The Impact of the Patriots’ “NASCAR” Package

Sep 10, 2015; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones (95) and outside linebacker Geneo Grissom (92) celebrate a sack by outside linebacker Dont'a Hightower (54) during the first quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 10, 2015; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones (95) and outside linebacker Geneo Grissom (92) celebrate a sack by outside linebacker Dont'a Hightower (54) during the first quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports /

Following the success of the New York Giants’ defensive package that included extraordinary speed rushers, many NFL teams have altered the way they approach passing downs with their defensive line, including the Patriots. Kirk von Kreisler takes a look at the success the Patriots had with this strategy.

We all know the story of the 2011 Patriots. An offensive unit that steamrolled opponents, averaging 32.1 points per game, and met their true match in Super Bowl XLVI. The Patriots had finished the regular season with a record of 13-3 and they came into the big game confident that they would win their fourth Lombardi trophy against the 9-7, sixth-seeded Giants. No team worse than 10-6 had ever won a Super Bowl and the Patriots were determined to not let it happen at their expense. The majority of football fans shared an opinion: there’s no way the Giants could possibly repeat the miracle that occurred in Super Bowl XLII.

“All of us compete about who’s the fastest and who gets to the quarterback the fastest. So NASCAR’s just something that felt right.”

Very few expected the pure and utter dominance by the Giants in the trenches that we witnessed that night. The Patriots’ offensive line included star Matt Light and Pro-Bowl guards, Brian Waters and Logan Mankins. Although, there was one major aspect of the ferocious Giants defensive line that the Patriots couldn’t match: speed. Consistently, on true passing downs, the Giants would line up against the Patriots’ offensive line with four defensive ends, the fastest of the fast rushers that could easily rattle Tom Brady, their main goal heading into the Super Bowl. Justin Tuck, the leader of that Giants defense, dubbed the package “NASCAR” following their improbable Super Bowl victory.

The Giants’ “NASCAR” package was used quite frequently against the Patriots in their two meetings during the 2011 season. Credit: Erik Frenz, Bleacher Report.
The Giants’ “NASCAR” package was used quite frequently against the Patriots in their two meetings during the 2011 season. Credit: Erik Frenz, Bleacher Report. /

The Giants found success with this front, unleashing the speed, quickness, and power of Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umeniyora, and Mathias Kiwanuka. The ability of the Giants defensive front to get to the quarterback so quickly cleared up any problems in the secondary, inspiring teams in the future with premium pass-rushers and little secondary success.

The Patriots took note of the defense that had taken a Super Bowl right out of their sights. Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia worked together to employ a “NASCAR” package of their own, but before we dive into the tactics used, we have to understand the complexity of the Patriots’ defense.

Tkyles39 reviewed the Patriots’ defensive formations and packages for Pats Pulpit.

Most importantly, the Patriots defense featured at least five defensive backs in 83.5% of their snaps in 2015. That shows how the Patriots aren’t running a simple 4-3 or 3-4 defensive front; in what is very ironic, their “subpackages” dominated their “base” 4-3 or 3-4 packages, a case that is true for many NFL teams.

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The Patriots spent most of their time in a nickel defense, five defensive backs with a combination of linebackers and defensive lineman to make up the final six players. Often, the Patriots would utilize a front seven of two linebackers, typically Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins, with four defensive linemen, regularly with two defensive ends, a rotation between Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, and Jabaal Sheard, and two defensive tackles, a rotation between Malcom Brown, Akiem Hicks, Sealver Siliga, Dominique Easley, and Alan Branch.

Patriots' 4-2 nickel defensive package. Credit: NFL GamePass
Patriots’ 4-2 nickel defensive package. Credit: NFL Game Pass /

During last offseason, major speculation about the possible gameplans of the Patriots defense occurred following the loss of their three top cornerbacks. Bleacher Report and Pats Pulpit mulled over the possibility of a speed front, composed of four defensive ends, dominating the Patriots’ packages due to the plethora of young rushers on the team.

The speculated demise of the Patriots’ secondary ended up to be incredibly premature, but I still decided to take an in-depth look at the first six games of New England’s 2015 season to learn Belichick and Patricia’s approach to the learning curve that came with inexperienced cornerbacks and the success of the frightening “NASCAR” package.

Jones Pressure vs. PIT
Jones Pressure vs. PIT /

The first thing to notice about the clip is the rushers and their stances. At this point, there was just 22 seconds left in the game with the Pittsburgh Steelers down 14, an obvious passing down. From left to right, Jones (#95), Hightower (#54), Ninkovich (#50), Collins (#91), and Sheard (#93) all appear standing up; a scary sight for most offensive lineman. No run-stuffing defensive tackles are in the game, just edge rushers.

All rushers come except for Collins, who is keyed up on the running back, DeAngelo Williams (#34). However, Hightower doesn’t actually rush the passer. Hightower takes a few steps towards the left tackle (#68) and gets the tackle to initiate his pass protection steps while focusing on Hightower, but when the tight end, Heath Miller (#83), releases, Hightower follows. By the time the left tackle realizes that Hightower is gone, it’s too late. This allows Jones to fly by the quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger (#7), nearly untouched, getting chipped by the tackle at the last second.

Due to Ninkovich drawing the three interior lineman in protection, Sheard is left in a one-on-one situation against the right tackle (#77). Sheard uses his speed and a slight dip to wrap around the tackle and nearly sack Roethlisberger. Sheard and Jones’ speed sets them both up for a sack on this play, but Roethlisberger’s insane pocket presence helps him extend the play, which he does quiet often. In the end, only three defensive linemen rush, but their pass-rushing abilities commanded respect from the offensive line.

Sheard Bullrush @ BUF
Sheard Bullrush @ BUF /

This situation doesn’t yield four true pass-rushers on the defensive line, but Sheard moving inside to defensive tackle adds another threat to reach the quarterback, Tyrod Taylor (#5), on this passing down. This play, along with others, solidified Sheard’s spot in the “NASCAR” package because he adds an element that very few Patriots can offer: power.

Sheard rushes straight down the path of the right guard (#76), or a bullrush. If this is any quarterback other than Taylor, Sheard is coming down with a sack here. While the success of the “NASCAR” front is mainly attributed to the players’ speed, this is an example of the pure power that very few rushers have in their repertoire. Sheard, listed at 260 pounds, drives the 300 pound lineman straight into the quarterback’s lap.

Sheard was a very capable interior rusher last season, this being just one example of his power. His versatility will be a major factor of the Patriots defensive line’s success in reaching the quarterback in critical situations.

Jones Sack @ IND
Jones Sack @ IND /

In this situation, the Indianapolis Colts faced a 3rd-and-7 while down 13. Obviously, time was running out on the Colts’ chances and by being in such a bad position on third down, they were forced to come out with five receivers and throw the ball. This would turn out to be a huge play as the Patriots would not score again in the game.

The Patriots lined up with Collins in a 5-technique, outside of the left tackle (#74), Jones almost in a 4-tech, nearly directly over the left tackle (#74), Easley in a 0-tech, directly over the center (#62), and Ninkovich in a 5-tech, outside of the right tackle (#76). When the play begins, Collins charges the “C-Gap” and Jones takes a step inside to the “B-Gap.” Then, after a few steps, Jones shifts his course on a loop towards the right side “A-Gap.” This forces the left guard (#75) to only get a slight hit on Jones, not nearly enough to contain him, and Jones is off to the races to sack quarterback Andrew Luck (#12).

What might go unnoticed here is Easley’s effect on the play. Easley’s powerful first step sets him up in good position against the center, forcing the center to attempt to lock-up with him. This push allows Jones to find an unblocked gap, and Easley’s presence blocks the left guard from any chance at sealing off Jones.

The Patriots finished second in the NFL last season for team sacks (49). Of course, not all of the sacks came from a “NASCAR” package, maybe not even half, but the pass-rush and the “NASCAR” front were essential parts of a Patriots defense that has many pieces in place to succeed. We will definitely see the Patriots line up in this package again, but it will be far different from last season after the loss of the team’s top pass-rusher, Jones, and dynamic interior rusher, Easley.

Right now, these are the top candidates in next season’s “NASCAR” fronts that I am projecting:

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 6.07.50 PM
Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 6.07.50 PM /

I’m no Belichick, but after review of the Patriots’ “NASCAR” package, this depth chart would likely produce the most opportunities. We all know what Sheard and Ninkovich are capable of on the front line, and Chris Long looks like a valuable candidate for a resurgence in his career as the Patriots’ third rusher. Also, in the first few games of the 2015 season, Geneo Grissom saw time as an interior rusher in the early stages of the speed package.

Behind Grissom and Sheard, second-year end Trey Flowers and newly acquired Terrance Knighton provide interesting fits. Flowers wasn’t able to show his true skills last season after being sidelined for a major portion of the season with a knee injury. Flower’s injury was extremely unfortunate following a preseason debut that left many fans in awe. In Knighton’s case, “Pot Roast” is commonly known as a huge, run-stuffing defensive tackle, but his crucial sack on Brady in the 2014 AFC Championship Game proves that he can also be a valuable pass-rusher. Knighton’s 350 pound frame will attract the majority, if not all, of the interior offensive lineman.

The “NASCAR” package is constantly being adopted by teams around the NFL. The ability to send your four best rushers onto the field at once has defensive coordinators drooling. With a constant demand for premier pass-rushers in this league, there will be no slowing down on the effectiveness and the use of the vaunted “NASCAR” front.

Next: Rob Ninkovich Practicing at Middle Linebacker

Clips are credited to NFL and NFL Game Pass.