Becoming familiar with Bill Belichick’s playbook tendencies is one of the most difficult things to do in football due to the amount the "Hooded One" alters his schemes, realigns his looks, and constantly tries to keep teams off balance.
We’ve seen lineman line up at fullback, linebackers catch touchdown passes, and wide receivers play cornerback.
It’s a never ending contest of cat and mouse as Belichick pulls the strings, constantly trying to gain a competitive edge by implementing unorthodox formations and using schematic rarities with the depth and personnel available to him.
That being said, there are several alterations that Belichick and his staff might implement in the coming season due to the personnel ushered in during the offseason.
I will briefly touch upon several ways in which the Patriots staff might tweak with formations, coverage schemes, and personnel usage within the playbook in the upcoming season.
I, for one, believe we may see even more trickery and diversity within the New England offensive playbook this year. The Patriots are loaded at wide receiver and have also complimented an already deep backfield with the signing of Fred Taylor.
When you factor in the deception and attention to detail used by Brady under center, the possibilities are endless.
During their 18-1 campaign, the Patriots abused opposing defenses by spreading Randy Moss and Donte Stallworth wide on the outside, and then using Wes Welker and Jabar Gaffney in the slot, with Kevin Faulk out on the flat.
As Benjamin Watson used his exceptional speed for a tight end down the seams, Brady basically just had to read and react which pass catching option would maximize yards.
We all saw what happened that season.
This year, the Patriots arguably have even better personnel.
Joey Galloway brings improved speed and dependability on the outside. He and Moss are going to demand safeties deep routinely. Greg Lewis, acquired from Philly, is an upgrade over Gaffney in the slot.
Given the efficiency and reliability of Kevin Faulk in the flats, Brady will easily be able to spread defenses in a four-wide set and pick his poison with upgraded weapons at his disposal.
This isn’t much different from what we saw last year or the year before, but I believe the Patriots might go with several five-wide looks, flanking Kevin Faulk into the tight slot in a bunched formation with Welker and Lewis.
As I see it, no defense with the exception of maybe Pittsburgh will be able to handle the amount of speed and talent the Patriots are going to spread across the field.
Given the amount of speed and explosiveness Belichick has in his secondary, I believe this may be the first season we see him revert to the occasional 3-3-5 formation.
Seymour, Wilfork, and Warren on the front line; Mayo, Thomas, and Bruschi in the middle; Meriweather, Sanders, Wilhite, Butler, and Chung at the last level.
This look would allow Belichick to commit to—or simply deceive with—a myriad of blitzing schemes.
Thomas is adept at getting around the edges and pressuring the exterior of the pocket, and the speed of a Darius Butler or Brandon Meriweather could be used through the middle to disrupt the interior line calls of opposing offensive lines. Or, as he loves to do, Belichick could simply sink his five defensive backs deep after bluffing with heavy blitz reads.
The difference between this year and the last few is youth and depth.
The Patriots have never had this many serviceable defensive backs, even though none of them are exceptional. And they certainly have never possessed the type of athleticism that guys such as Butler, Chung, and Wheatley possess.
Yes, they are all young and yes the Patriots may get burned on occasion for implementing so many young players into a complex system. But getting to the quarterback or at least shortening the amount of time and comfort an opposing quarterback has is half the battle.
Given his personnel groupings, Belichick should be able to creatively mix and match his back seven and get to the quarterback more effectively by varying his traditional formations.
Lastly, the Patriots might finally be able to get back to what made them truly dominant during their Super Bowl runs of ‘01, ‘03, and ‘04; the bruising running game.
We may finally see Belichick revert to the two running back formations that have been so effective for many teams in past years. Fred Taylor, Laurence Maroney, Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis constitute a group of ball handlers that have plenty of pop, ample experience, and a good amount of diversity in terms of running style.
In years past, the Patriots have been hampered by injuries and inconsistency in the backfield.
I know this sounds ridiculous considering the team has posted a 29-6 record over the last two years. Logic would posit those teams had solid running games.
While the averages and numbers may speak to that, any true Patriot fan knows that the offense has been too “pass happy” in recent years.
Morris and Maroney were banged up, and there’s only so much we can ask of Kevin Faulk, whose most redeeming qualities are maximized through shotgun hand-offs and flanker screens.
We’ve seen the Patriots get very creative and efficient with the talent and health they’ve been dealt. But, I think back to the days of Antoine Smith and Corey Dillon and remember a Patriots team that used to pound the ball at will, even when good defenses defended against it.
That is what the playbook could reveal this season. If Maroney is healthy and Fred Taylor can plug away like he did in Jacksonville, the Patriots will have healthy, fresh legs throughout the depth of their backfield, with Morris and Green-Ellis serving as experienced complimentary short yardage backs.
This will not only allow Belichick to rotate his ball handlers more efficiently, it will maximize blitz protection for Brady and add improved potency in the receiving game out of the backfield.
Simply put, if the Patriots running backs can stay healthy, the formation diversity with which Brady uses could be at an all time high.