Patriots Preview: Playing to Their Strengths
Bill Belichick has debunked the ridiculous myth that coaching is all about motivating players and bringing “energy” to a franchise. The wry, understated leader has won three Super Bowls, five AFC Championships and 11 division titles in 14 years with the Patriots thanks not to personality but to an unbelievable sense for how to use his personnel.
In the early 2000s, when the Patriots built a dynasty largely with role players, Belichick had a slew of savvy veterans like Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, Lawyer Milloy, Rodney Harrison, Mike Vrabel and Ty Law. It wasn’t an insanely athletic group, but it was an uncommonly intelligent one. So Belichick employed numerous different schemes that changed drastically from week to week, sometimes even quarter to quarter.
Recently, in part because of misses on draft picks, Belichick has had more athletic but callow players to work with. So the Patriots have morphed into a very simplistic, man-to-man based defense, built more on physical execution than football IQ. This is good coaching in the purest form: playing to the strengths of one’s personnel.
Belichick is a defensive guy, but his team plays to its personnel on offense, too. It helps having Tom Brady, perhaps the shrewdest pocket quarterback of all-time. Some believe the 37-year-old is subtly declining, though evidence of this is flimsy at best. Yes, Brady was uncharacteristically uneven the first half of last season. But he was saddled with a grossly inexperienced receiving corps that wasn’t adjusting to the team’s option route system.
In Patriot fashion, the system adjusted, becoming mostly run-based. Just like in the passing game, New England’s rushing attack is more about the scheme’s structure, not the rotational players in it. Stevan Ridley, when not benched because of fumbles, runs with good wiggle, showing patience to the hole and quickness through it. Shane Vereen has the lateral agility to get outside. Brandon Bolden runs with determination and physicality. Fourth-round rookie James White, judging from most scouting reports, could become a poor man’s Giovani Bernard. None of these guys are asked to create; they’re asked to just follow their blocks.
Playing to the offensive line makes sense. The Patriots have a big, powerful front five that can road-grade in man-blocking and is collectively just agile enough to be effective on outside zone stretches. Most of the play designs are built around the left side, where tackle Nate Solder has some of the fleetest feet in the game. With Logan Mankins shipped to Tampa Bay for Tim Wright and a fourth-round pick, the new left guard will likely be backup tackle Marcus Cannon. On the right side is mauling tackle Sebastian Vollmer (if healthy, that is; he’s missed at least half the games in two of the past three seasons, mainly due to back problems, but also a broken leg in 2013) and Dan Connolly, a highly intelligent player.
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Being a run-based offense means having a passing game built around the rushing attack. The Patriots have entailed a lot of under-center play-action concepts, with hard fakes on stretch handoffs being a Brady favorite. Even when they’re not play-faking, the Patriots tend to throw out of base personnel and from run formations.
It would make sense to continue this given that the two most lethal receiving threats are not wide receivers but rather a tight end (Rob Gronkowski) and running back (Vereen). Let’s assume Gronk rebounds from his knee injury just fine (he’s been coming back from injuries for years). He’ll be the fulcrum of the interior route designs. Vereen will be the fulcrum outside. He can run routes out of the backfield or split wide and consistently separate against linebackers, safeties and sometimes even corners.
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There’s talk of free agent wide receiver Brandon LaFell also becoming a focal point in these designs, filling the old Aaron Hernandez role by splitting to the slot or even coming out of the backfield. This can scare a defense, but it’d make more sense to just keep Vereen in this hybrid role. Being a great pass catcher and also a natural ball-carrier (which LaFell is not), Vereen poses more of a dual threat, making it likelier that the defense stays in its slower base personnel package. Something offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels could toy with is using LaFell and Vereen in the backfield simultaneously. That would almost guarantee Brady getting rid of the ball in under 2.5 seconds, something the Patriots must consider given that their O-line is not always dazzling in pass protection.
Another idea for filling the Hernandez role: the newly acquired Wright. The undrafted second-year pro may not be ideal out of the backfield, but he’s dynamic in the slot and maybe even split wide. Wright flashed sensational inside receiving ability for the Bucs last season. His blocking is not great, but the Patriots can find ways to avoid using him at the point of attack in the running game. In this system, the former Rutgers receiver turned pro tight end has a chance to become elite.
Crafty design needs to remain the driving force of New England’s passing game; with second-year men Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins still having a ways to go in their development, the Patriots do not have any receivers that can consistently beat man coverage on their own. Julian Edelman caught 105 balls last year, but many of them were out of man-beater designs such as pick routes, stack releases (i.e. one receiver lining up almost directly behind another, which creates natural separation off the line) and well-placed pre-snap motion. Being just 5-10 and not electrifyingly fast, Edelman needs this sort of help. Same goes for Danny Amendola.
The beauty is that while the Patriots’ receiving corps has no stars, its rich with capable contributors. That presents more possibility for change because if any of these players develop a new skill, this coaching staff will find a way to exploit it.
The addition of Darrelle Revis suggests New England’s aforementioned man-based scheme is here to stay. Keep in mind, Revis is filling the void of Aqib Talib, who was sensational shadowing the opponent’s No. 1 receiver week in and week out. Now two years removed from his knee operation, the 29-year-old—not bad in Tampa Bay but often misused—can regain his old form and easily fulfill Talib’s duties. The differences between Revis and Talib: (a) Revis is slightly better in all phases of man coverage and markedly better in zone, should the Patriots opt to sprinkle that in; (b) Revis is not prone to minor but disruptive injuries and you don’t have to worry about him flying off the handle at any given time. Basically, a lot of Revis’s $12 million salary is simply an insurance policy on the Patriots’ ability to play man-to-man.
Ostensibly, Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia plan on giving Revis no safety help over the top. Their other notable free agent acquisition was ex-Seahawk Brandon Browner, who can perform at a Pro Bowl level as long as he has help. Often, that help can come from the sideline (Browner almost always played on the outside in Seattle), though with Revis on the other side, there are copious options for the help coming from a safety. It will be dictated in part by where the offense’s No. 2 receiver—whom Browner will likely follow—lines up.
Browner likely won’t follow a No. 2 receiver into the slot. Those duties are best suited for either sixth-year veteran Kyle Arrington or 2013 third-round pick Logan Ryan. It would be great if Alfonzo Dennard could develop more slot aptitude. Dennard flashed impressive press-man abilities on the outside as a sophomore last season. It’d be a shame for such a talent to not regularly be on the field.
But Dennard is more of a stopper, not a playmaker. With safeties able to play away from Revis, the Patriots could be looking for guys who can snag more than just one interception in 13 games. Three years ago, Arrington had a league-leading seven interceptions, though a lot of them were just cases of right place, right time; he’s had just one since. Ryan, having excellent eyes and a sense for squatting and breaking, has a chance to become a real ball hawk.
Having to choose from a bevy of qualified players is a good problem to have, of course. It’s a problem the Patriots wish they had at safety. Surprisingly, keen veteran Steve Gregory was released, so higher-round picks Duron Harmon and Tavon Wilson plus the unreliable Patrick Chung will vie for the starting strong safety job. (Harmon figures to have the advantage.) Logan Ryan may also be in the mix. The free safety duties will be handled by ex-cornerback Devin McCourty, who brings great range and increasing awareness to the position.
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With Revis negating the necessity of playing “two-man” (two safeties over the top in man coverage), you’ll see the Patriots employ a lot more “man-free lurk” this season, meaning either Harmon or Wilson will be a roving defender underneath. Or, if Belichick and Patricia really want to get creative, they can use budding star Jamie Collins here. The 2013 second-round pick was a high school quarterback who played safety, linebacker and defensive end in college, which explains why he now shows unparalleled versatility as an inside and outside linebacker. Collins can stifle tight ends in coverage, rush the passer and chase down ball-carriers. Simply put, he has a chance to be a top 10 NFL defender.
However the Patriots employ their pass defenders, they’ll have to account for the front four not being particularly explosive. To improve on this, Belichick spent a first-round pick on gap-shooting defensive tackle Dominique Easley. But coming off an ACL injury, the former Florida Gator may need a little time to transition (rookie defensive tackles tend to anyway). Which means the Patriots could be bereft of quality nickel inside pass-rushers.
To rectify this, they could move Chandler Jones inside and have Jake Bequette fill the end spot in passing situations. They did this at times last season; Bequette was unmemorable but Jones, a sinewy lateral mover who contorts well in a phone booth, was disruptive. Jones is also effective outside, though he’s not a true edge speedster. Neither is fellow starter Rob Ninkovich.
Ninkovich’s forte is holding ground in the running game. While that can help keep linebackers Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower free to chase, it’s not enough to consistently crumble an entire blocking structure. That’s what Vince Wilfork is for. Though the Patriots got noble efforts out of limited but determined backups Joe Vellano and Chris Jones last season, their run defense fell apart after Wilfork tore his Achilles in Week 4. That’s a tough injury to bounce back from, especially for a 325-pounder.
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski remains sound as ever. Ryan Allen upgraded the punting game simply by ranking in the middle of the pack with a 39.9 net average. Belichick has never been overly concerned with the return game, prioritizing the safe play. Hence the deployment of 250-pound bull LeGarrette Blount on kickoffs last year. Blount is gone now; his spot will be filled by whoever is least likely to fumble. On punt returns, Julian Edelman is reliable and also has some unexpected big-play abilities.
Business as usual in New England: a deep, versatile roster, a Mount Rushmore quarterback directing the offense and a Mount Rushmore coach overseeing the defense. Super Bowl expectations are very valid.