And while the 2015 defense isn't exactly a Fisher-Price beginner's set, there's no hiding the personnel losses the Patriots suffered this offseason, particularly in the secondary.
So after finally constructing a championship-worthy defense, how will Belichick ensure that 2014 wasn't a mercenary-fueled blip?
Well, it's first important to note that he's hardly alone in managing the defense, as defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has assumed increasingly large responsibilities in recent seasons. As his red game-day hoodie indicates, Patricia is responsible for play calls and in-game management, along with Belichick.
New England's defense is Belichick's scheme, of course, but Patricia's fingerprints are also all over the game-day product we see on Sundays. With that in mind, let's think about the schematic and play-calling foundations that the Patriots might lean on to maximize their 2015 defensive personnel.
Any Carryover from 2014?
As much change as New England's defensive personnel underwent this spring, the old "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" adage certainly remains in place. Many of the schemes and personnel groupings that carried the defense last year won't work in 2015, but we should see several core concepts carried over into 2015.
The linebackers saw more stability than any other unit in terms of turnover, which should manifest itself next fall.
In recent years, Belichick's hybrid defense has centered on Vince Wilfork's two-gapping ability, as the veteran nose tackle provided the fulcrum around which other players could flow to the ball. But even as valuable as Wilfork was last year, the multi-directional versatility of Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower played a more important role in anchoring last year's front seven.
Consider this: Since 2000, 14 linebackers have compiled double-digit Approximate Value during their time in Foxborough, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. On a per-year basis, Collins and Hightower have posted comparable seasons to some of the most storied veterans in franchise history, even when comparing their formative years to others who compiled these numbers in their primes:
|Approximate Value (AV) of NE LBs during Belichick Era|
|Player||Total AV||AV Per Season|
|AV values via Pro-Football-Reference|
When projecting for growth, both young linebackers could potentially provide a Tedy Bruschi or Willie McGinest type of impact on the defense. However, unlike those thumpers who controlled games with their physicality, Collins, Hightower and the returning Jerod Mayo possess the adaptability necessary when playing in the middle of defenses in today's NFL.
It all starts with Collins, who might already be the most indispensable player on the entire defense headed into 2015. When picking him as New England's defensive MVP last week, I noted that Collins had finished in the top third of every inside linebacker statistic tracked by Pro Football Focus: pass-rushing productivity, run-stop percentage, tackling efficiency and coverage snaps per reception.
He and Hightower teamed up to form one of the most dangerous blitzing duos in the league, boosting a thin edge-rushing core and providing much-needed pressure for the defense.
According to ESPN Stats & Info's internal database, the Patriots received 40 percent of their sacks last season from linebackers. Among teams that primarily ran 4-3 fronts, only the Denver Broncos (43.9 percent) topped that mark, which comes with a bit of an asterisk due to Von Miller's blurry positional designation.
Regardless, it's safe to say that no defense received more pass-rushing contributions from true inside linebackers. The wildly successful A-gap blitzes the Patriots employed last season, as previously discussed, developed out of necessity due to the surrounding personnel.
With a much deeper front seven, the Patriots might stand to maximize the productivity of their top three linebackers by moving Hightower to the edge at times, as they did on their first defensive snap last season:
The Pats obviously don't have the same glaring need for edge defenders after investing heavily this offseason, but Hightower has proven effective there in limited reps. Wondering about where to play the linebackers might be a bit of a luxury, especially if Mayo isn't a full go this season while recovering from a torn patellar tendon.
Nevertheless, if the defense is fortunate enough to have all three available next season, Belichick and Patricia shouldn't hesitate to keep three of their most versatile players on the field for all three downs.
So clearly, the linebackers will play an integral role, and Pats fans will be happy to see A-gap blitzes wreak havoc on pass-protection calls next season. Counterintuitive as it may be, though, blitzing might not be the best thing for the Patriots defense overall.
I admit, I'll need to backtrack on something I wrote earlier. In the link above about A-gap blitzes, I wrote about how an increase in blitz calls might help the reconstructed secondary next season. After all, given the success Collins and Hightower experienced in their own pass-rush opportunities, one would assume that blitzing surely must have been the strength of the Patriots defense.
Well, if I had finished my homework, I would have seen that New England was actually one of the worst blitzing teams in the league last season.
According to the Football Outsiders Game Charting Project, defenses posted a 4.4 percent DVOA when blitzing against quarterback dropbacks last year, meaning that they were 4.4 percent worse than on an average dropback. Given how successful pass offenses usually are, that's a fairly solid figure.
However, the Patriots compiled a miserable 40.0 percent DVOA when blitzing last season. Immortal future Hall of Famers Kyle Orton and Geno Smith posted 115.5 percent and 54.0 percent DVOA figures, respectively, against New England blitzes. For reference, Aaron Rodgers led quarterbacks last year with a 32.2 percent passing DVOA.
In addition, on the rare occasion when the Patriots sent the house with six or more rushers, they conceded 8.9 yards per play, per ESPN Stats & Info.
So clearly, the Patriots suffered when they simply tried to overwhelm the pass protection with extra rushers. And yet, when New England did generate pressure, it saw better results than any other team in the league. According to Football Outsiders' pressure numbers, the Patriots were the league's best defense when generating pressure, posting a minus-119.0 percent DVOA (note that more negative DVOAs are good for defenses, since the stat measures scoring).
They also allowed the fewest yards per pressured play, making them the best pressure defense by advanced or conventional metrics:
|Fewest Yards Allowed Per Play With Pressure in 2014|
|Defense||Yds/Play||Pressure DVOA Rank|
|via Football Outsiders|
The question now is how New England can continue generating pressure without too many coverage-compromising blitzes.
Well, one obvious solution is the zone exchange, which is similar to a zone blitz but doesn't send extra rushers. This would still afford Collins and Hightower the pass-rushing opportunities they deserve without taking away from numbers on the back end.
The above screenshots illustrate the zone-exchange concept from last year's contest against the Denver Broncos. Pre-snap, Jamie Collins and Akeem Ayers show pressure from the defensive right side. However, both actually drop into intermediate zone coverages, while Rob Ninkovich and Hightower blitz from the left side.
It didn't result in a big play—Peyton Manning eventually dumped it off for a seven-yard completion—but those kinds of wrinkles can create confusion for the quarterback while also allowing New England's best rushers to pressure the passer from different gaps throughout the game.
Additionally, we'll probably see more of those much-ballyhooed "NASCAR" packages given how much the Patriots added to the ranks of their front seven. Truthfully, the impact of the NASCAR package is a little overstated—every defense tends to lighten up on passing downs, and not all of them have the athletes who can produce results like the New York Giants did when they coined that moniker.
But while going lighter wouldn't be new, Patriots fans do have a right to be more excited about the players who could occupy those pass-rushing roles. The trio of Chandler Jones, Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard should see themselves on the field together in certain situations, with Jones perhaps kicking inside next to Dominique Easley to provide more length on the interior than the Patriots have ever had.
With how much depth the Pats have acquired on the front seven, the personnel permutations are myriad at this point. The same can't really be said for the secondary, though, which is where Belichick and Patricia will make their money finding solutions this year.
Keep it Simple in the Secondary
As FO's Aaron Schatz noted (via ESPN Insider), the Patriots are projected to get a lot younger on defense next season. Based on Snap-Weighted Age, which measures the average age of teams while weighing age based on playing time, New England is projected to see the third-largest drop in defensive age next season.
Nearly all of that is due to the secondary, where vets Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington will give way to the under-30 brigade of Bradley Fletcher, Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan, among others. If unheralded rookies Darryl Roberts and Jimmy Jean continue making waves into training camp and preseason, that projected figure could drop even lower when the actual numbers come in.
As improved as the pass rush may be, the callow secondary will be on its own many times throughout the season. When that happens, the Patriots will lose some one-on-one battles based on skill, but Belichick and Patricia can minimize the big plays if their defensive backs have a strong grasp on the coverage concepts the coaching staff wants to play.
Cover 4 (also known as "Quarters") would work best as a primary scheme, given the clearly defined exchange rules, but we know every defense needs to mix up coverages against today's passing games.
I decided to look backwards to see if last season would provide us any hints. Recall that Browner missed the first six weeks of the season between suspension and injury, leaving a relatively motley crew playing next to Revis. I went back and charted those games to see if Belichick and Patricia called different coverage schemes from the man-free concepts that dominated later in the season.
|2014 Patriots Coverage Types, Weeks 1-6|
|Coverage Type||Total Plays||% Total|
|based on charting by Sterling Xie|
Including quarterback scrambles but excluding plays nullified by penalty, the Patriots faced 214 dropbacks through the first six games last season and, based on my figures, played coverages with two-deep safeties (Cover 2, Cover 4) over 40 percent of the time. Actually, through the first four games, the split between single-high and two-high coverages was exactly equal—the Patriots had 66 of each.
Rewatching the games, one thing that stood out was how often New England would rotate from a two-high-safety look down to a Cover 1 Robber type of coverage. Often, the safety who dropped into the box would help out a slot corner or linebacker take away an interior route:
While it would be nice to give Devin McCourty the liberty of a free-roaming center fielder, the reality is that the Patriots will probably need to use their safeties in more of a support role next season. While the Patriots can't necessarily rotate coverages like they did with a shutdown corner like Revis, the safeties provide Belichick and Patricia the opportunity to selectively eliminate top threats on opposing offenses.
When thinking about how the secondary and front seven can work in tandem, the tempting comparison is last season's Detroit Lions squad (a parallel ESPN Insider Field Yates already drew). However, it's not apples-to-apples, because last year's Lions secondary, while unspectacular, had the benefit of three steady veterans (Glover Quin, Rashean Mathis, James Ihedigbo) surrounding rising former second-rounder Darius Slay. The Patriots secondary is much more inexperienced than that unit, even if the front seven matches up.
Still, this doesn't mean that New England needs to sink back to the depths of 2009-11. It might take time to find the right personnel combination, but there's enough of a foundation here for the Patriots to post a defense comparable to last year's celebrated unit.
Unless otherwise cited, all stats via Football Outsiders or ESPN Stats & Info.
Sterling Xie is a Patriots Featured Columnist whose work has also appeared on Football Outsiders and Advanced Football Analytics. Sterling is a co-author of the Football Outsiders Almanac 2015, coming out in July.