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Analysis: How the Patriots Continue Evolving on Defense in Another Productive Season

Although New England's had a disappointing 2023 season, the Patriots defense continues to be trend-setters to remain competitive despite major injuries. 

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The Patriots have one game remaining in a season that has left more questions than answers about the futures of key figures at 1 Patriot Place.

As the season winds down, there's growing speculation that head coach Bill Belichick's unprecedented 24-year tenure could end with a 4-12 record heading into Week 18. New England's offense, which ranks 32nd in scoring at 14.6 points per game, is the main reason they're currently holding the third overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft.

While other teams surround their young quarterbacks with star receivers and fortify their offensive lines, Belichick selected three defensive players with the Pats top-100 draft selections last spring, brought in Calvin Anderson and 34-year-old Riley Reiff to fill a need at offensive tackle, and his big skill player additions were JuJu Smith-Schuster and Mike Gesicki, who have combined for 499 receiving yards and three touchdowns in their first seasons in Foxborough.

Belichick's handling of the quarterback position and personnel decisions have many wondering if the Patriots team-building philosophy on offense is outdated. With offense hard to come by in New England, we are having conversations about Belichick's future with the team, and it wasn't a one-year dropoff. Really, it's four seasons in the making, including losing seasons in three of the last four years and zero playoff wins since their last Super Bowl run in 2018.

Although the Patriots are falling behind offensively, another element of the Belichick discussion comes to mind: what happens to the defense? The Pats might be struggling on offense, but they rank ninth in DVOA on defense through 17 weeks, despite losing blue-chippers Matthew Judon and first-round pick Christian Gonzalez for the season in Week 4.

New England's defense has weathered injuries well because they have stockpiled talent. The Pats have four players ranked in the top ten at their respective positions in Pro Football Focus grading: Jabrill Peppers (fifth among safeties), Jahlani Tavai (fifth among LBs), Christian Barmore (seventh among IDLs), and Mack Wilson (10th among LBs).

They also have above-average starters in CB Jonathan Jones, LB Ja'Whaun Bentley, S Kyle Dugger, EDGE Anfernee Jennings, NT Davon Godchaux, and DE Deatrich Wise, while adding high-end role players such as pass-rusher Josh Uche (11.5 sacks in 2022) and run-stuffer Lawrence Guy. Plus, Gonzalez looked like a home-run pick before suffering a torn labrum in early October, while day-two picks Keion White and Marte Mapu are coming on of late.

Although it doesn't absolve him of all wrongdoing and isn't some Sunshine.com spin, Belichick has quietly built a very good defense with an eye for defensive talent. Schematically, they're also a defense that's far from outdated. In fact, Belichick is an innovative defensive architect. In recent weeks, many prominent defensive players have begun crediting the Patriots assistant coaches as well, mainly linebackers coach Jerod Mayo and defensive play-caller Steve Belichick.

Following last Sunday's loss in Buffalo, where the defense did all it could following four first-half turnovers by the offense, several core contributors said that the assistant coaches deserve credit for the defense being so well prepared to face Bills star quarterback Josh Allen, who was just 15-of-30 for 169 yards and an interception in the game.

"That's a big testament to [Jerod] Mayo. He gets us ready every day," captain Deatrich Wise told Patriots.com. "We knew what he [Josh Allen] was going to do. We knew the formations that they were going to run during the game. A lot of counter plays. Our goal is to make him more one-dimensional. Some things didn't happen the way we planned it, but for the most part, I feel like we held him pretty good."

As much fair criticism the offense is getting for its shortcomings, the feeling is the opposite on the defensive side of the ball, where the Patriots have evolved. New England is still a man coverage-heavy defense, but they've made tweaks to get faster at the first two levels and are leading trends in drawing up exotic schemes to spin the dial on opposing quarterbacks.

By using hybrid safeties who can play at all three levels, the Patriots can play dime defense at the third-highest rate in the NFL (22.8%). The Pats get away with lighter personnel, thus adding speed and coverage ability because hybrids like Peppers, Dugger, Mapu, Bryant, and Jalen Mills have the strength to hold up at the point of attack and are good blitzers. Dugger ranks fourth among all defensive backs with 15 quarterback pressures, while Peppers is tied for fourth with 17 run stops.

New England is also highly exotic in how they rush the passer, using schemes such as "creepers" at the fifth-highest rate and are third in cover zero usage (8%). With all the dialed-up pressure, the Patriots have the second-highest rate of unblocked pressures in the NFL this season (10.9%). Belichick is still a wizard at flummoxing quarterbacks and scheming up pressure.

Whether it's Belichick, Jerod Mayo, or whoever from the Belichick tree, the Patriots should keep their defensive system in place beyond this season.

Run Defense

Starting up front, the Patriots are still a multiple-front scheme that typically leans on Belichick's roots as a 3-4 base defense.

With multiple run-stuffers excelling this season, the Pats have the NFL's best run defense in nearly a decade, allowing 3.2 yards per rush. They're also the top-ranked run defense in DVOA and rank second in rush EPA.

Last week, New England held a red-hot Bills rushing attack to 97 yards on 28 non-scramble runs while allowing a rushing long of eight yards. Players credit a physical mentality, sound fundamentals, and good coaching that simplifies their roles for having the league's top-ranked run defense, which is also allowing the fewest yards per carry of the Belichick era.

Buffalo came into last Sunday's game ranked third in EPA per rush, largely thanks to interim offensive coordinator Joe Brady using QB Josh Allen as a running threat. The Bills have majored in gap-read schemes such as tackle counter, where Allen will read the backside edge defender to either keep the ball around the corner, hand it off to RB James Cook to follow the puller, or vice versa.

Above, the Pats stuff Cook on the Bills staple concept despite playing out of a light box in a two-high safety shell. With well-set edges by Jennings and Tavai, Allen gives the ball to Cook, who is met by a great two-gapping technique from Guy and a great slip on the combo'ing guard by Bentley, who is excellent at compressing space and navigating blocks.

The combination of experienced block readers and sound technique allows the Patriots to shut down the run, making offenses one-dimensional, which is where Belichick really goes to work.

What are Creepers and Simulated Pressures?

For those who are into the Xs and Os, you might've heard the terms creepers or simulated pressures a lot lately.

Although there's some gray area, the simplest way to identify the difference is this: creepers don't show pressure pre-snap, while simulated pressures do. Creepers are when defenses align in a traditional structure but bring unexpected rushers from the back seven, while simulated pressures have five or more defenders threaten a blitz before the snap.

The idea is to create mismatches and unblocked pressure with a four-man rush rather than blitzing five-plus defenders so the defense can maintain its numbers in coverage. The fear with blitzing is it leaves the defense vulnerable in the backend with fewer defenders in coverage, which is often a losing proposition against elite quarterbacks. With passing taking over the NFL, defenses had to catch up, so Belichick began designing ways to scheme pressure like a blitz without sacrificing numbers in coverage.

Here's an example of a creeper pressure from the Patriots win over the Steelers in Week 14. With the defense in a standard single-high structure with three players on the line of scrimmage, Bryant (nickel) and Dugger (box) are disguised as likely coverage players. Instead, the Pats drop edge rusher Josh Uche off the line of scrimmage into a short zone, Bryant and Dugger blitz, and they spin into a two-high zone. The Steelers are sliding the protection toward Uche, leaving the running back in pass protection on the backside. The back can only take one of the two blitzers, so Bryant is unblocked, and the Patriots generate pressure to cause an interception.

Along with using creepers to drop into zones, the Patriots will also drop edge rushers off the line to help man coverage defenders. This time, the Pats run a replacement blitz out of a five-man front, where Tavai blitzes up the middle, and both edges drop into help positions. The push inside causes Chargers QB Justin Herbert to leave the pocket, while Uche's coverage drop serves two purposes: 1. It helps Bryant leverage No. 3 (inside slot) on the return route, and 2. Uche is there on Herbert's arm side to shut down a scramble. The rush marrying up to the coverage forces a throwaway.

The Pats also have checks within their pressure schemes to handle different releases by running backs out of the backfield. Marte Mapu and Mack Wilson have a post-snap read on the running back in this example. If the back releases into the flat, as he does here, Mapu will take him in coverage, freeing Wilson to blitz. Wilson would take the running back if he released through the middle of the pocket so that Mapu could blitz. The Pats slanting the D-Line clears an unblocked path to Bills QB Josh Allen for Wilson, who logs the QB hit to force an incomplete pass.

Simulated Pressures

On top of using creepers, the Patriots will also call simulated pressures. Mainly on third downs where they'll bluff cover zero and eventually bring the house.

In this example, the Pats have six potential threats to rush the passer across the line of scrimmage, but they only bring four, forcing the offensive line to sort out who is coming after the snap. With the in-line rushers blitzing, the Pats also use a twist stunt inside to add another layer. Herbert throws from a muddied pocket, and Bryant breaks up the pass intended for Keenan Allen.

As shown by their high rate of unblocked pressures, the Patriots exotic pressure schemes are successful and are another example of the coaching staff running a modern pass defense.

Man Coverage Wrinkles

After a season-ending injury to Gonzalez and the move to re-acquire J.C. Jackson flopped, one would think the Patriots tendency to play heavy amounts of man coverage would be an issue.

New England has relied on mid-season signing Alex Austin and Shaun Wade at cornerback alongside Jonathan Jones and nickel corner Myles Bryant. Despite using unknown commodities at corner, the Pats are still allowing a respectable -0.04 expected points added per drop-back in man coverage since losing Gonzalez.

The Patriots hold up in man coverage without the same cover talent they've had in the past because they simplify things for their DBs within their man schemes. New England's man coverage system is all about playing to leverage or help by using divider rules, which tell man defenders how to align based on where their help is, usually from a post safety or robber.

For example, one-cross is a variation of Cover-1 man the Patriots use frequently. In one cross, New England has a "robber" who can help on short and intermediate crossers over the middle. When the robber overtakes a crosser, the primary man coverage defender will fall off his original man to replace the robber in the middle of the coverage structure.

Here, the Patriots have a one-cross call on to bracket Chiefs star TE Travis Kelce. With Dugger spinning into the middle of the field, the Pats safety is there to help Mills on Kelce's crosser. With the exchange on Kelce, Patrick Mahomes progresses to the return route by No. 2. But Bryant is playing to his help from Bentley at the first level to leverage Rashee Rice's route. With his first two options covered, Mahomes looks to leave the pocket. By the time that happens, Christian Barmore takes down Mahomes for a big sack on second down. 

Along with ranking seventh in Cover-1 frequency, the Patriots are fully bought into dialing up cover-zero blitzes. Cover zero is a man coverage call where the defense forgoes any deep safety help to bring all-out pressure. The Pats trail only the Vikings (under Pats disciple Brian Flores) and the Giants in cover zero usage.

Although the Patriots will play straight man-to-man out of cover zero, they also have a man-match wrinkle where they essentially zone off crossers underneath the defense. In this scheme, the Pats will match vertical stems like its man coverage but pass off any routes that break within a certain yardage from the line of scrimmage, likely around eight yards. As you can see, Bryant falls off his man and picks up the crosser from the other side of the formation while the "trailer" pressure with Bentley and Peppers applies the pressure on Jalen Hurts. Bryant is then there to tackle A.J. Brown on the shallow crosser well short of the sticks.

On paper, the Patriots are still a man-to-man defense. However, they have different ways within those calls to lessen the burden on their defensive backs in man coverage.

Will the Patriots Still Have a Belichick Defense Moving Forward?

Head coach Bill Belichick's future with the Patriots is uncertain because the team's record is 4-12, and the main reason for their lousy record is poor roster building on offense.

Although those criticisms could lead the team in a new direction, Belichick is still one of the NFL's brightest defensive minds. The Patriots are a very fundamentally sound and well-prepared defense. Schematically, they're trend-setters, and Belichick has adapted to spread offenses.

The Patriots could lose one of the league's best defensive coaches if they move on from Belichick. However, they could keep his defensive system under linebackers coach Jerod Mayo. Mayo has been floated as a potential successor to Belichick, while the former Pats linebacker would also be an option as defensive coordinator if the Patriots hire an offensive-minded head coach. Other names in reports to succeed Belichick include former Pats assistant Brian Flores, who would bring his spin to Belichick's scheme from his post as the Vikings defensive coordinator.

New England also has great defensive assistants such as play-caller/linebackers coach Steve Belichick, and defensive line coach DeMarcus Covington, who was named as a rising star in coaching by NFL Network. Cornerbacks coach Mike Pellegrino, safeties coach Brian Belichick, and skill development coach Joe Kim also have important roles in the defense. There's obviously a chance Belichick is back next year to continue working with New England's current defensive staff. But if he isn't, the hope is that as many defensive assistants as possible will be back to run the system.

The Patriots are building something great on defense that is modern and successful, meaning there's one side of the ball that doesn't need fixing.

DISCLAIMER: The views and thoughts expressed in this article are those of the writer and don't necessarily reflect those of the organization. Read Full Disclaimer

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