Of course, after limiting the Cincinnati Bengals to just 13 points and one touchdown, it’s hard to heap much blame on New England’s defense. The fault lies on the offensive side of the ball, where Tom Brady’s unit mustered its worst performance since the Bush administration.
It some ways it was inevitable. Not even the Patriots can expect to play sans Rob Gronkowski, Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley and a hobbled Danny Amendola without skipping a beat offensively. So, while the bigger story this past week was New England’s Jaguars-esque output, the biggest question moving forward is whether the Patriots defense can hold fast without its best player.
After reviewing the game film from Week 5, here’s how the Patriots are adapting to life without their mountainous man in the middle.
Fewer Double-Teams Forcing Defensive Line to Play More Disciplined
Wilfork commands two, sometimes three blockers on virtually every single play when he’s on his game. Here’s an example from his last full game against Tampa Bay in Week 3.
You can see here that three offensive linemen's first moves at the snap are to account for Wilfork. The guard is locked on him face to face, whereas the center is reaching for him before he even finishes snapping the ball. The tackle initially lunges toward Wilfork despite Chandler Jones lining up across from him.
Wilfork’s mere presence all but ensures the rest of the defensive line enjoys one-on-one matchups. Throughout the season, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich have been very effective shedding blocks and getting upfield, combining for 44 tackles and 4.5 sacks. Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly has been a revelation, leading the defensive line with 12 solo tackles while adding another 10 assists and 2.5 sacks.
Not to oversimplify things, but with Wilfork in the lineup, those three have the luxury of focusing on their individual matchups, freeing them to make more plays themselves.
Without Wilfork they’ve been forced to maintain more gap discipline and trust linebackers to make plays around them. Ninkovich in particular spent much of Week 5 playing containment on the edge.
Wilfork’s replacement, Joe Vellano, was tasked with occupying the “A” gap. The Patriots really didn’t ask him to make many plays other than simply eating space and hopefully drawing a double-team. The results were mixed.
He had several plays where he commanded his gap and opened some nice rush lanes for his teammates, but he was inconsistent and too often was simply overpowered, even by a single blocker.
Here Vellano shows both good and bad qualities in the same play.
He gains a nice first step into his gap, forcing the center to account for him.
Just as quickly, the center hands him off the guard, and Vellano doesn't have the power to command a true double-team. He does, however, occupy the center just long enough for linebacker Brandon Spikes to avoid his block at the second level.
Finally, Vellano is overpowered and ends up on his behind. Once again though, he presents just enough of a speed bump, and the guard can't dump him quickly enough to get a hand on Spikes as he knifes through the line. Spikes would go on to tackle the running back for a loss of two yards.
Patriots Not as Aggressive Rushing the Quarterback
This goes hand in hand with the more disciplined defensive-line play, but it’s worth noting anyway. Against the Bengals, New England rarely rushed more than four defenders. The Patriots still managed four sacks, but all four came from a defensive lineman, and none were plays in which the Patriots blitzed.
In all, I counted only eight plays all game where head coach Bill Belichick brought extra pressure from anywhere other than the defensive line.
Instead, the Patriots focused on taking away Andy Dalton’s outside receivers and used their linebackers to congest passing lanes in the second level. The strategy was very effective overall. As long as the defensive line can generate pressure on passing downs, we should see more of it going forward.
Front Seven is Actually a Front Six
Cincinnati’s offensive formations obviously had a hand in determining New England’s personnel groupings, but after watching the tape, I was shocked at how few defenders the Patriots kept in the box.
More often than not, the Patriots had only six defenders at or near the line of scrimmage. The Bengals did dictate that somewhat by employing a multitude of three-wide sets or lining up their tight ends in the slot. But even when Cincinnati ran its base offense, the Patriots seemed reluctant to commit a seventh defender to stopping the run.
As the game wore on, New England did use more seven-man fronts and even a few eight- and nine-man fronts, but by that time, the Bengals were in obvious running situations and trying to run the clock down. For the most part, the Patriots used five defensive backs, conceding the run and trying to limit opportunities downfield.
Patriots are Vulnerable Up the Middle
File this under the “duh” category, but without Wilfork, the Patriots are considerably weaker up the middle, most notably against the run.
As AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz points out, the Bengals amassed 90 yards on 21 carries up the middle, good for a 4.29 YPC average. Conversely, the Patriots were more effective limiting perimeter runs, yielding four yards per tote outside the tackles.
Of course, if Brandon Spikes hadn’t been overzealous in pursuit on the first play of the game—a 13-yard run by The Law Firm—that 4.29 YPC would plummet to a very modest 3.67 YPC, so the problem isn’t as dire as the numbers might suggest.
What amazed me on film, though, wasn’t that the Patriots allowed inside runs. I was much more surprised to see how unconcerned they seemed in doing so. Frankly, it looked to me like the Patriots were forcing the Bengals to run inside by design.
For just over half of their defensive snaps, the Patriots employed two or fewer linebackers. Generally speaking, Brandon Spikes joined Jerod Mayo on running downs, and Dont’a Hightower or rookie Jamie Collins joined Mayo in passing situations.
Defensive end Rob Ninkovich lined up in an upright two-point stance on virtually every play in an effort to hold the edge and avoid getting turned inside and losing containment. His primary function in the run game was to funnel plays back to the inside.
The Patriots didn’t ask their defensive tackles to do much other than hold their ground, so the task of actually stopping the run fell to Mayo and the rest of the linebacking corps. The idea of forcing running backs into the teeth of their defense isn’t really any different than the Patriots’ typical game plan, but I was surprised to see them expose the middle of their defense by essentially playing a man down against the run.
Despite allowing 162 rushing yards on the day, the Patriots avoided killer big plays and were in the game until the very end, so the strategy worked. They forced the Bengals to exploit a matchup that kept the ball out of A.J. Green’s hands. Don’t be surprised to see similar alignments against other opponents with dynamic receiving threats.
Patriots Using Their Linebackers Very Aggressively
Jerod Mayo was all over the field against the Bengals and now ranks fourth in the NFL with 49 tackles. Ten-tackle weeks are just par for the course for the likely pro-bowl linebacker.
Brandon Spikes, however, was actually the leading tackler among Patriots’ linebackers with 12, including two behind the line of scrimmage.
The Patriots didn’t blitz the quarterback often, but they sent Spikes and Mayo on a number of run blitzes. I tracked 11 run blitzes in all by the Patriots on Sunday, most of which featured Spikes, and only three of which featured a defensive back.
Safety Devin McCourty rarely lined up in the box but was frequently used to provide support behind the second level as the Patriots’ linebackers attacked the line of scrimmage time and time again.
Here is a textbook example of the Patriots’ primary defensive package.
As I mentioned earlier, the Patriots invite the Bengals to run inside. They don’t even bother lining up a single lineman in either “A” gap.
Ninkovich lines up in a rare three-point stance and maintains outside leverage, forcing the play back to the inside at the snap as New England blitzes both linebackers into the previously unoccupied “A” gaps. We can also see McCourty providing support at the next level. Not yet visible is safety Steve Gregory, who also blitzed on this particular play.
As we see here, Spikes and Mayo run a stunt blitz up the middle. With Ninkovich having forced the play back inside and Gregory also blitzing the “C” gap, BenJarvus Green-Ellis has nowhere to go but straight into Mayo’s blitzing arms.
The Patriots used a personnel grouping that was vulnerable to the run, at least on the surface, but they limited big gains and explosive plays by turning their linebackers loose.
Big Picture Going Forward
With Wilfork out for the remainder of the season, expect the Patriots to keep fine-tuning their weekly game plan, using the same basic principles they showed against the Bengals.
Their leaner, faster defensive tackles can still generate pressure on passing downs along with Chandler Jones at defensive end. Ninkovich’s versatility will allow the Patriots to use him as a pass-rusher or edge-setter, depending on the situation.
Those same nimble linemen are more easily contained in the running game, which isn’t surprising considering the heaviest of the bunch, Tommy Kelly, weighs “only” 310 pounds.
Look for the Patriots to compensate by continuing their aggressive linebacker play. Cornerback Aqib Talib’s stellar play against top receivers allows the Patriots to continue using a safety in support of a defensive front that would otherwise be vulnerable to big plays at the second level.
You can certainly expect to see many of the same principles this week since there’s no reason for the Patriots to stack the box against the Saints’ anemic rushing attack. They’ll happily expose themselves to the occasional run up the middle if fewer men near the line of scrimmage means better coverage on Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles downfield and on the boundary, respectively.