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A Chess Match With The Hoodie

Battle Plans v Belichick and Patriots
Original Photo Credit: Julio Cortez, Associated Press
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Offense

1. Pre Snap to Post Snap Recognition in Obvious Passing Situations

Since 2017, New England head coach Bill Belichick hasn’t had an official defensive coordinator. Regardless of who else influences the defensive game planning and play calling in New England, it’s still Belichick at the controls. The latest committee involved in helping devise the game plan is Belichick’s sons – Steve and Brian – and former Patriot linebacker Jerrod Mayo. It’s ultimately Belichick’s show, and for good reason.

Belichick is the greatest defensive mind in NFL history. There is simply no disputing that. Over five decades, his defenses have remained some of the most innovative and transformative. It’s the flexibility of his defenses that have enabled “The Hoodie” to stand the test of time.

Bill Belichick hoodie
Photo Credit: Getty Images

The latest incarnation of Belichick’s unit features a chameleon, hybrid, disguise-heavy group of defenders. This has been a hallmark of his defenses in the past as well, but in the secondary especially, he’s using cloak and dagger to deceive quarterbacks at the line because he quite frankly doesn’t have the same talent at cornerback he’s used to having.

Belichick will rotate his corners and safeties between pre snap and post snap phases to change coverages on the fly. What might look like Cover 0 — a coverage that quarterback Lamar Jackson is very familiar with facing Brian Flores, a former Belichick disciple, when he coached the Dolphins last year – will morph to Cover 2 right after the snap. Belichick has the ability to shift coverages given how versatile his corners and safeties are. Although Jonathan Jones and Jalen Mills are technically boundary corners, they can play slot and they can also play safety. Other than veteran Devin McCourty, the rest of the back end is filled with position-less defensive backs who handle snaps at multiple spots on the field.

What that means for Jackson and his receivers is that post-snap recognition of coverages has to be razor sharp. He’ll have to account for the defensive backs and linebackers exchanging roles and muddying passing windows post snap. He’ll also have to account for more frequent man-to-zone shifts. Belichick will aim to contain the Ravens’ explosive ability by enticing Jackson into making bad decisions, looking to exploit man coverage downfield. He should take what the defense gives him underneath until he gets a bead on the disguise patterns as the game progresses.

Deciphering Belichick’s defense requires patience, which Jackson will need to practice. It’s not a bad move to play it safer, keep the chains moving, and methodically move the ball.

2. The Third Wheel

Another staple of Belichick’s defensive strategy has been to force offenses to rely on their secondary or third best options to win the day. For instance, when the Patriots played the Kansas City Chiefs in the past, they focused on containing Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill by singling Kelce with their best defensive back – like Stephon Gilmore – and doubling Hill, using a safety over the top to help contain downfield.

With the Ravens, it’s clear that their top two targets are Mark Andrews and Rashod Bateman in the passing game. When Belichick faced off against the Ravens in 2020, he mostly kept Andrews contained, limiting him to 7 catches for 61 yards. At the time, Marquise Brown was the team’s No. 1 receiver, and he was held to 14 yards.

It’s hard to say who Belichick can rely on to cover Andrews. It’ll be interesting to see if he even bothers using a safety to cover Andrews, given how the Pro Bowl TE has taken safeties apart in single coverage. Safety Kyle Dugger is actually very capable in coverage, but he’s also questionable for this game. Jabril Peppers has turned his career around and is now a versatile, do everything DB who can play the slot. So, he could also be a viable option against Andrews. Or perhaps he gives the assignment to his top cornerback Jones – again, as he did with Gilmore against Kelce.

As for Bateman, he may get the safety over-the-top treatment, especially if McCourty is designated to provide that help.

That means Devin Duvernay’s number could be called in this matchup. Duvernay has proven himself as a viable third option so far, totaling 6 catches for 96 yards and two touchdowns in two games.

What offensive coordinator Greg Roman can do is continue to deploy Duvernay as a chess piece all over the field, as a runner and pass catcher. However, as of the time this article was being written, Duvernay had yet to practice due to a concussion…so if it’s not Duvernay, Likely or Demarcus Robinson would be on the hook to produce.

In either scenario, Jackson needs to be comfortable spreading the ball around and turning to his third option behind Andrews and Bateman.

3. Throwing Outside the Numbers

Against Mitchell Tribusky and the Pittsburgh Steelers, Belichick seemed intent on forcing the former Chicago Bear quarterback to hit the sideline routes. Coverage wise, the corners played off man and there was space for Tribusky to operate. Ultimately, the Steelers feature a cadre of big-play wide receivers who can burn a defense downfield, so it seemed as though Belichick and his staff wanted to keep those weapons contained, willing to give up completions underneath but keeping plays in front of the defensive backs. He was able to succeed, holding the Steelers to just a 5.1 AVG.

Belichick has to be looking at a similar strategy against Jackson and his targets, especially given the big-play prowess the offense has displayed in two games. Both the Jets and the Dolphins challenged Jackson with heavy fronts to neutralize the run game, and both defenses got burned downfield as a result.

Jackson has proven to be a much better outside-the-numbers passer since the 2020 season when he last faced the Patriots and his accuracy wasn’t quite as consistent when he was forced to hit those passes to the sideline.

Still, Belichick may favor crowding the middle (especially to contain Andrews and Likely) and take his chances with the boundary gains from the wide receivers – especially if Duvernay is out for this game. Jackson needs to deliver with consistency, again, completing those underneath throws, and not pressing to force the ball when Belichick baits him.

[Related Article: Shining Star]

Defense

1. Clamp Down the Middle of the Field

Second-year quarterback Mac Jones remains an enigma. At certain points last season in his rookie campaign, he reminded people of a young Tom Brady (the 2001 version). He hit the underneath throws, took what the defense gave him, leaned on the running game, and mostly played the caretaker role for the offense. It was good enough to help the Patriots get back into the playoffs.

When Jones was eventually forced to do more – for instance, against the Buffalo Bills in the playoffs – the Patriots weren’t able to hide him any longer. Without a viable running game, he simply couldn’t lift the offense beyond a short passing game operation that struggled against more aggressive man coverage schemes.

Against the Steelers this past Sunday, Jones had a better showing against a pass defense that is typically tough to move the ball on. And he was even able to hit a 44-yard touchdown strike to Nelson Agholor down the sideline for a big play in that game.

Still, Jones makes his living throwing the ball over the middle of the field, and his safety valve is receiver Jacobi Meyers. Meyers is reminiscent of the intermediate options Brady used to love targeting when he was in New England. Versus the Steelers’ heavy man coverage, Meyers caught nine balls and was targeted a whopping 13 times.

Mission No. 1 for a maligned Baltimore secondary is to take Meyers away in this game as Jones’ security blanket. They struggled badly against the Dolphins to handle middle-of-the-field (MoF) routes. The slot corners and linebackers will be on notice to condense the passing windows, play more aggressive, and keep Meyers in check.

2. Stand Up to the Gap/Power Run Game

The Page 1 headlines in Baltimore centered on a historical collapse against the Miami offense, mostly at the hands of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and receivers Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill. But a sneaky, leaky problem they’ve also faced in two games is a run defense that has allowed an average of 4.85 YPC against the Jets and Dolphins. Considering both teams were down by double digits and chasing a lead, they simply couldn’t stay committed to the run game to make that production count.

Enter the New England Patriots: A team that has no problem staying committed to running the ball. After falling behind early against the Dolphins in Week 1 and the run game naturally falling out of favor, New England got back to basics against the Steelers and pounded the rock, primarily from power/gap blocking. Tailbacks Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson ran for 4.7 YPC and 5.2 YPC respectively.

Against the Ravens in 2020, Harris also had his way, rushing for over 120 yards, punishing a front that simply couldn’t match up to the Patriots’ brute force attack.

The Patriots will want to play the same style of game against the Ravens this weekend to limit Jones’ pass attempts and also keep the Baltimore offense off the field. The front seven is going to need to do a better job getting off blocks and winning at the point of attack. And against Stevenson in particular, they need to force him to cut back inside and take away the outside lanes, which has been a problem for two weeks. Both Harris and Stevenson have the ability to produce chunk gains on the ground.

3. Stay Disciplined Against Pre-Snap Motion, Sweep & Play Action

Miami put on a clinic last week on how to use pre-snap motion to create opportunities for their receivers in open space. Head coach Mike McDaniel called a masterful game, using Hill and Waddle as horizontal targets to force the Baltimore front seven to chase sideline to sideline. They often got caught out of position and simply couldn’t keep up with the Dolphins’ speed.

It’s a copycat league. And with Belichick being as detail-oriented as he is, there is no doubt he saw what Miami put on film.

But he doesn’t have Waddle and Hill. And coming into the Pittsburgh game, the Patriots attempted the least amount of motion (only a 4.3% rate) and play-action attempts in the league.

One would think that with a renewed commitment to the run game, play action is definitely on the table against the Ravens. Especially given some of the bad missteps the linebackers had in coverage against Miami.

As for motion and the possibility of jet sweep action? New England really doesn’t have the horses to run it effectively. However, for Baltimore defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald’s sake, he better have a much better approach to it in case the Patriots wake up and challenge Baltimore to maintain their gap integrity and tackle in space.

One-on-One Matchup to Watch

Morgan Moses versus Matthew Judon

Since leaving Baltimore in the 2021 offseason, Judon has really kicked his game to another level, recording 12.5 sacks – the first time he recorded double-digit sacks. Judon has always been close as a pass rusher but couldn’t seem to finish plays. That hasn’t been a problem in New England and he remains a versatile defender for Belichick, with the ability to drop and set the edge against the run. Judon’s got some power moves in his repertoire and he’s at his best when he can gain leverage at the snap. In Moses, Judon will face a worthy opponent. Moses joined Baltimore in the off-season and he’s brought stability to the right tackle spot. Moses is technically sound and he plays a physical style to counter Judon’s game.

 

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