How the Patriots’ defense has (once again) become the NFL’s unstoppable force

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It it a surprise that the New England Patriots have come out of nowhere to wrest control of the AFC East away from the Buffalo Bills? It shouldn’t be, if we know our history. Is it a surprise that Bill Belichick’s team started Week 11 as the AFC’s six-seed and rose all the way to third after blowing the Cleveland Browns and Atlanta Falcons apart by combined scores of 70-7?

Same answer. These Patriots, who stood at 2-4 following their Week 6 overtime loss to the Cowboys, have rattled off five straight wins since, and those wins have been less and less competitive for the opponents. Last Thursday against the Falcons, quarterback Matt Ryan had the 10th-worst single-game passer rating of a career that dates back to 2008. Ryan completed 19 of 28 passes for 153 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions, and a passer rating of 51.6. Ryan was pressured on 19 of his 32 dropbacks, and when pressured, he completed 10 of 15 passes for 77 yards, and the first of his two interceptions.

That first pick came with 12:08 left in the fourth quarter, and it was the first of four straight Atlanta drives that ended in interceptions — two by Ryan, one by backup Josh Rosen, and one by backup/backup Feleipe Franks. Against the Falcons, the Patriots did what they’ve done all season. They are not a team beholden to one philosophy. They are not playing an abnormally elevated rate of man coverage — they ranked fifth in man coverage dropbacks through Week 10 with 120, and they were tied with the Falcons and Washington for 16th in zone coverage dropbacks (177).

No matter the coverage, opposing quarterbacks are not enjoying the experience — including the Falcons game, New England has allowed four touchdowns to six interceptions in man, and they’ve allowed three passing touchdowns to 10 interceptions in zone. They’re just as happy to engage eight as they are to drop eight, and either way, the opposing quarterback will not appreciate how they tie pressure to coverage.

“That’s the frustrating part,” Falcons head coach Arthur Smith said after his team’s 25-0 loss. “It’s hard enough to beat good teams, but when you’re sitting there handing them things, and I am talking about the pre-snap stuff, those self-inflicting wounds… That’s what the Patriots have feasted on for 20-plus years. That’s what’s frustrating.”

Frustrating for the other guys, and once again, inevitable for the Pats. So, back to Ryan’s first interception, what Belichick had to say about it in great detail on Monday, and what it means for this resurgent defense.

Tying pressure to coverage

(AP Photo/Danny Karnik)

“Team defense is important to be successful,” Belichick said Monday, when asked how his team’s pass rushers are helping his defensive backs. “Again, as I said many times before, you can’t have one guy out there and stop somebody’s offense in this league. It’s just not realistic, so a combination of good team defense, run defense, which forces passing defense, pass rush, pass coverage, jamming the receivers, keeping the quarterback in the pocket, using your help and your leverage, all those things. They’re all fundamental. They’re all critical.”

They are, and it all worked in perfect concert against the Falcons. The pass rush was critical, though, because it allowed Belichick and his staff to call a ton of effective man coverage. Falcons quarterbacks dropped back 25 times against some iteration of man coverage, and three of their four interceptions came against man coverage. New England’s pressure concepts and able defenders obliterated Atlanta’s overmatched offensive line, and the pressure came from everywhere. End Matthew Judon had four pressures, as did tackle Davon Godchaux. Rookie tackle Christian Barmore, who Belichick can’t seem to stop praising, had three pressures, as did tackle Lawrence Guy and linebacker Kyle Van Noy. Ryan saw a ton of inside pressure, which hurried and muddled his reads.

Godchaux’s sack was a particularly good example of tying pressure to coverage. The Patriots showed a blitz look pre-snap with linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley (No. 8), but Bentley dropped into coverage at the snap, leaving Atlanta’s offensive line with a four-man rush, and Ryan with the task of deciphering New England’s seven-man zone coverage. The Falcons were in empty, which should have left Ryan with some kind of eligible receiver, but he didn’t see it, clutched the ball, and Godchaux (No. 92) beat rookie guard Jalen Mayfield (No. 77, who had a very bad day, allowing that sack and seven total pressures) for the takedown.

Asked last Friday how important rotational players like Godchaux and Carl Davis have been to this defense, Belichick made it plain.

“Huge. They really do a good job, and to have more than one of them so that you can have somewhat of a rotation, keep them fresh, and attack the middle of the offensive line, whether it’s run or pass from the guard to the guard-center gap to the center in different ways, it can be very disruptive. You have to block them on every play. It’s not like a corner or an outside linebacker; somebody you can run away from or work the other side on. Those guys in the middle of the formation, the defensive tackles, the middle linebackers, they’ve got to deal with them on every play. The depth and the ability to have more than one guy do that has been huge. They’ve all done a good job.”

Ryan’s first pick happened four plays later, and that’s where the Belichick narration comes in.

From the end zone

(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Before he got to the Devin McCourty interception, Belichick wanted to get into how the pressure and short-area coverage worked. Put on your beanies, kids, because this is a master class.

“On that play, we ran a pick stunt inside with Hightower (No. 54) and Bentley,” the coach said. “They both came free. I’m sure [Matt] Ryan felt the pressure on that. At the same time, Judon [No. 9] came out of the pass rush and peeled with the back in coverage, which is just another luxury we have when we have pass rushers who also can provide coverage that changes the rushers we have available. It changes the types of rushes that we can use, and it puts pressure on the offense as to who’s coming. We all know Judon’s coming most of the time, but not all the time. Again, [safety] Kyle [Dugger, No. 23] got a really good jam on [Falcons tight end Kyle] Pitts [No. 8]at the line of scrimmage. I think, normally, [Matt] Ryan probably would have had a better chance to see that. I’m not sure exactly what he saw. You’d have to ask him. Certainly, Pitts had a hard time getting progression down the field. Kyle [Van Noy, No. 53] did a great job with jamming him. Judon peeled with the back in the flat, so he wasn’t open.”

So, Ryan had to move to the deeper read, which was Pitts, his best receiver on the field.

The overhead view

(Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports)

Now, Belichick’s detail on the McCourty play.

“Devin [No. 32] got a good break on the ball. Ryan didn’t have a chance to look anybody off. He had two guys bearing down on him, so it’s good team defense. You can give credit to whoever you want on that play. Ultimately, Devin’s the one with the guy in the stat book, but the flip side of that is the receivers are covered, the quarterback holds the ball unless somebody gets a sack. Again, it’s good team defense. That’s really what it comes down to. The more we do that, the better the results we are going to have.”

Ryan, speaking after the game, said that Belichick’s plan was specifically tailored to Pitts — the old “one-double” thing Belichick has done for decades.

“I thought they had a plan coming in to try and disrupt some of the things that Kyle does for us, whether it be dropping guys into zone underneath, some of the crossing routes he had, some of the corner routes that he had, then trying to jam and reroute at the line of scrimmage. Credit to them. I thought New England had a good plan and played very well.”

With Calvin Ridley and Cordarrelle Patterson absent, that plan was more important than ever.

“Having gone against them, having watched them in the past, that’s one of the things they’re very good at,” Ryan said. “When C.P. wasn’t able to go tonight, when we found out, you obviously come into it saying, Okay, probably next in line would be Kyle. He still did some good things for us, for sure. But credit to them. I really think they played well.”

Making it all work together

(Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports)

As Belichick concluded, tying pressure to coverage is more complicated than just getting after the quarterback and dropping guys in coverage. Everyone must do their part.

“If one guy breaks down, the other guys could be in good position, but if you don’t cover a receiver or somebody lets the quarterback out of the pocket, whatever it is that breaks down, in addition to coaching mistakes that come up… If you get 10 good things and one bad one, it’s still not a good play.”

Right now, and increasingly as the season goes along, the Patriots are doing the math in all the right directions. When the postseason comes around, that may make them the NFL’s most dangerous team.

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