Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has mostly dominated his opponents en route to over 328 career wins in the regular and postseason throughout his Hall of Fame career.
However, the one thorn in Belichick's side over the last 23 seasons with the Patriots is facing off against his former assistant coaches and players. In matchups against his former proteges, Belichick has a pedestrian 15-13 record, with a 5-9 mark against his pupils since 2018.
The next former assistant to test this trend is Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels, who was New England's offensive coordinator for the last ten seasons before taking the job in Las Vegas, and already got the better of Belichick in a 20-17 overtime victory as the Broncos head coach in 2009.
Unlike his Broncos tenure that started hot and then fizzled out, McDaniels's star-powered Raiders team is 5-8 in his first season in Vegas with four losses after leading by double-digits at halftime. Due to blowing big leads, his job security is in question, but winning three of their last four games has quelled some concerns in Sin City.
Although Belichick versus McDaniels is the headliner, the Patriots focus is their path to the playoffs as they currently are clinging to the seventh and final playoff spot in the AFC.
After a get-right win in Arizona last Monday night, this is another must-win game against a sub-.500 opponent before a three-game stretch wraps up the regular season against teams with a combined 27-12 record.
According to Football Outsiders, despite being in the driver's seat for the final wild-card spot, the Patriots (7-6) have a 38.5% chance to make the playoffs because their remaining schedule is challenging. For the Pats to make the postseason, it's hard to find enough wins in their final four games without defeating the Raiders. Coming back to Foxboro with an 8-6 record versus a 7-7 mark is a significant difference for the team's momentum and their postseason aspirations.
Here is a three-step plan and key matchups for the Patriots in a must-win game for New England on Sunday:
1. How Belichick Wins a Defensive Chess Match versus McDaniels's Offense
The master taught the padawan for over a decade on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium, where Bill Belichick's defense squared off against Josh McDaniel's offense daily.
After countless hours of practice time against one another, Sunday afternoon's 4:05 pm ET kickoff at Allegiant Stadium will be an epic chess match where McDaniels is armed with two likely All-Pro weapons in wide receiver Davante Adams and running back Josh Jacobs.
With opponents hyper-aware of Adams's ability to take over a game, opposing defenses have favored two-high safety shells to keep the top on the coverage rather than loading the box to slow down Jacobs. As a result, the Raiders have faced split-safety coverages at the fifth-highest clip, and Jacobs is only facing stacked boxes on 19.7% of his rushing attempts this season.
Since there's so much attention on Adams and the passing game, the Raiders have the fifth-best rush DVOA and are tenth in rushing success rate. Individually, Jacobs leads the NFL with 1,748 scrimmage yards and has 11 total touchdowns, feasting on those lighter boxes.
In typical McDaniels fashion, Las Vegas has the fourth-most offensive snaps in 21-personnel, with old friend Jakob Johnson playing fullback in the Raiders backfield. McDaniels exploits two-high safety structures with his staple run concepts such as lead ISO (above), FB counter, zone lead, and lead draw plays where Johnson paves the way for Jacobs to do his thing.
McDaniels then sets up downfield shot plays for Adams and quarterback Derek Carr when defenses inevitably adjust to single-high coverages.
In this play, the Rams start in a two-high shell but rotate into a cover-three zone at the snap. Knowing the coverage would rotate towards the tight end, Adams lines up at the X on the backside to create a one-on-one matchup, and Adams beats Jalen Ramsey for a big play.
As you would also expect with McDaniels, the Raiders then use play-action on 21.8% of their passing attempts and mix in the occasional flea-flicker. By influencing the defense into spinning into single-high shells with run fakes, Adams gets his single coverage chances, and as you would expect for a receiver of his caliber, he consistently wins those matchups.
Eventually, defenses need to make a choice, do you live with the yards allowed on the ground, or do you get an extra hat in the box to take out Jacobs but leave yourself vulnerable to Adams?
A large chunk of the conversation will be about a struggling offensive line blocking Maxx Crosby and company. But let's not forget that a potent Pats defensive front faces a Raiders O-Line that isn't great, especially on the interior.
New England could have some good injury news with top interior rusher Christian Barmore returning to practice this week, joining Matt Judon, Josh Uche, and Deatrich Wise to form a monster.
With Raiders quarterback Derek Carr being a stationary pocket passer, shutting down Vegas's offense could be as simple as taking advantage of a mismatch in the trenches.
Still, the Patriots defense needs to decide who possesses the biggest threat: Adams or Jacobs. The Pats might make the decision that the rest of the NFL has against the Raiders this season: keep the numbers advantage in coverage and live with the rushing yards.
2. Taking Advantage of a Look-Alike Raiders Defense Under Defensive Coordinator Patrick Graham
The Raiders head coach and several coaches on the offensive staff aren't the only former Belichick assistants in Las Vegas.
Raiders defensive coordinator Patrick Graham broke into coaching at the NFL level with the Patriots from 2009-2015, working up the ladder to serving as the linebackers and defensive line coach on Belichick's staff.
Although one would expect the Raiders to most resemble the Patriots on the offensive side of the ball, Vegas's defense, in many ways, is a carbon copy of Belichick's schemes and principles. In fact, we saw more repeat plays from Vegas's defense than their offense since McDaniels has adapted the passing game to fit Adams and the rest of the Raiders personnel (the running game is mostly the same, though).
Defensively, the Raiders are a base 3-4 defense that majors in post-safety coverages. With the Patriots defense not far behind them, Vegas has played the sixth-most man coverage snaps. Like past Belichick disciples who brought the system elsewhere, the new Raiders regime struggles to defend the pass. They still need the personnel to consistently hold up in man coverage or match coverages that are essentially man-to-man. Despite having a potent pass-rush duo in Maxx Crosby and Chandler Jones, Vegas is dead-last in pass DVOA and 31st in EPA per drop-back. This is not a good pass defense.
From a game plan perspective, opposing offenses are taking apart the Raiders pass coverages with similar passing concepts that give the Patriots defense problems in man coverage.
For example, the Rams attacked post-safety structures on early downs with play-action from under center, with Baker Mayfield throwing for five first downs off play-action fakes. Los Angeles protected Mayfield with half-boot actions and used seven-man protection schemes with two-man route combinations to keep the quarterback clean, a formula the Pats could mimic.
When the Rams went to their shotgun formations, crossers, digs, and intermediate outs opened up their passing game in the fourth quarter to stage their comeback. Then, McVay had the perfect call against a Belichick staple coverage that the Rams anticipated in the high red zone.
Las Vegas ran a down of cover-one cross, where a safety falls into a position to cut off the crossing route working across the field, and a post-safety stays over the top of the passing strength. The coverage scheme gave Rams wideout Van Jefferson a one-on-one matchup on the outside, and Jefferson beat Raiders cornerback Tyler Hall for the game-winning score.
At this point of the season, it's highly unlikely that the Raiders would reinvent the wheel from a coverage standpoint. In other words, the Patriots should know how to beat a familiar coverage system as the one their own defense runs.
3. Patriots Must Have a Plan to Slow Down Raiders Pass Rushers Maxx Crosby and Chandler Jones
As much as we want to see the Patriots attack a shaky Raiders secondary, New England must prevent Crosby and Jones from taking over the game.
According to Pro Football Focus, Crosby is tied for the second-most sacks (14) and third-most quarterback pressures (59) to follow up a Pro Bowl season a year ago, where he was second only to Aaron Donald in quarterback pressures in 2021.
Former Patriots draft pick Chandler Jones got off to a slow start in his first season with the Raiders but has four sacks and 11 quarterback pressures in Vegas's last three games. With Jones starting to find his groove in Graham's defense, the Raiders have one of the NFL's best pass-rush tandems, and Crosby is an instinctive, high-motor run defender.
Although the conservative game plans over the last two weeks had limitations, expect another heavy dosage of screens, quick-game concepts, and run-pass options to keep Crosby and Jones from pinning their ears back to rush Mac Jones.
When the Pats decide to take shots downfield, we could see their heavily-protected play-action concepts, or New England might utilize chips from their backs and tight ends when they need to pass the ball from traditional drop-backs. Regardless of how they scheme it up, the play-calling needs to be mindful of their presence, or Crosby and Jones will wreck the game.
- Pats EDGE Matthew Judon vs. Raiders LT Kolton Miller: strength-on-strength matchup here. Miller, a very raw athletic prospect coming out of UCLA, has developed into a stud at left tackle. Judon, or AFC Defensive Player of the Week, Josh Uche, could use Miller's high center of gravity against him by getting underneath his pads and power rushing into the pocket.
- Pats RT Connor McDermott or Yodny Cajuste Cajuste vs. Raiders EDGE Maxx Crosby: Crosby rushes over the right tackle on 77.6% of his defensive snaps, so this will be a significant challenge for the Pats backup right tackles. Expect either Cajuste or McDermott to get plenty of help.
- Pats LT Trent Brown vs. Raiders EDGE Chandler Jones: At this stage of his career, Jones's length and long arm/bull rush are his go-to moves rather than winning with pure explosiveness off the edge. His technique has come a long way to extend his NFL career now that his athleticism is declining.