good performances against the Cowboys and Bucs, the Patriots have the makings of a feisty playoff time.
A couple of weeks ago, I looked at how Belichick is still bringing his fastball to the blitz/pressure game. The Patriots are fitting so many moving parts into their late-down packages – including having two dominant one-on-one pass-rushers (Matt Judon and Christian Barmore) – that it’s been easy to overlook the evolution that’s taking place on the back end.
I have fun news, folks: The Patriots are now a disguise-based secondary. Given his reputation as the game’s leading warlock, Belichick’s defenses are, counter-intuitively, often easy to define. They don’t run a whole lot on the back-end, traditionally. They base out of press-man coverage -- the best kind of coverage if you have the guys. That’s not to say the Patriots’ defense is simple or lacks complexity; it’s that Belichick settles on a slim group of morphing concepts that can carry him through the bulk of a season and that he can switch or adapt on a matchup-to-matchup basis.
There isn’t, typically, a whole heaping of disguised coverages or bluffs, with safeties rotating all over the shop or corners inverting their assignments. Belichick’s ‘genius’ is in picking the right coverage for the right moment, not bamboozling a quarterback with a quirky rotation.
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