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Notebook: Belichick traces flexible game plan approach back to Sun Tzu's Art of War

Bill Belichick talks about the philosophical roots of his game plan-flexible football teams.


Ask any Patriots coach or assistant about their schemes and strategies and they'll remind you how they're a gameplan team and each week they tailor their strategy to their opponent. While many teams, old and current, might choose to just "do what they do" and do it with speed and aggressiveness, Bill Belichick's team likes to adjust each week, throwing new twists at teams that are designed to exploit what the Patriots coaching staff sees as their weakpoints.

"We saw a lot of Cover 2," said Justin Herbert, coming off this season's loss to the Patriots. "That was just one of those things that they did not show all year. That is one of those gameplan things where you go into the game, see and address at halftime."

Herbert is far from alone. Belichick and the Patriots have been adjusting their game plans for years, leaving opponents to guess what kind of offense and defense they'll morph into once kickoff arrives.

"I think if you want to go far enough, look at Sun Tzu," said Bill Belichick on Friday morning, invoking the centuries-old Art of War. "Look at the great generals, you exploit your strengths and attack weaknesses. That's about as fundamental as it gets. If there's something that you can do well, you want to try to do it. If there is something that your opponent is weak at, you want to try to attack it, and if you can match those up, then that's a good way of attack." 

Inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo shed some light on the process on the defensive side of the ball this past summer, as Mayo said it's first about getting down the fundamentals before they start messing around with schemes.

"Right now we're focused on fundamentals and laying the foundation of calls and schemes," said Mayo in early August. "Yes, we are a game plan defense but there are things that are fundamental to the way that we play defense here in the last 20 years and we have to get good at those before we can even think about moving on to something else. Really it's all about fundamentals... taking on blocks, tackling, just running. Just doing the simple things at a high level and a consistent basis, that is our primary goal."

And once the game plans start flowing, it can make it hard on the players as Mayo described last season.

"I would say the challenging part of playing here in New England is that we change every single week," said Mayo. "I know you've heard coach Belichick always talk about 'we are game plan defense,' so as soon as you get caught up, we're moving on to the next thing. So then the following week we'll use some of the principles from two weeks ago today, even though it has a small tweak. And I think that's really the challenging part for guys to come in here when most of these colleges they were on run the same four or five plays over and over and over again.

"There's multitude and that's changing every week, that's the difficult part about picking up our playbook."

"If you can find a way to use your strengths without them really knowing exactly what you're doing, or you have some little bit of disguise or distraction to it, then, I think, fundamentally, that's really what you try to do," said Belichick. "Be sound, play to your strengths and attack the opponent's weaknesses. Again, that's a much longer, detailed conversation, but at the heart of it, that's really where it starts for us every week. What do we need to stop, and what can we do, and then build it from there."

Five Points of Emphasis vs. Browns

  1. Win the edge: The easiest place to start with the Browns is not letting defensive end Myles Garrett and his 12 sacks blow up the Patriots offensive gameplan. Jadeveon Clowney can be almost equally as dangerous on the opposite side, as the focus on every play will be directly on protecting the edges. Isaiah Wynn and Michael Onwenu are playing good football right now, but Garrett and Clowney are as dangerous as they come. The Patriots will have a plan to deal with them on every down, giving Wynn and Onwenu help in certain situations, ensuring the Browns' talented edge defenders don't take over the game.
  2. Death by a thousand short passes: With the Patriots likely to be shorthanded in some capacity at running back, it's going to put even more pressure on their passing game. The Browns run defense is very good regardless, as it seems like Mac Jones and the passing offense will need one of their best games of the season. Third-and-longs are particularly dangerous for the reasons mentioned above. That's why a heavy dose of the short passing game is in order. Get the ball out quick, force the Browns defenders to come up and tackle, and eat them up by continually executing. That's is asking a lot of an offense that has had their inconsistencies throughout the season, but it's a viable plan if they can find a rhythm.
  3. Clean it up: A simple drum that will continue to be beaten until the Patriots can stop with the self-defeating turnovers and penalties. The last two weeks, the defense's takeaways have covered up for the offense's struggles but they cannot be required to do that every week to get the Patriots a win. The Browns aren't a ball-hawking defense, despite Denzel Ward's 99-yard pick six last week, they have just eight takeaways on the season, half of the Patriots total. New England can't let them find their takeaway stride against them.
  4. Defense do it again: Against the Panthers, the Patriots defense had a bit of a coming-out party, playing with high energy and aggression throughout the contest that never allowed Carolina to get on track. This week, it's another challenge that starts against the run game and they'll need a similar effort to control the line of scrimmage against a talented group of Browns offensive lineman. Dont'a Hightower said this week it would be a trench battle, the Patriots are going to have to bring it.
  5. Win: As always the only thing that truly matters, the Patriots have climbed above .500 for the first time since early in the 2020 season and there should be no backslide now, especially against a fellow 5-4 AFC team that is riding high and looking to stake their own claim on a playoff spot. The Patriots are very much smack dab in the middle of the playoff fight as are the Browns, and we are entering the weeks that define how your season will shape up at the end.

Practice & Injury Report

After two idyllic days of fall practice to start the week, the rain and wind arrived on Friday to mar the Patriots' final day of preparation. None of the players that had been absent earlier in the week returned, complicating the outlook for Sunday at running back, with Damien Harris (concussion) and Rhamondre Stevenson (concussion) both missing the entire week, along with Gunner Olszewski (concussion) and Jamie Collins (ankle).

The Browns ruled both Nick Chubb and Demetric Felton out of the contest after they landed on the COVID-19 Reserve list this week. Harris and Stevenson remain questionable along with Olszewski. Collins was listed as Doubtful.

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