Film Room: New England Defense

Film Room: New England Defense
Film Room: New England Defense
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Cian Fahey

(Ed. Note: This article is about the New England Patriots defense. The offensive discussion that starts the article is about how the Patriots will adapt with their backup quarterback, not Tom Brady. Therefore, it is not the right place to discuss Deflategate or the legal issues of Brady's suspension. The proper place to do that is here. Please don't make us have to go through constantly deleting comments from this discussion thread. Thanks. -- Aaron Schatz)

Tom Brady's absence will be unavoidable for New England in Week 1. The only thing that could push Brady further into the spotlight would be hiding him from it completely. Without Brady, the Patriots have one goal: survival. Without Brady, the Patriots are forced to turn to Jimmy Garoppolo as their starting quarterback. Although Garoppolo will theoretically be replacing the Patriots' Hall of Fame starter, he is unlikely to be the decisive factor in their survival.

Winning with Garoppolo is going to entail winning in spite of Garoppolo. The third-year quarterback has played sparsely throughout his career, and it has been ugly when he has. He has a slow process, a weak arm, and erratic accuracy. The combination of Garoppolo's traits suggests that he will handicap what the offense can do. The Patriots have enough pieces on the offensive side to craft an attack that will work to Garoppolo's strengths, but those strengths appear to be more like less-severe weaknesses than actual positive traits.

For the Patriots to survive without Brady, like they did with Matt Cassel in 2008, they will need everything around the quarterback to align almost perfectly. In 2008, the Patriots faced one of the easiest schedules in the league, 28th by our numbers. That schedule allowed the Patriots to consistently win games despite being consistently inconsistent. The Patriots were 30th in DVOA variance in 2008, meaning that 29 teams were more consistent from week to week. Defensively, the Patriots were a slightly above-average unit by DVOA, but they did enjoy the No. 6 special teams unit, the only team ranked in the top 14 of total DVOA in 2008 which also finished better then tenth in special teams. Cassel put up numbers that didn't cripple the passing game, allowing an offense that featured Randy Moss in his prime, Wes Welker in his prime, and one of the better offensive lines in the league to finish 15th in passing DVOA. Moss was particularly valuable because he was the type of receiver who didn't require precision, timing, or intelligence to be productive. Cassel could literally throw the ball up for Moss to go and get it. The Patriots ran a simplified scheme with a stacked arsenal of weapons to offset their quarterback.

That offense mostly relied on the running game though. Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk, LaMont Jordan, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Laurence Maroney, Wes Welker, Heath Evans, and Cassel himself all combined for 2,278 rushing yards, sixth in the league. The running game was even better by DVOA, as it ranked fourth behind only the Denver Broncos, Carolina Panthers, and New York Giants.

Bill Belichick is a master of adapting to his teams' strengths to mask their weaknesses. His teams have always done that better than anyone else. The Garoppolo version of his roster has the potential to match what the 2008 version did. Where that team had Moss and Welker, this one has Rob Gronkowski, Martellus Bennett, and Julian Edelman. Where that team had a big back like Morris and a receiving back like Faulk, this team has LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis. Belichick will alter the identity of his team from season to season, but he has rarely entered a campaign without a few stars to rely on and the depth to be versatile in his weekly approaches.

The 2016 team has a schedule in the first four weeks that is favorable, much like the schedule of the 2008 team over that whole season. After traveling to Arizona to face the Cardinals in Week 1, a game few expect the Patriots to win, they will return to Foxboro for three straight home games against the Miami Dolphins, Houston Texans, and Buffalo Bills. A 2-2 or 3-1 record isn't unrealistic, even accepting that Week 1 is almost a guaranteed loss.

The front seven of the defense will really need to come through in Brady's absence. While there is debate over whether the Brady suspension was self-inflicted or harshly delivered, there's no doubting that the departure of Chandler Jones was Belichick's own choice. Jones had been a key player for the Patriots on the defensive line. The former first-round pick had 12.5 sacks last year and 36 for his career. Compounding Jones' departure was a recent triceps injury to Rob Ninkovich. Ninkovich could be ready by Week 1, but will likely miss at least a game or two in September, and will be limited when he does play. With that weakness at defensive end, and without a great offense to offset any drop-off in quality from the defense, the Patriots will need big performances from some key players -- most notably Jabaal Sheard and Jamie Collins. Sheard and Collins are going to be crucial when it comes to creating pressure.

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Sheard's play is more likely to directly lead to sacks because he will be the team's primary pass-rusher. Collins plays off the ball as a linebacker, whereas Sheard is a full-time defensive end. Sheard was the team's third defensive end last season. He played 558 snaps, while Jones and Ninkovich both eclipsed 850. On those snaps he primarily acted as a pass-rusher, playing both inside and outside depending on the package. The Patriots should still be able to move Sheard around the formation because Chris Long and Trey Flowers project to be at least capable contributors. Not all defensive linemen can move around the formation. Those with narrower skill sets typically prefer to stay in one spot and rely on their strengths to expose the blockers they face. Because Sheard doesn't have one dominant trait, he is more versatile in how he can attack opponents.

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On those 558 snaps, Sheard had eight sacks and four forced fumbles. The play in the above GIF isn't one of those sacks. Brian Hoyer is able to throw the ball away while in Sheard's grasp. That play is a good example of Sheard's skill set though. He lines up inside of the right tackle and outside of the right guard. Once the play begins, he is isolated against the guard, a blocker who he can beat with his quickness. Sheard makes one hard step that forces the guard to commit. Once he gets that commitment, Sheard attempts a swim move. He tries to knock the guard sideways with his right hand before sweeping his left hand over his shoulder to gain leverage.

Although Sheard's hands make little impact on the guard, his quickness has allowed him to gain good positioning. From here a lighter defensive end would be more susceptible to the guard's recovering strength. Sheard is helped by the bodies next to him, but he still has to show off resilience and strength against the contact to continue moving forward into the pocket. Sheard's barreling style isn't always graceful, but it's effective in creating pressure. According to Sports Info Solutions charting, Sheard had 16 hurries to go along with his sack total in 2015.

The one concern about Sheard as a pass-rusher is his ability to handle extra attention or beat the better pass blockers in the league. Without one truly dominant trait, that will always be a challenge. He did have two sacks against the Dallas Cowboys last year, but one came against Ronald Leary, a guard who is now a backup, and the other came on a stunt.

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That stunt was performed with Collins. Inside linebackers aren't typically sack-getters, but Collins' athleticism makes him dangerous when used that way. He had 7.5 sacks last year (including the playoffs) and has 11.5 over the past two seasons. In obvious passing situations, the Patriots will regularly press Collins up against the line of scrimmage like in the above GIF. With his athleticism and body control, he is able to threaten to blitz and drop into coverage from this spot without sacrificing anything in either direction. Collins is a valuable stunter because his size and speed allow him to entertain the attention of one linemen before attacking another. In this play he draws and drags the right guard with him before pummeling the right tackle. His hit on the right tackle proves to be inconsequential, but that's only because the guard followed him. Had the guard let Collins go to pick up Sheard, Collins would have had a free route to the quarterback after knocking the right tackle down.

Sheard and Collins' execution together on this play is excellent. Stunts will be useful for the Patriots because they don't have a plethora of pass-rushers who can win quickly in one-on-one situations. They take longer to develop, so they are easier for the quarterback to neutralize, but they are still very difficult for the offensive line to pick up when executed in concert.

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When Collins independently rushes from this position he does so intelligently. He isn't just throwing his body at the blockers in front of him in an attempt to bludgeon his way to the quarterback. In the above GIF, he hesitates for a split-second to allow the running back to clear his route to the quarterback before using his acceleration to close on Marcus Mariota in the pocket. It was a subtle action but one that reflects Collins' awareness and the comfort his own athleticism affords him. He doesn't need to rush to the quarterback because he knows he can close on the ball faster than anyone else on the field.

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Rushing inside linebackers normally means blitzing or disguising your rush so that someone is going free to the quarterback. You don't typically expect your inside linebackers to beat a lineman to get a sack. In the above GIF, Collins is immediately confronted by the Jaguars' left guard. From this position he would be excused for just lowering his head to try and bull rush his opponent. Collins instead stands his opponent up and uses a stutter step to get him off balance. With his explosiveness and balance, Collins makes whipping around his outside shoulder look easy. This play actually resulted in a first down for the Jaguars even though Collins officially sacked Blake Bortles -- when he stripped the ball from the quarterback, it was picked up past the line of scrimmage by Toby Gerhart. (On an unrelated note, that play probably sums up the 2015 Jaguars offense.)

Collins' athleticism will be key for Belichick if he wants to disguise his pass rush. When you don't have four pass-rushers who you can be certain will consistently get pressure, you need to get more creative with your play calling. That doesn't mean you have to send five or more rushers, but you can do what Bob Sutton in Kansas City excels at, which is threatening to blitz by aligning defenders in different spots. You can still just rush four from those alignments while stressing the offense's pass protection mentally rather than numerically. Collins is hugely valuable in those situations because he can line up anywhere and rush from that spot effectively. He can also cover ground quickly to maintain the versatility of the defense in coverage even when it isn't aligned in a traditional formation.

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It's not just that Collins is athletic. His coverage skills are outstanding. He can trail running backs out of the backfield, cover tight ends over the middle of the field, and shift out onto a slot receiver if required. When he lines up in a particular spot, the offense can't project what the defense is going to do based on his alignment.

We got a glimpse of Collins' coverage skills in last week's preseason game against the New Orleans Saints. In the above GIF, Collins is aligned over the slot receiver to the right. He is tight to the offensive line but on the wider side of the field. It's unclear what coverage the Patriots are playing; the lack of All-22 tape for preseason games makes it a projection based on this angle and zoom. Collins appears to be responsible for an underneath zone on the left side of the field. Considering it's Brandin Cooks who is playing in the slot, it's very unlikely that he was playing man on this play. Collins is exceptional, but that would still be a mismatch of epic proportions.

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As soon as Cooks releases past his inside shoulder, Collins' eyes are trained on the quarterback. He knows he has a middle linebacker inside so he can afford to give Cooks some space without panicking. As the quarterback, Garrett Grayson, stares down his target outside, Collins re-positions himself so that his hips are ready to turn and run towards the sideline. Ultimately the linebacker doesn't need to run, but he does need to put himself in position to catch the ball when it is tipped into the air.

This is a play that would generally be labelled as instinctual. "Instincts" are a vague term at linebacker. When the term is used it's mostly referring to a player's ability to diagnose the possibilities based on what he knew before the snap and what is happening in front of him as the play develops. It's mental processing. Collins' mental processing is faster than most who play his position. That allows him to be closer to proactive than reactive, something every defender hopes to be.

Collins has an opportunity to announce himself during Brady's suspension. He is already a highly regarded player, but Luke Kuechly remains the standard bearer across the league. Kuechly and Collins share many traits, but Kuechly has more signature moments in the NFL. A few signature moments for Collins during the first four weeks of the season could be the difference between 1-3 and 3-1.


13 comments, Last at 30 Aug 2016, 5:01pm

1 Re: Film Room: New England Defense

Belichick's ability to maximise his team based on the players he has is impressive.

It's pretty much forgotten now but going into last season as Super Bowl winners, everybody was talking about how they'd let 3/4s of the starting secondary go. No-one was talking about it by the time they were 10-0. Probably by the time they were 1-0 in fact!

A year or two before they lost four of their top five receivers in Wes Welker, Danny Woodhead, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd who'd accounted for over 70% of the previous year's receptions. All they did was get back to the Championship game.

Will be interesting to see how things open up this year but if any team can adjust - it's the Patriots.

2 Re: Film Room: New England Defense

They've generally had a really solid offensive line, and that covers many sins. The Eagles survived for years with a poorly regarded QB and absolute trash at WR on the basis of a good scheme and a great O-line.

Unsurprisingly, KC is starting to look very similar to that.

Belichick's best hire was probably Dante Scarnecchia. He, Wade Phillips, Buddy Ryan, and Dick LeBeau are probably the premier anti-Peter Principle guys in NFL history.

3 Re: Film Room: New England Defense

The cassel season for the patriots was fascinating to me and probably more nuanced than - pats faced an easy schedule and they had moss and welker.

A quick look at the splits by week for pass dvoa shows a definite line of demarcation, so stark that its hard to ignore, even with the usual caveat of small sample size. Prior to week, 9, cassel averaged a slightly negative pass dvoa. Past week 9, including a disastrous outing against the mighty 2008 steeler defense,. the average pass dvoa for cassel was in high 40s = the best in the nfl in 2008 over that stretch and would have finished second this year.

That kind of turnaround is really remarkable in so many ways. I think matt bowen wrote at the time after cassel left free agency a detailed review of his play - noting a significant improvement in his reads, footwork, accuracy and generally thought the trade was worth the risk.

Years later - we discovered what matt cassel really is, so the question should be - how in the world did he look so good with NE. Again, Bowen didn't simply write - MOSS and welker + easy schedule(and remember, dvoa accounts for schedule). And those factors were also true in weeks 1-9.

My general point - NE's scheme, coaching and talent really can make someone look a lot better in more ways than just tossing a random pass down the field in moss' direction. I doubt Jimmy G will be anything special in weeks 1-4, but in the unlikely event he had to start the year, I would not be surprised to see NE cobble together an above avg pass O even with Jimmy G being no better than below avg in a vacuum.

4 Re: Film Room: New England Defense

The amazing thing about the Cassell season was that he hadn't been a starter since high school. In college he was back up to Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart throwing 33 passes. Three seasons with the Patriots from 2005-07 saw another 39 passes. The only thing giving him a chance is that I recall reading that the Patriots gave him more practice time in 2008 training camp which seems fortuitous given Brady getting injured.

The reason why he suddenly improved in the 2nd half of the 2008 season was discussed in the following article by Greg Cosell. Essentially they used him from the shotgun rather than dropbacks.

5 Re: Film Room: New England Defense

Greg's breakdown is great, but the shotgun explanation still feels unsatisfying. If that were the case, why hasn't he still been able to carve out a career being mostly a shotgun passer. After all, this is a league that is starved for quarterbacks.

8 Re: Film Room: New England Defense

I don't really think the league is starved for quarterbacks per se. I think there are only a handful of quarterbacks who will look very good in any offensive system (vs specialists), and I think the league has a combination of a whole lot of bad coaches and a matchmaking problem.

There are only a handful of coaches in the league who assess their players skills and ask "What plays/formations/etc should I be using to maximize the effectiveness of these guys". The majority bring a playbook with them, stick the guy they think is best in each position, and then run the plays, whether or not the skills are well suited.

I don't know how good the Patriots offense will be weeks 1-4, but I can guarantee you that there will be plays run that BB would never run with Brady, because he doesn't have the arm or accuracy to hit them(like the sideline passes we've seen in the preseason), and I guarantee that there will be plays that were bread-and-butter for Brady that we don't see because JG can't make the reads quick enough, or accurately enough.

The last half of 2008, the offense was tailored to Cassel - they were playing to his strengths and avoiding his weaknesses. KC never even tried to do that - they just stuck him in the offense they wanted to run, and then looked confused when it didn't work.

Personally, if Brady's knee injury had ended his career, I think Cassel would have had a very different career.

12 Re: Film Room: New England Defense

Except that Cassel's best season was in 2010, two years after the Patriots traded him. I haven't heard anyone explain this improvement outside the Belichick influence or the subsequent collapse. Life is a lot more complicated than 'Belichick great, others bad'.

13 Re: Film Room: New England Defense

Best full season. As #3 noted, Cassel was mediocre at best for the first half of 2008, not too surprising after being thrust into the starter role without much 1st team practice reps. Then he was very good, on average, during the 2nd half. Which was the "real" Matt Cassel? Which was the "real" Pats coaching? My guess is that a long term Cassel-as-Pats-QB would've landed somewhere in between, as he continued to gain experience and acumen, while the league had ever more film to study and learn.

6 Re: Film Room: New England Defense

Trey Flowers is showing every sign of being a pass rush beast. Long arms used effectively to get leverage, and quickness. Injury and edge depth kept him off the pitch his rookie season, but he may well be starting come Sept.

7 Re: Film Room: New England Defense

Well as a Pats lifer I'll be irreligious and say Fahey gives Brady too much credit and Jimmy G too little. He is not the liability this article makes him out to be. He is better than Brady in at least three areas - his release is faster, his accuracy outside the hashes beyond fifteen yards is superior, and he's a better runner. Its the second one that really matters.

Part of the reason 'Belichick loves tight ends' is actually because they play to Brady's strengths throwing up the middle. Best believe there was a small section of New England that got just a little happy watching JG hit Malcom Mitchell for 17 (or whatever) down the left sideline in that first preseason game. That's the pass Brady doesn't hit anymore and honestly rarely ever did. His genius is in the knowledge of the game, his short accuracy, and his uncanny ability to make fewer mistakes than any athlete I have ever seen.

No doubt the defense matters, and I appreciate the breakdown, but I think the case against JG is overstated. Matty Castle was a 7th round benchwarmer, JG holds all the records at EI, not a powerhouse but not nowhere. Also I'll take the Pats to cover on the road in Arizona. That game is not a foregone conclusion, not after Carson's bedwetting in the playoffs.

9 Re: Film Room: New England Defense

Given that 2000 was the last time the Patriots out right lost the AFC East...why are we worried? They might lose a fluky tie breaker (It's happened twice to them), but not since Peyton Manning (now retired) played in the AFC east has someone in their division won more games than them. The question should be: are the Bills, Jets, or Miami's defense and offense up to a 11 or 12 win season to put pressure on the Pats. If not (and it is typically not) then their defense is probably going to be good enough to survive until Brady arrives... I mean, why would we think different given the current putrid performance of the Jets, Bills and Miami? When have these teams put it together and made the playoffs even (2010!)

10 Re: Film Room: New England Defense

While its definitely important that these players perform for New England this article really should focus on the brilliant schemes the Patriots use to confuse the quarterbacks and offensive lines of opponents. One example is actually above, In the Jamie Collins sack against the Titans the Pats were able to blitz only 5 guys against a 6-man protection and get a free runner at the QB. While Collins did his job, I don't think that he individually decided to stutter step, rather the blitz was designed to see which way the back would slide in protection before rushing.This is an example why the Pats defense is always solid, because they have a coach with an intimate understanding of unit strategies and individual tendencies and fuse them into an excellent game plan. Its time we highlighted the schemes and not the stars.

I actually sent Cian a sample article that attacked this issue last 2 years ago regarding Joe Flaccos late Int in the Ravens divisional game loss to New England so I'm a little surprised to see him try to boil down New England's defensive survival to two players, even if both of these guys went down New England would still be able to put out a functional defense without them they would just have to be more creative because of the talent drop-off.

11 Re: Film Room: New England Defense

Patriots acquire 2013 1st rounder Barkevious Mingo from Cleveland for a 5th rounder.

Perfect project for a Belichick defense.

Any thoughts on him or how he played at the Browns?