Patriots succeed by going against the grain of NFL convention
That’s what it took to rebuild the New England Patriots.
A record $163 million guaranteed in free agency.
Mac Jones plummeting to their knees during the repechage.
Excellent health through 11 games.
And poop all the major schematic trends in modern football.
The least surprising of these developments should be the last. It’s well established that Bill Belichick is the NFL’s most famous maverick, and going against the grain holds centuries-old wisdom in competitive contexts. The soccer field is no exception.
Twenty years ago, Belichick founded the Patriots dynasty on 3-4 defenses that dominated in a four-try era. His answer for choosing a 3-4 system was economy. It was cheaper to chase giant nose tackles than Warren Sapp knockoffs and undersized defensive ends that could stand on their feet instead of high-priced, single-track pass rushers.
In 2021, the strongest evidence of a Belichick’s buck is in the offense.
This season, the Patriots have executed the third-most snaps of 21, groups with two backs — usually a halfback and a fullback — and a tight end. Their application of the bully ball first is not a function of protecting a rookie quarterback.
According to Sharp Football Stats, the Pats’ offense has ranked in the top five of the 21 highest personnel uses every season since 2016, a period that includes Tom Brady’s early years.
Most recently, the Patriots doubled their 21-person usage during the five-game winning streak. They employ a fullback on 30% of all offensive plays and nearly 40% of their first snaps. Starting guard Jakob Johnson saw a season-high 41% snaps last Thursday in Atlanta.
For reference, through Week 10, more than half the league used two-back personnel on 5% of their offensive plays or less. Each team’s most common personnel group includes a guard, and although the Patriots are included in this group, they ran the fifth-lowest attacking percentage to a guard in the league.
Belichick explained the Pats’ commitment to executing a one-and-two offense by echoing a Sun Tzu quote that hangs inside the team facility: “Every battle is won before it is won. not be delivered.”
“I think there’s an advantage, if you can do both, to do both and force your opponent to work on everything. All of this takes time,” he said on Monday. “It consumes meeting time, training time, game planning time. And if you can do it better than them, you can get an edge.
The Patriots are so determined to disrupt the spread era with a fullback that two years ago, after losing Pro Bowl starter James Develin and replacement Johnson, they converted inside linebacker Elandon Roberts for play offense mid-season. Roberts played 21 snaps in a prime-time game-winning game against Buffalo, then scored a touchdown in the season finale.
Days after beating Buffalo, Belichick explained the 21-member team’s dedication, saying, “We put a lot into it.”
On Monday, Pats inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo detailed the stress that dealing with increasingly rare two-back offenses can put on modern defenses.
“All these offenses that go to smaller people, and now you’re facing an offense that’s got bigger, they’re starting to build their defense to deal with smaller, faster offenses,” he said. . “And then they come up against a powerhouse who can just run the ball and average four or five yards per run, that’s always tough.”
Mayo later added, “Whether the back is lined up in a straight line or if it’s off to one side or the other, it can create an extra gap. And so that’s what makes it difficult. Every time you have a second guy there, wherever he fits in, now the space is different.
Defensively, the Patriots apologized for the two-tier coverage move that swept the league. According to Sports Info. Solutions, the Pats have played the highest percentage of singles coverage this season at 56%. Their best calls – Cover 1 and Cover 3 – allow a safety to turn late in the box and help stifle the run.
These defenses are as old as football itself, although the Patriots have struck a rare balance between defending the run with numbers – using the second highest rate of stacked boxes in the NFL – and protecting against passes. deep. Despite losing starting nickel Jonathan Jones, the Pats have one of the 10 lowest explosive passing rates allowed, according to Sharp Football Stats.
Coming into coverage 1 and 3, the Patriots prioritized defending midfield, the same area that the best offenses — especially wide attacks — have dominated in the modern era. Beating the Pats therefore means preparing for a less common look, usually dusting off your plan B and/or attacking on the outside. However, the problems are there too. The Patriots limited No. 1 wide opponents better than any other defense in the league, according to the Football Outsiders DVOA.
Asked on Monday how difficult it is to deal with defenses that camp between the numbers, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels pivoted to discuss the Titans and how the biggest challenge they pose is deciphering what coverage they’re actually playing. .
“At the end of the day, our job is really going to be to try and find a weakness in coverage or profit in each game and see if we can take advantage of that this week. It will be a big challenge because they are doing both. They play a lot of post. They play a lot of split and they’re going to mix it in there, and they’re going to make it look like the opposite,” McDaniels said. “They’ll dress up really well.”
Sound familiar? It should.
While the Patriots have higher coverage than the rest of the NFL, their ratio is more accurately described as 50/50; as close to the unpredictable as possible. And while the Pats also have one of the highest man-to-man rates in the league, they have called the zone on more than 70% of their opponents’ forfeits during their winning streak; a mid-season change exacerbated by regular disguise before the breakup.
All that trickery and contrarian coverage helped rack up a league-leading 18 interceptions from opposing quarterbacks who should finally know more by now.
Because after all, the best bet for what the Patriots do next has always been what they didn’t do last.
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