4 Keys for Game-Planning Against New England Patriots

Duncan DayContributor IMarch 3, 2015

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) confers with head coach Bill Belichick, as offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels looks on, at far right, in the first half of an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos on Sunday, Nov. 2, 2014, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Elise Amendola/Associated Press

Gregory Payan/Associated Press

The New England Patriots have appeared in six Super Bowls in the past 14 years because they are superb at executing game plans against their opponents. Certain factors such as cornerback-receiver matchups ultimately drive head coach Bill Belichick's plan.

Instead of playing to their own personal system, the Patriots aim to exploit other teams' weaknesses, and Belichick devises his approach to every game with this intention in mind.

In the ensuing slides, we will take a look at elements teams need to consider when preparing for the Pats and also deliberate on how to utilize them for the best.

4. Emphasizing Running Game

The Patriots lost four games during the regular season, and in three of those instances (not including the Buffalo loss), the common effective thread between NE’s opposition was a great running attack.

The logic behind handing off the ball is straightforward: you keep Tom Brady off the field with longer possessions, forcing the four-time Super Bowl champion to make every drive count.

Against the Miami Dolphins in Week 1 of the 2014 regular season, the Patriots had difficulty shutting down the run, as the Dolphins shredded New England for 191 yards on the ground. The Pats let up the most rushing yards—102 combined—when the plays ran over both right and left guard.

Versus the Kansas City Chiefs in the Monday night debacle, 101 of the Chiefs’ 207 rushing yards came directly up the middle. And in a more telling contest facing the Green Bay Packers, Bill Belichick’s squad allowed 130 yards rushing, which created a deadly combination with a classic Aaron Rodgers performance.

It’s not just the running game as a whole that worked well when the Patriots were defeated last season. Specifically, big-bodied running backs—Knowshon Moreno of Miami, Knile Davis of Kansas City and Eddie Lacy of Green Bay—had success. This trio combined for 339 yards against New England.

Against the Seahawks, Pete Carroll, who attempted to emulate the Packers with a balanced attack, had an excellent big-bodied back, Marshawn Lynch, at his disposal. Lynch netted 24 carries and 102 yards, 64 of which unsurprisingly occurred when Beast Mode was sent right up the middle. However, unlike Rodgers in Green Bay, Wilson did not throw for over 350 yards against the Patriots, and increasing Lynch’s load could have made up for Wilson’s shortcomings.

The Seahawks used the run game on their final drive, and it seemed the Patriots and D-line anchor Vince Wilfork were tired and losing steam. But Carroll’s last-minute decision to pass halted the momentum of Lynch, still capable of busting through New England’s goal-line formation with a three-receiver set.

Rex Ryan challenged New England in their two divisional games this season by employing the run-first tactics as well and also managed another notable factor. In 17-16 and 27-25 defeats versus Belichick, Ryan’s squad ran for 131 yards and 191 yards, respectively; as is seen in many Patriots’ slim wins, better time-of-possession numbers allowed the Jets to draw out the competitions until the end.

Once these long drives are established, and opposing defenses manage to hold their own, the Patriots are definitely vulnerable in closely contested matches.

3. Managing Brady in Pocket

Tom Brady is such a dynamic quarterback for many reasons, and one of his greatest strengths is pocket presence, an ability that sixth-round pick has mastered over his career in the NFL. Establishing the run will dictate the offensive pace, but in order to bolster a formidable defensive effort vs. New England, a first-class pass rush is very useful.

If you bring a hard outside rush, Brady can step up in the pocket, and consequently, if you don’t get pressure in the middle, he can enjoy a wide area of unhindered space to throw.

We saw this happen multiple times in the Super Bowl where Brady was able to move into open space and was faced with short-to-medium throws across the middle of the field. Making those throws with a clear view down field and his body perpendicular to the line of scrimmage affords Brady a perfect opportunity for an accurate toss in any direction.

Brady can lightly lead Edelman over the middle, as was noticed in the Super Bowl, or drive the ball hard into a tight window, shown in the above video.

Even if you’re not able to sack Brady, hurrying him through pushing the pocket and forcing him to move horizontally and rapidly set his throwing stance will cause issues. Brady held on to the ball too long and after feeling the heat from Michael Bennett, threw a forced ball for Jeremy Lane to intercept in the end zone.

The Seahawks ran a stunt, with Bennett across the face of the line of scrimmage. In the Super Bowl three years ago, the New York Giants threw various defensive lineman stunts at the Patriots offensive line to create pressure in Brady’s face, and having such a stout defensive line, the Giants could win trench battles with minimal pass-rushers. Justin Tuck sacked Brady twice, and the Giants overall had hurried him six times in Tom Coughlin’s second straight championship win over New England according to The Associated Press' Jeff Mezydlo (via NFL.com).

In the absence of a dominant pass-rushing force, disguised blitzes in zone schemes can exploit gaps to keep Brady honest, but these tactics must be employed in the right situations. Overloading blitzes to one side of the formation causes Brady problems at points. His offense thrives on receiver-defensive back matchups, so man blitzes should avoid leaving an eligible Patriots receiver uncovered.

Since the Patriots typically utilize the short passing game, defensive tackles and ends can aid a coverage by knocking down throwing attempts. Critical third-down plays call for critical performances, and batting down Brady’s pass before it crosses the line of scrimmage is key in those scenarios.

2. Tight Coverage in Most Situations

The most successful way to defend the Patriots receivers has always been bump-and-run coverage.

Brady can still get the ball off with a heavy pass rush, but interrupting his receivers will almost ensure his demise because he depends on timely and well-sprinted routes.

Gregory Payan/Associated Press

Coverage men must engage the numbers of the Patriot's receiver right off the snap, as the initial contact can often determine the productiveness of bump-and-run. Going back to Edelman's touchdown on Tharold Simon in Super Bowl XLXI, the cornerback went wrong by extending his arms too high on Edelman’s body off the snap. The shifty Pats wideout then had the clear advantage.

ESPN.com revealed Tom Brady is ranked 21st out of 33 starting quarterbacks in yards per passing attempt this year, and Brady, doing so with a mixed bag of success, uncorked the deep ball infrequently.

In three playoff games including the Super Bowl against Seattle, Brady managed to complete seven passes that resulted in gains of 20 yards or more. He was 7 of 17 when throwing downfield during this time. Leading up to February from the 2014 season, Sporting News’ Thomas Emerick divulged that Brady was ranked 14th in attempts and 17th in accuracy for throws of 20 yards or over.

These numbers obviously mark the variety in Brady’s game and point to how his style of play can change based on factors like age and personnel. At age 30, with a deep threat in Randy Moss, Brady was that typical highlight-reel quarterback; now, he’s discovered his early roots of game management, though his football intelligence has certainly evolved since his younger days.

The proficient way to defend Brady has not changed for awhile, though. You have the best chance to beat him with aggressive, tight coverage because it allows players to anticipate those shorter throws and limit yards after the catch. ESPN’s John Clayton detailed the Patriots had 159 yards after the catch on 28 short-throw completions against the Legion of Boom.

Forecasting those underneath routes can hugely benefit any adversary of the Patriots, affording better opportunities for pass deflections and turnovers with the defensive backs' close proximity to the line of scrimmage.

It's something other teams, such as the Steelers and Jets, are aware of when defending the Pats.

"In 2010, we saw it start with the Jets in the playoffs,” former Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark said in 2013, per ESPN."When Tom Brady gets pressure and when you're man-to-man and bumping those guys and making it hard for him to throw, he sees ghosts.”

Last month, the Seahawks aimed to employ this disruptive coverage but still applied their Cover 3 zone, giving the Patriots room for short-yardage passes. When the Hawks applied bump-and-run, Brady was able to mostly exploit clear mismatches, forcing bigger corners to be agile against Edelman and Vereen and linebackers to cover the freak athleticism of Gronkowski.

1. Dealing with Matchups

The Patriots put forth their best performances when they identify favorable matchups in the passing attack. Over everything else, the first task of New England's foe is to recognize the weapons on offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' offense.

The most difficult Patriots player to cover is undoubtedly tight end Rob Gronkowski, who at 6'6", 266 pounds with a 4.68 40-yard dash time, presents a mismatch on almost any corner, linebacker or safety.

Chris Wesseling of NFL.com illustrates that Gronk’s stature is one-of-a-kind:

"Comparing Gronkowski to the "offensive version of J.J. Watt," NFL Media's Nate Burleson emphasized on NFL NOW this week that the Patriots tight end looks like he was "built in a lab" or "pieced together by the football gods.'"

Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

Gronkowski displayed his skill in the Super Bowl several times. The prime example of a Gronk mismatch occurred on Brady’s first touchdown throw. Covered man-to-man by the slower K.J. Wright, Gronkowski was split out near the sideline and essentially ran straight to beat the Seahawks linebacker to the end zone.

Impeding Gronkowski will likely require a versatile but strong outside linebacker or safety, and to really cancel him out, his cover man could anticipate Gronkowski’s running over the middle and lingering in the curl to flat area. Those areas are where Brady normally likes to find the big man, unless the former University of Arizona standout is lined up with a major mismatch.

Julian Edelman has also emerged as another pivotal player for New England on offense, and his physical intangibles also provide mismatches against in low, tight spaces. At his college pro day at Kent State in 2009, Edelman brandished his agility. He ran 3.91-second short shuttle and 10.74-second long shuttle time, which beat the best times at the NFL combine that year.

So, when Edelman took on Seattle’s Tharold Simon on the goal line, the defensive back’s side-to-side quickness was likely inferior to Edelman’s. Therefore, on that play Brady had Edelman isolated with Simon in man coverage and decided to throw the quick-cutting pivot route for the late, go-ahead touchdown.

As the Pats’ opposition, anticipating short routes to Edelman, a high-reception target, is focal.

Others factors on the Patriots offense include Shane Vereen, a favorite target for Brady in short-yardage or mismatched circumstances. Additionally, the Patriots can utilize Brandon LaFell’s size in both short- and long-yardage situations. Against the Hawks in Arizona, Brady’s first touchdown on LaFell’s slant pass near the goal line had coordinator Josh McDaniels knowing that a 6-foot-2 wideout presents a big, reliable mark at close range.

Kansas City took a sheet out of the Patriots playbook and present them with matchup difficulties based on certain offensive packages, such as trips with three tight ends and receivers releasing from the backfield. The Packers largely avoided Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner and fed rookie Davante Adams, who was rarely one-on-one with either of New England's best defensive backs.

Teams understand different methods of attacking Belichick and Co., but this factor will ultimately receive the most attention when the Pats' major weapons are healthy.

All statistics were gathered through Pro-Football-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted.