AFC East Preview: How Belichick is Changing the NFL – again!
The Patriots are the reigning champions of not only the division, but the entire AFC. For the past decade they have dominated the AFC East capturing eight division titles in ten seasons. Both times they lost the division, they still tied for the best record, but lost the crown on a tie-break.
Not much has changed for the Patriots between the end of last season and today that would cast doubt over their chances of again being the top team in the division. The Patriots are the surest thing in football – we know they will be good, and we know that they will win their share of games outside the division. As such, the only realistic way for a team within the division to knock them off is to beat them head-to-head. The Bills were able to exploit the Patriots defense for an early season victory last year, but they did not fare so well in the rematch and got blown away in New England. The Jets have their impressive 2010 post-season victory over the Pats in Foxborough, but other than they they have lost the last three regular season meetings, and really it hasn’t been close. The Dolphins don’t really have what it takes to put together the type of season needed to win this division.
The scariest thing for their AFC East opponents is that the Patriots might be the strongest they have been since the 2007 this season. On offense the Patriots have finally added an impact player on the outside in Brandon Lloyd, and another key veteran in Donte Stallworth. They also return all of last year’s key starters. On defense the team finally decided to use their first round picks in the first round this year, instead of trading down repeatedly, and hope they have added two impact starters for 2012. While the other teams in the AFC East are scrambling for ways to catch up to the Patriots, New England is busy refining their roster into one of the deepest and most talented squads in the league. The Patriots only have 13 rookies in camp this year, the fewest of any team in the league. Their roster is loaded with veteran talent and ridiculous depth. Some of the players that will be cut before this season by the Patriots could end up being solid contributors to other teams. Beyond the players it is the offensive design and constant innovation that have confounded the league in recent years.
In the last two years the Patriots are 25-5 in the regular season. They lost the Super Bowl for the 2011 season and the suffered the aforementioned devastating loss to the Jets in 2010. Going back further to 2008 the Patriots finished 11-5 with Tom Brady on the injured reserve. They missed the playoffs in a tie-break, but it is hard to imagine they couldn’t have picked up one more win with Brady healthy all season. With Brady’s return the following season the team went 10-6 and made the playoffs, but got their doors blown-off by the Ravens in a round-one playoff exit. Brady wasn’t totally himself that season as he was only a year removed from his devastating leg injury. You could argue the Brady injury cost the franchise two years and not just one. In the three seasons surrounding that injury (07, 10, 11) with a completely healthy Brady the Patriots have dominated NFL regular seasons. They have posted a 41-5 regular season record in that time and have only the Giants to thank for the fact they don’t own two more Super Bowls.
So how do the Patriots do it? How do they stay on top year after year? Part of the answer is Tom Brady and the other part of the answer is the excellent coaching of Bill Belichick, who helps to put together the most consistent team in the NFL week-after-week. Let’s dig a little deeper – what exactly is it that these two men do that makes them so successful? I think part of the answer dates back to 2006.
In 2003 and 2004 the Patriots won two Super Bowls with a solid quarterback who seemed to raise his game at the right moments and a dominating defense that stifled opposing offenses. By the time 2006 rolled around this defense had grown old and was on its last legs. But at the same time Brady was emerging as one of the best talents in the NFL – if not the best.
In the 2006 AFC Championship game, the Patriots had to watch the Colts come back from a big halftime deficit to capture the AFC title. Their defense was powerless to stop Peyton Manning as the Colts roared back, but maybe more importantly their offense didn’t have the play makers to match the explosive Colts. This game was a microcosm for the changes happening in the NFL. (Quick Tangent: This is also the last time a non-superstar QB made the Super Bowl – Rex Grossman. Since then we have seen Brady-Eli (twice), Roethlisberger vs. Warner and Rodgers, and Peyton versus Brees. You could argue Eli wasn’t a superstar at the time of his first title but like the early Brady championships it was a sign of things to come.) Belichick saw the tide turning and knew that to win consistently you needed to be able to score points through the air. In the offseason he retooled his team with a focus on receiving targets and he ended up with the greatest offense of all time (with a little help from the Oakland Raiders).
It wasn’t just getting the players he acquired that made the offense great but the design of the offense also. In 2007 the Patriots became the first team in the history of the NFL to use the shotgun formation on more than 50% of their plays. They were ahead of the curve in their use of the formation and the rest of the league is just now starting to catch up. In 2001, the shotgun was used on only 14% of plays, and by 2006 this had grown to 20%. But last season in the NFL, the shotgun was used on a record 41% of all plays.
Right now, it is simply a much more effective scheme. Teams average 6-yards per play from shotgun, but only 5.2 yards per play from under center. As the formation becomes more common, and more widely used, it is becoming even more effective. The difference in yards per play between shotgun / non-shotgun was larger in 2011 than in any of the previous three seasons. (statistics courtesy Football Outsiders Almanac 2012).
With the proliferation of the passing offense has come the reaction by NFL defenses to stop it. More nickel and dime packages have become prevalent as ways to match-up with multiple receivers. Safeties have had to become quicker, and usually lighter, in order to have the speed to cover the whole field and often deal with receivers and tight ends in one-on-one situations. Defenses may not have figured out how to stop the shotgun yet, but they are trying everything they can and eventually they will become more successful. Belichick has seen this shift coming, too, and he is trying to stay ahead of the curve yet again.
In 2010 he drafted two big and talented Tight Ends. Last year he unleashed a redesigned passing attack that heavily featured those tight end’s, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. By throwing to bigger targets Belichick could exploit teams’ preference to play nickle defense against the Patriots passing attack. He could also use the versatility of his tight ends to change the type of offense they were running without having to sub in different personnel (and allow the defense an opportunity to do the same). If the defense decided to remain with their base formation on the field (only four DB’s) then the Patriots could spread it out using their tight ends out wide and exploit match-ups against linebackers. If the defense was in a nickle or dime defense with five or more DB’s then the Patriots could use the size of the tight ends to their advantage as blockers in the run game, or in the case of Hernandez, sometimes even the running back himself. It was an ingenious plan that few defenses had an answer for. I expect Belichick to continue to develop his plan this season.
This season New England has brought two fullbacks to camp as well as four tight ends. Not all are expected to make the roster, but with the recent signing of TE Visanthe Shiancoe (to sub in for the injured Daniel Fells) it appears at least three tight ends will make the final roster, which is in contrast to the two tight ends they carried for most of last year. Remember that the Patriots also used back-to-back 2nd and 3rd round picks in the 2011 entry draft to grab a pair of running backs, Shane Vereen and Steven Ridley. The move seemed curious for a team that values its mid-round draft picks so much and who are also a pass based offense that generally take a committee approach in the back field. Maybe it was just careful planning by Belichick who foresaw the league’s continued shift to more passing plays and the potential for his team to exploit this focus by taking the game to the ground.
I am not suggesting the Patriots are planning to take the game out of Tom Brady’s hands. I am just suggesting that this is yet another weapon that Bill Belichick is devising for 2012. It gives them a different way to attack opponents in the second half when they are protecting a lead. It could even possibly allow them to open up games in a heavy set against teams that have just spent all week preparing to stop the Patriots aerial assault. In other words it brings the ultimate in versatility to the Patriots offense, which is something Belichick craves in individual players. So why not build his team as a unit in the same way? Belichick is designing the Patriots Offence as the ultimate nightmare to match-up against, with the versatility to beat almost any package an opponent sends their way. Add to that the intelligence and the precision execution of Tom Brady, and the offence should continue to roll this season.
In recent years, Belichick has taken heavy criticism in the media for overseeing what is statistically a very poor defense. They wonder how a “defensive mastermind” could live with himself watching his defense give up completion after completion as teams march up and down the field. It must not be easy for Belichick, but his defenses are never as bad as the yardage statistics make it seem (they have led the league in Points Prevented Per Drive in both 2010 and 2011 as measured by Footballoutsiders.com, a stat that essentially measures how many points you give up vs. yards given up, the Patriots are always high on the “bend, but don’t break” list). And he also knows that he made a conscious decision to focus the team’s resources on maintaining a high-powered passing offense even if it meant the defense has had to suffer for it. Bill Belichick is no longer a defensive coordinator; he is a head coach and he has to do what he thinks is best for his entire team. His latest incorporation of the tight ends into the offense has been a great success and given Belichick’s recent track record of success the league better take notice of his latest innovation in a hurry.
In 2012 it will take a monumental effort from one of their East division rivals to knock the Patriots off their perch.
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