The Carolina Panthers comes to town on Sunday and they will take the league's top-ranked defense into Gillette Stadium. Through three game the visitors allowed just 40 points and have been as stingy as anyone when it comes to moving the football.
This early defensive success comes despite the loss of defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, who left to become head coach of the struggling Buffalo Bills. In his place is Steve Wilks, but Bill Belichick says the Panthers haven't changed much in terms of style.
"Wilks has been with [head coach Ron] Rivera in three different organizations, so I would imagine that there's a lot of carryover," Belichick said. "There's a pretty good understanding between those guys of what they want to do and how they want it done. I'd say fundamentally the defense is the same. I'm sure they have probably a couple of tweaks or variations like probably every team has form year to year. We certainly have it. There's something that's a little bit different than it was last year for one reason or another. Overall, it's the same defense."
Belichick went on to describe some of the hallmarks of the Panthers successful system.
"Four-man line, a lot of zone, blitz-zone. They basically play two fronts. Blitz tendencies have been the same as what they've been. In 2013, the last time we went through it, there's not a lot of changes from what we had in 2013 percentage-wise. That's basically what they want to try to do. They're a good fundamental team. They've put a lot into their front seven."
Belichick was asked several questions about the Panthers defense on Friday, and specifically how some of the individuals are performing.
Shaq attack –One of the new faces from the last time the teams met is athletic linebacker Shaq Thompson, who performs as a bit of a hybrid safety-linebacker type. Rob Gronkowski spoke about Thompson versatility earlier in the week and Belichick explained how the Panthers can use him interchangeably in sub packages.
"Basically, whether they're in nickel or base, it's pretty much the same defense," Belichick said. "He and [Captain] Munnerlyn essentially play the same position in the defense. He plays in space. Again, depends on the formation but if you extend the formation he'll play in space, kind of where Munnerlyn would play. They're not a match team so if you have three receivers in the game on first down, you won't necessarily get nickel. They'll put Thompson where Munnerlyn would be and play a lot of the same things they would play with Munnerlyn in there."
Ageless wonder –Another change from the last time the teams let, but certainly no stranger to the Panthers or Patriots, is Julius Peppers. The former No. 1 overall pick continues to put pressure on the passer at defensive end in his 16th NFL season.
"Julius was a tremendous athlete coming into the league," Belichick said. "The guys that come in with that kind of rare ability generally seem to last longer than most others. But he's been very productive for Carolina, then up in the AFC North and then back in Carolina again. They've used him a little bit inside, but he's not only good defensively, he's very good at blocking kicks. He's a great field goal rusher. I don't know how many career blocks he's got – probably a dozen – but it's a lot. He's long, he's very athletic. In some schemes I'm sure he could play linebacker, could play outside linebacker, so you're talking about that kind of athlete for as big as he is, as athletic as he is, a guy like [Jadeveon] Clowney, guys like that.
Quick turnaround –The Patriots won't have much time to dwell on Sunday's game as they will have a short week before their Week 5 tilt Thursday night in Tampa. Belichick was asked if the schedule affected preparations at all.
"We always have people on our staff who work ahead, so whatever game we're on we have certain people that work on the next game, and then when we get to the next game then they bridge us to that week, and then they move to the following game.
"The cycle is moved up a little bit but it's basically the same, so yeah, it'll be a big weekend for us and a quick turnaround after the game. The same as it is for our opponent, but yeah, definitely more challenging. But it's kind of the same. It's the same cycle, the same people that advance and then hand it off to the people that are in the current game, and then the advance moves on and the current game is the current game."