On the surface, the success of the 2010 New England Patriots is no different than it was in 2009. The success of the team depends on the ability of quarterback Tom Brady and the offensive unit to perform at a level which allows the team to overcome the deficiencies of a below average defensive unit.
This surface-level analysis is fairly accurate, and ultimately what failed the Patriots in 2009 was the offense’s inability to ultimately compensate for the defense’s failures.
In 2009, the offense was good, but not prolific. To overcome the defensive shortcomings of the 2009 team, the Patriots offense needed to be prolific, and it was not.
A key element to the exploitation of the 2009 defense related to how similar it was to iceberg lettuce. Plain. Vanilla. A lack of defensive players experienced in the ways of head coach Bill Belichick meant that Belichick’s approach was kept at its simplest.
Belichick defenses, historically, but most importantly during the Patriots dynastic years, were known for being dynamic, unpredictable, chaotic, complex, and exotic. The 2009 defense was nothing of the sort. A vanilla, base-defense focused unit was the norm, attributable to the lack of intelligent, seasoned-Belichickian defenders on the defensive unit.
A major shortcoming of the 2009 team, which analysts have discussed, was the lack of a defensive pass rush, and the absence of a true pass rushing specialist.
"If Tully Banta-Cain is your best pass rusher,” they’d say, “then you’re in trouble.”
This point raises an important distinction, and ultimately an important question related to the 2010 defense of the Patriots. Was the lack of a pass rush in 2009 attributable to the absence of a true pass rusher, or to the inability of the defense to execute anything beyond a base defense?
The argument could be made that exotic, Belichickian schemes and blitz packages can produce suffice confusion and quarterback pressure to enable a defense to compensate for their lack of a true, textbook pass rushing technician. Alternatively, a plain, vanilla defense can render a pass rusher useless.
Therefore, it’s not inconceivable to assess that the key to the success of the 2010 Patriots will rely on whether the defense has the intelligence to understand and execute Belichick’s exotic packages.
In New England’s week 1 match-up versus the Cincinnati Bengals, the defensive alignment appeared to be dynamic, and involved non-traditional personnel and alignments. There was not a noticeable pass rush to speak of, but the mere fact that the defense was capable of executing from dynamic fronts and with non-traditional alignments, is a sign that this defense may be of greater intelligence than their 2009 counterparts.
If that is indeed the case, it represents a critical distinction of why the 2010 Patriots defense may be a formidable, adequate bunch. With each passing week of Belichick experience, this defense should be capable of incorporating additional exotic elements.
If an exotic defense is added to the Patriots repertoire, then this team may be more complete than the 2009 version, making it a legit playoff competitor for the first time since 2007.
Should this year's team fail to grasp exotic defenses, then they'll be embarrassed off the playoff circuit in the same fashion they were in January.