Matt Patricia will be parting ways with Bill Belichick after Super Bowl LII. That doesn’t mean he won’t be taking a good piece of Belichick with him to Detroit.
Patricia’s defense, with its multiple and hybrid fronts, interchangeable positions and disciplined but varied coverage schemes, is all rooted in Belichick’s philosophy of being fundamentally sound, versatile and adaptable with an adherence to situational football.
It’s not easy to separate the two in any analysis of the Patriots’ defense. Inside the mind of the rocket scientist, Belichick might always have a cubicle. They’ll just have to stop sending interoffice memos.
Let’s examine a few elements the Eagles offense can expect:
Bend, don’t break
The overarching principle. It’s all about winning the game, i.e. the final score. The Patriots don’t care about yards, just points, and this season has provided the best example of this concept. Think the Patriots’ defense wasn’t very good? Think again — like the Patriots.
New England’s defense ranked 29th overall, 30th against the pass and 20th against the run yet allowed the fifth fewest points in the league. The Patriots, according to Football Outsiders, yielded the most average yards per drive in the NFL — 35.77 — yet they ranked fourth in red zone scoring efficiency.
“They’re a great scoring defense,” said Matt Bowen, the former NFL safety now at ESPN.com “When you talk about it in team meeting rooms before the season, it’s really how many points you allow and how many turnovers you create. That’s winning defensive football. It always has been. If you can win inside the 20-yard line, if you can win in two-minute drill, you’re going to have a pretty good defense.”
“What else matters?” asked a former NFL coach. “With them, it’s we know we can score but our defense… if we don’t give up big plays and easy scores, then hell, we’ve got a great chance.
“Here’s the biggest thing of all with Matt Patricia. Same with Bill Belichick since he was a coordinator with the Giants. Once you got near the 20-yard line you were in trouble.”
“He knows once the field gets shorter, it’s to your advantage,” said Giants radio analyst Carl Banks. “Down the field they may play defense to prevent a 35-yard pass completion but when you get into the red zone, that defense is in their favor because, now it’s a short field for the offense and they can do more things, especially if he has good cover guys on the outside or a rangy safety.”
It’s the personnel, stupid.
Actually, it’s very smart. The Patriots don’t fit players into the scheme. They build the scheme around the players. This allows them not only to be fluid year-to-year but to survive free-agent defections in the offseason and injuries during the season.
They were primarily a 3-4, two-gapping defense when they had big guys such as Vince Wilfork, Richard Seymour and Ty Warren up front, but they eventually transitioned into more of a 4-3 and then back into a combination of both.
Again, depending on the personnel, Patricia has used hybrid fronts where one side is playing in a one-gap alignment and the other side in a two-gap alignment. He’ll use combine fronts with different sub packages and has even gone with a nose tackle, five linebackers and five defensive backs.
“I don’t think they’re a 3-4 defense, I don’t think they’re a 4-3 defense. I don’t think they’re a Bear front defense,” Bowen said. “They cater their game plan and their defensive scheme to fit the personnel. It’s not, ‘this is my scheme, you play it.’ No. It’s, ‘You own the scheme. Let’s put you in the best position to play great football.’”
Same in the secondary.
“They probably play a little more zone than man because of the available personnel,” Banks said. “The better the defensive backfield is, the more multiple Patricia becomes.”
“It can evolve because it’s there already,” said an ex-NFL scout. “They just pull it out of the library and this is what we’ll do.
They have so much that they can go to, so many things that they don’t really have to evolve. They’ve already got it. They just pluck it out.”
Again, it’s one reason why they can overcome injuries. They just don’t plug a hole. The perfect example was their 21-13 win over the Chargers after losing their best front seven player, Dont’a Hightower, for the year. It actually worked to their advantage because the Chargers couldn’t figure out what the Pats were doing to replace him. Patricia spread responsibilities over his linebackers and used them more, not less, aggressively and creatively. To compensate for the thinned-out front, he attacked the line of scrimmage by bringing linebackers both off the edge and up the middle while keeping a defensive end home or dropping him into coverage.
Philip Rivers had problems identifying who was doing what.
“He’s not a defensive coach who says, ‘OK, I just lost Hightower and I’ve got no options. I can’t do certain things,’” Banks said. “They’ll find a way to them and it will be up to you to figure out what they’re doing because it could be a strong safety may become a middle linebacker but it will be late in the down.”
“It never seems that they panic,” Bowen said. “They’re always adjusting.
“When Hightower went out this year, ‘I said it’s over. New England’s done,’” Bowen admitted. “They don’t think that way.”
“They take the next man and ask, ‘Can he do the same things that Hightower did? No he cannot. But what can he do well? Well, he can do X, Y and Z. OK, then let’s let him do X, Y and Z. and let’s try to find someone else to play Hightower’s role on third down or maybe we have to change that role’. It’s more how can they get two guys to be as productive as one guy?”
Patricia’s system demands both. The recently-retired Rob Ninkovich was the prototypical Patriot player with his ability to play different roles and to recognize what the offense was doing. It’s why they can adapt to adverse situations seamlessly.
“That’s part the genius of what they do,” said the ex-NFL coach. “Take, for example, (defensive end) Deatrich Wise. He can play D-tackle, D-end, outside linebacker. I mean he can do anything. It does three things. As a player, you will be mentally sharp because you have no choice, it creates competition and it protects the team from injury because they have options.”
“They’re going to be multiple in the roles they can play but they can play those roles from a basic 4-3 front or a 3-4 front and it could end up being something else when the ball is snapped,” Banks explained. “He wants his players to understand each role. A linebacker will probably have to know every position in back of him and in front of him with the exception of a nose guard. The nose tackle will probably have to know every position on each side of him with the exception of cornerback. And they’ll be tested on it weekly.”
“It’s just what they do,” the NFL coach said. “Players learn to do it. And of course, they look for players who can do it.”
As with Belichick, Patricia doesn’t coach. He teaches.
“I think he’s a great teacher,” Bowen said. “Obviously I’ve never been in his meeting room or have been coached by him but you look at a guy like Malcolm Butler and how he has been developed in terms of his overall technique. I don’t think Malcolm Butler has the upper level ability of a Patrick Peterson but he can play a consistent game at corner because he’s got some of the best technique in the NFL. I remember he matched up against Odell Beckham Jr. and how he competed. That’s pretty unique.”
“It’s why their defense just wasn’t very good at the start of the year. That’s the case most years,” said a scout. “They do so much teaching and it just takes a while. And he’s patient. Stephon Gilmore (signed as a free agent) was giving up 40- and 50-yard bombs. But he stayed with him and he got it. They’ll always be better at the end of the year.”
Patience only goes so far, though. As Banks pointed out, there was a reason they picked up James Harrison from the Steelers. While he fits their defense in his ability to play multiple roles and rush the passer, his real value is in setting the edge against the run.
“Teams were running the ball on the outside until the last four weeks of the season. It was frightening. It looked like they didn’t have anybody who knew how to set an edge. Harrison is great at that,” Banks said. “They hate when they’re trending in a bad direction. They’ll go two games and in the third game, if it starts to look the same, that means they’re not getting it accomplished and they don’t have enough players to do it.”
Game plan specific
They’re not stubborn. It’s never a case of, ‘we’re just going to run our stuff and not worry about what they do.’ Each week, Patricia identifies two players who they want to take out of the game to both force the quarterback to go somewhere else and to make him uncomfortable.
“Whoever Patricia wants to take out of the game, they’ll take out of the game,” Bowen said. “They’ll make you go someplace else with the ball and they’ll use their personnel to get that done.”
“Most offenses aren’t multiple enough or have enough variety to make it hard for him to do that,” said the ex-NFL coach. “But it doesn’t matter what you do. They figure out how to do it anyway. I’ve seen people put three receivers all together and they scatter and they always double the right guy.”
Patricia also sets up his double teams in intelligent ways.
“Antonio Brown, for example. You’ll see on every crucial down and distance situation, they play man on Antonio Brown with a safety right over. They’ll use their No. 2 corner there and they’ll take their top corner and they’ll put him on their No. 2 wide receiver. They’ll try to play the advantages that way.”
Banks recalled the Giants’ Week 14 game at home against the Cowboys this year, when, in the closing minutes of the first half, Dak Prescott completed a 50-yard scoring pass on a slant to Dez Bryant, who, with the Giants blitzing, was matched up one-on-one against cornerback Brandon Dixon.
“They picked it up and they turned the guy loose,” Banks remembered. “You wouldn’t see that out of a Patricia defense. He’s not going to give up a chunk play thinking the blitz will get there before they locate the weakness.
“Patricia would play his defense, make sure everybody tackles, make sure everybody stays in bounds. Now if you hit a couple and you cross the 50-yard line, then you’re probably going to see a little more matchup or combination type of stuff. And when it gets down there close, you’ll see some blitzes but they’re going to always know the situation.”
It’s just a different philosophy. Steve Spagnuolo is from the Jim Johnson school of defensive coordinators. He was the Eagles’ “Mad Genuis” back in the day. They blitzed “with guts,” Banks said. “These guys have logic when they do it. They know when to pressure.”
That’s the essence of Patricia’s success, knowing when to call what based on the situation.
Unorthodoxy well timed
It’s not that they’re exotic. Genius is often simplicity. But as Bowen noted, “they’re not afraid to go outside the box.”
With most of the current talent on the back end, Patricia can get more creative.
“Patrick Chung is a hybrid defender,” Bowen noted. “He plays strong safety. He plays a rover position whatever you want to call that. He covers the tight end, sometimes they’ll walk him down to play the back releasing from the backfield. Same thing with (Devin) McCourty. I don’t know how many times I’d be watching them play Pittsburgh and in certain passing situations they’d walk McCourty down to play Le’Veon Bell.” “That’s not normal,” Bowen added. You wouldn’t see the free safety play the running back. But it was the best matchup for them instead of putting a linebacker on him. ‘Let’s take a free safety with coverage ability on one of the most electric running backs in the league. Let’s try to win that way.’”