"The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place," says a famous George Bernard Shaw quote.
The call in the defensive huddle seems like an eternity ago. The formation has changed, your teammate countered with a shift in coverage, but a late motion has you questioning your assignment.
The ball is snapped. You and your teammate converge on the same piece of turf. With the coverage blown, the opposing quarterback finds his wide-open receiver for a big gain.
This overly simplistic take on the life of an NFL defensive back—both before and after the snap—illustrates just how much the mental game and communication mean on an average play.
Here is what a breakdown in communication can do to a defense.
The Texans have three receivers in a bunch on the left side of the formation, while the Patriots are sugaring—or giving the illusion of—a six-man blitz. Linebacker Jamie Collins will end up dropping into coverage.
Cornerback Kyle Arrington—on the line—and Aqib Talib are shadowing two of the receivers, with safety Devin McCourty keeping a watchful eye 18 yards off the line of scrimmage.
Jamie Collins and safety Steve Gregory have their eyes on the innermost receiver, while Arrington and Talib take the outside guys.
This is where the communication problems seem to start for the Patriots.
Houston, we have a problem.
As soon as the outside receiver turns in on a dig route, Kyle Arrington stops his pursuit of the inside receiver to cover the underneath route. Talib, however, sticks with the outside receiver as well, letting Texans receiver Keshawn Martin run free into the secondary.
Without knowing the actual call, it is tough to assign blame for the error. Arrington was playing more of a pattern-recognition zone scheme, while Talib was employing man-coverage principles. Obviously, somebody missed the memo.
The Patriots were able to send five rushers and cover three of the four receivers out in patterns.
Unfortunately, Texans quarterback Case Keenum was able to find Martin all by himself. He has plenty of time in the pocket and delivers a strike.
Martin makes the catch while Talib and McCourty converge and force him out of bounds after a big gain.
The injury bug that hit the defensive secondary hard—Aqib Talib, Tavon Wilson, Alfonzo Dennard and Steve Gregory all have missed time this season—has seemingly moved on. With familiar faces in the defensive huddle again, perhaps the communication issues will take of themselves. It couldn’t come at a better time for New England.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick states that “In the secondary communication is such a big part of the game, no matter who you play for or what you’re playing, just being able to communicate with your other teammates back there in the secondary, there’s not much margin for error.”
Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and the Patriots defense were able to get away with some breakdowns against the 2-10 Texans, but the playoffs will be a different story.
If you give easy reads to those quarterbacks, they will make you pay. Points are at a premium in the playoffs; you can’t go around handing them out for free.
The Patriots are all about creating illusions on defense, but hopefully the communication is real from now on.