Bill Belichick wore a look of disgust and bewilderment, like he smelled something bad but couldn’t quite tell where it was coming from. It was late in the fourth quarter of Sunday night’s showdown between the top two teams in the AFC, and the Chiefs had just completed their comeback, evening the score at 40 with a one-play, 12-second drive that consisted of a 75-yard TD pass from Patrick Mahomes to Tyreek Hill.
Belichick is famous for his emotionless demeanor on the sidelines, but this rankled expression had presented other times throughout the night, including on another of Hill’s three touchdown catches. This particular score featured the speedy wideout slicing across the Patriots defense on a deep crossing route, then outracing the safeties as he sprinted through the end zone.
“I'd just say that was just bad defense, bad coaching, bad playing, bad everything,” Belichick told the New England media on his Monday morning conference call.
Sunday night’s game was a gem by almost any standard—unless you expected the defenses to show up too. And that’s been the story of 2018. Six weeks into the season, points per game, yards per game and yards per play are at all-time highs. The teams with the three best records in the NFL (the 6-0 Rams, 5-1 Chiefs and 4-1 Saints) all have offensive-minded head coaches; one defensive coordinator, Tampa Bay’s Mike Smith, has already been fired after his unit gave up nearly 35 points per game over the first five weeks of the season. What in the name of the ’85 Bears has happened to good defense? In posing that question to multiple current and former NFL coaches, the responses were similar: “How much time do you have?” Or, “That’s a much longer conversation.”
There are certainly plenty of reasons for the current offensive explosion, which The MMQB’s Albert Breer detailed earlier this month, among them QB talent, rules that give the advantage to offensive players and college-style offensive concepts that scheme players wide open in space. But, as the well-worn NFL cliché goes, the guys on the other side of the ball get paid, too. Why have so few teams been able to match good offense with good defense?
It sounds boring, but several coaches point to a decline in fundamentals, which often shows up in the form of a busted coverage and a big play for the opponent. There’s less teaching and practice time under the current CBA than in decades past, yes. But interestingly, a few coaches also identified a strain by defensive coordinators to do too much or get too cute with their schemes, perhaps in an effort to match wits with evolving offenses. That can come at the expense, they said, of putting the emphasis on teaching techniques like how to split a double team, or defending a pass without drawing a flag for PI or defensive holding.
“Very few DBs know how to play the ball in the air without reaching, grabbing, tackling or holding a receiver,” one coach says. “They never turn and look for the football.”
Coaches have to teach players how to play both physically and mentally, and that includes adjusting to rule changes. It’s certainly true that recently added rules, from the defenseless player protections to the roughing-the-passer restrictions (including the now-infamous body-weight emphasis) have restricted the ways in which defensive players can use their bodies to stop offensive players from making a play. One pivotal moment Sunday night was when Chiefs linebacker Breeland Speaks had Tom Brady wrapped up then let him go, resulting in Brady scrambling into the end zone for a four-yard touchdown. Speaks said afterward, per the Kansas City Star, that he thought Brady had released the ball and let him go because he didn’t want to get penalized for roughing the passer.
But it’s also true that these rules aren’t going to be changed back, and this is where teaching good fundamentals becomes even more important. The Rams, as one example, do drills with tackling dummies where they practice wrapping up the QB and spinning around so that they wouldn’t land with their body weight on top of him.
Another question is why offenses seem to benefit from speed more than defenses do. Sure, there might not be another person in the NFL faster than Hill, who has been clocked in the 4.2 range in his 40-yard dash. But there are plenty of good athletes on both sides of the ball. Two of Hill’s three TDs on Sunday night came on deep crossing routes on which defenders never had a chance.
How do you stop these? Deep crossers are designed to be man coverage beaters, giving an advantage to the offense by negating a defender’s speed, because he’s put in a position where he’s chasing the receiver across the formation. On Hill’s 14-yard TD in the third quarter, Patriots safety Devin McCourty was left in this unenviable position. On Hill’s 75-yard score, safety Duron Harmon was turned the opposite direction as Hill streaked across the field to make the wide-open catch and then turned on his jets.
But anticipation and good positioning can give the defense an advantage. A key component of former Ravens safety Ed Reed’s Hall of Fame career was the way he’d defend what they called these Speedo deep crossers. Alerted to a certain guy playing a certain spot—in this case, Hill lined up as the second or third receiver in from the outside of the formation—Reed would switch responsibilities with the cornerback from his deep middle safety spot, leaving him in prime position to jump the route. The idea is that if a receiver is running away from one defender and toward another, it only makes sense to pass him off.
No doubt, offensive explosions are crowd-pleasers. But for those who love defense, much of the 2018 season has been hard to watch. “So disgusted by defenses in the league I can’t stand it,” ESPN analyst Louis Riddick, who played under Belichick in Cleveland, tweeted during the game. And grumbled one longtime defensive coach, “Some of the worst football I’ve ever seen.” Sentiments that pair perfectly with the look on Belichick’s face.
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