Bill Belichick’s Quest For Versatility Will Be Key To Top Rated Patriots Defense
Any fan of the New England Patriots during the Bill Belichick era is very familiar with the staples of his philosophy that help define the Patriot way:
– Do your job
– Situational football
– It is what it is
– One game at a time
– We do what’s best for the team
– We talk about the guys on the field
– Play for 60 minutes
– The more things a player can do, the more value he has
There are more, but the latter is the coveted ‘Versatility’ that seems more important to the Patriots coach than to most other leaders and organizations in the league. As the 2013 campaign unfolds, we may see the most versatile defense in Patriots history, and it is what will separate the Patriots from the pack this season.
NFL Trends that are putting unique pressures on defenses
There are three recent trends that are putting unique pressures on NFL defenses.
1 – The read option quarterback that can throw the ball with accuracy.
2 – They hyper-tempo offense that prevents the defense from getting set and from making substitutions
3 – The multiple tight end sets that have tight ends capable of executing routes of wide receivers and getting deep on seam routes as well as being top quality run blockers.
The latter two items in large part are trends Bill Belichick is driving himself. The up tempo offense was mastered in the last decade by Peyton Manning when he was leading the Indianapolis Colts to the playoffs every year, but Tom Brady and Bill Belichick took that to a new level last season running more plays in a season than any team before them.
The New England Patriots will almost certainly be slowed down this season due to the loss of their top receiving talent, including Wes Welker, who went to the Denver Broncos, and Aaron Hernandez, who went to jail after being the suspected shooter in an execution style murder of Odin Lloyd this summer.
Yet all across the league during training camp coaches are running very high tempo practices. The generic answer when questioned about the pace of the offensive play calling has been that they are trying to get their players in top aerobic condition. However, the NFL is a copy-cat league and there is no doubt many teams are going to try to do what the Patriots did last season, which is to run plays so quickly that the defense gets ‘gassed’ and that the defense will be unable to make substitutions.
Another trend started by Belichick started with the insertion of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski into the Patriots 2 tight end offense. Sadly, we only got a small taste of the power of such a scheme with a pair of tight ends who both possessed all-pro talent.
An offense with two tight ends that have wide receiver pass route and pass catching abilities, who can also block at a high level, along with a solid running game and a top caliber quarterback to distribute the ball to right person, created a unique problem for defenses.
With such a personnel grouping, there wasn’t a defense in the league that could match up and stop that offense. The tight ends were the key. If linebackers and safeties were in the game to try to stop the running game, the tight ends had clear mismatches in the passing games. If extra defensive backs were in the game, the Patriots could run the ball all day long. With such versatility, and the hyper-tempo offense, it looked like the Patriots were going to compete for the Superbowl every season, and not just every other season.
Needless to say, many teams are focused on both the up tempo approach and the versatility of offensive personnel to create more mismatches than a defense could account for, forcing the defense to ‘pick its poison’ by adjusting its personnel to stop one facet of the game while being unable to stop another.
So what team is more likely to come up with the defensive brain-child to stop such a versatile and up tempo offense than the team that set those trends in the first place. Hello New England Patriots defense of 2013.
The key stopping the hyper-tempo offense, the two tight end offense with tight ends possessing wide receiver talents, or the speed and versatility of a read option offense with a top caliber athlete and passer at quarterback, is to have a young and very athletic defense that can have the same 11 defenders play physical run stopping defense, but also to be able to play coverage and have the speed to chase down plays from side line to side line.
The New England Patriots have the talent to unleash what could be a top rated defense in the NFL this season. From front to back, they have speed and strength. Players like Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, who can line up as run stoppers or play on the outside to rush the quarterback on the defensive line, will be able to play all three downs. The end position will have tremendous versatility with Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich. Jones is on track to blossom into a pass rushing machine who can also consistently stand up against the run. Rob Ninkovich has been getting better every year and is quietly becoming a pro bowl caliber talent.
The concern over recent years on the Patriots defense has been the secondary. They’ve struggled due to a below average pass rush and below average talent when it comes to ball skills at the corner back positions. However, things will change this year. With Aqib Talib showing off his talents and giving the Patriots a legitimate blanket corner who can take on the top receivers in the league, along with the addition of the seasoned and hard-hitting Adrian Wilson at safety, the Patriots secondary will be hugely improved. Mr. Versatility himself, Devin McCourty will play safety along with Wilson, yet seamlessly play one on one coverage effectively against top receiving talent against spread offenses. Kyle Arrington has found his niche as a slot corner, yet can play any corner spot effectively on any given set of downs. With Alfonzo Dennard in the line up, the Patriots will have a strong cover tandem on the outside. However, due to his legal troubles, he is likely to miss some games this season, so either Ras-I Dowling needs to finally put his big body to work, or Arrington has to switch back to the outside.
Regardless of how the secondary shakes out, they have depth, the talent, the size, the speed, and the versatility to put guys on the field who can play against the talented two tight end offenses and the read option schemes.
Yet the most versatile layer of the Patriots defense will be in the middle. The Patriots linebacking corps has the potential to be a highlight real machine. Jerod Mayo is a speedy and strong tackling machine, leading the team regularly in tackles. Brandon Spikes, who has unconventional methods, but extraordinary play making ability, has been working on his weakness this off-season trying to extend his versatility so that he can be a three down player. Spikes is one of the top run stoppers in the entire league. His upper body strength and anticipation to the ball put him in the right place at the right time frequently, where he lays the lumber and literally knocks people out.
Dont’a Hightower, groomed by Nick Saben in Alabama, and thus familiar with the Belichick defensive philosophies coming into the league, has been all over the field in training camp. The speedy, yet huge 270 pound linebacker can line up anywhere on the field. Several seasons ago, Bill Belichick, in search of versatility, broke the bank for free agent Adalius Thomas, a fast, hard-hitting linebacker who also was as big as a defensive lineman. Thomas is probably the biggest free-agent bust in Patriots history. Yet we may finally get to see what Belichick’s vision for Thomas was when Hightower roams the field this season for the Patriots.
And yet one more versatile component that may play a key role this season is rookie Jamie Collins. Collins may be limited since he is a rookie, but his athletic ability, size and speed, are the prototype needed to be a three down line backer who can play the run, rush the passer from the edge and up the middle, and also cover big tight ends with speed and great hands.
It will be very interesting to watch the Patriots defense this season. By late in the season, assuming they escape injury, the Patriots could be winning games with their defense, and be the only team that can consistently handle all the current offensive threats that are likely to dominate the tactics of the 2013 season.