Through one of the most impressive regular-season defensive performances in team history, the New England Patriots routed the Miami Dolphins on Sunday with a final score of 43-0. Starting off the season 2-0, the Patriots defensive success should be the headline thus far as they have given up only three points through two games. Unlike recent seasons, Bill Belichick has constructed a highly athletic defense with tremendous depth that features versatile players at every position. The 2019 iteration of New England’s defense has a chance to be one of, if not the, best defenses Belichick has ever produced.
New England Patriots Defense Headlines Success
After watching the all-22 game film from this past Sunday, the pure athleticism and versatility from the Patriots linebackers as well as safeties are clearly the backbone of their recent success. It has been well documented through players and coaches that Belichick is one of a kind when it comes to his ability to design and implement a scheme that highlights his players’ strengths. This season, it is clear the team has a heavy commitment to playing much of its defensive snaps in 3-4 and nickel alignments in an effort to highlight their linebacker and safety talent.
The 3-4 defense is made up of three down linemen, usually mammoths responsible for two gaps along the offensive line rather than one. The 3-4 also features four linebackers, all of whom are strong, quick and fluid in coverage. The back end is made up of four defensive backs, one of which must be a versatile safety capable of playing up in the box, lining up in man coverage on tight ends and playing over the top zone.
Patriots 3-4 Personnel
When it comes to filling these roles, New England often uses 300 pounders Adam Butler, Lawrence Guy and Danny Shelton on early downs to combat the run while subbing in pass rushers Chase Winovich and Michael Bennett on obvious passing downs. The staple of the 3-4 is found within its athletic linebackers and is what provides many opposing offenses with headaches. The Patriots backers feature Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts, and Ja’Whaun Bentley.
Every player listed has the strength to shed blockers when playing the run, the quickness to set the edge and blitz, as well as the hip fluidity to move well in coverage. In addition, no one from New England’s linebacking core is below 6’1 and aside from Roberts, everyone weighs at least 245 pounds, which adds another dimension of versatility to the group.
The safety role is filled by the 11-year veteran, Patrick Chung. At 215 pounds, Chung is more than capable of playing close to the line of scrimmage in run support and his ability to line up in man coverage over tight ends is a huge asset for the team as it takes the burden off linebackers. Also, Chung’s size along with his physicality allows for the coaching staff to be creative as they often put him at the WILL linebacker spot in nickel alignments. Belichick knows exactly how to use his athletes and through the first three quarters against the Dolphins, New England was aligned in a 3-4 formation for 50 percent of their defensive snaps.
Patriots Dime and Nickel Personnel
The versatility of this Patriots defense is perhaps the most impressive aspect of the team’s construction. While the first three quarters featured a lot of 3-4, the fourth quarter featured zero 3-4 alignments from New England. Instead, they utilized their nickel and dime packages on 94 percent of their fourth-quarter defensive snaps. This is more than likely due to the fact that Miami was down 23-0 entering the final quarter and had nearly abandoned the running game altogether.
However, as the Patriots alignments changed, their personnel rarely did. Players such as Hightower, Van Noy and at times, Bentley, lined up as defensive ends to rush the passer as well as dropping into shallow zones on occasion. Bentley also split time with fellow linebackers Collins and Roberts playing the MIKE and WILL positions in nickel alignments.
In addition to the Patriots versatility at linebacker, their multifaceted safeties can not be overlooked either. On obvious passing downs, Belichick would either sub in safety Terrence Brooks at the WILL while dropping Chung to a traditional safety spot, or, Belichick would put Chung at the WILL and sub in safety Duron Harmon to play at the top of their defense. This is a unique alignment because while the Patriots have six defensive backs on the field, they continue to stay lined up as if they are playing nickel rather than dime. Such an alignment allows them to have the coverage ability of the six defensive back dime defense while also still being able to combat the run.
How Defensive Versatility Challenges Offenses
New England’s safety and linebacker flexibility have allowed the coaching staff to create a defense capable of using the same personnel in multiple alignments to defend against the run and pass. This has given opposing offenses extremely difficult times as coaches and quarterbacks are unable to predict the Patriots coverages or blitzes. Having relatively the same personnel on the field for 3-4, nickel and dime alignments creates massive confusion for an offense as they know every linebacker and safety on the field has the ability to blitz as well as drop back into either man or zone coverage. Quarterbacks are unable to make a clean pre-snap read and are forced to simply react in a split second after the snap, which usually does not end in a successful play.
In addition, the offense’s blockers struggle knowing who to pick up as they know every linebacker or defensive end is capable of either rushing the passer or dropping back into coverage. New England’s defense forces offenses to react to them which often results in a chaotic frenzy of miscommunication that hamstrings an offense’s ability to move the football with any level of success. The pure talent of these defensive players, combined with Belichick’s football mind, is a recipe for havoc throughout the league.