Continuing our build up to Sunday’s Super Bowl, we take a look at how you can outwit one of the best defensive units in the NFL.
New England Patriots come into this game with the top ranked defense in the NFL. Whilst other units may be more highly thought of – and certainly more talked about – this one just quietly gets on with the job in hand.
Part of the genius of Bill Belichick and his defensive co-ordinator Matt Patricia is that where others see a problem, they see a challenge to be solved. Witness the way that the dealt with the Steelers’ twin threats of Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown two weeks ago in the AFC Championship game.
Even though Bell missed a huge chunk of the game through injury, even before that point his effect had been much diminished because New England adopted a tactic of holding up the Steelers’ offensive linemen at the line of scrimmage, making it hard for Bell to see beyond them and pick his point of attack. Where Brown was concerned, they effectively sandwiched him on most plays, with their top cover corner Malcolm Butler following him and jamming him at the line of scrimmage and then a safety, usually Devin McCourty, tracking behind him so that he could be hauled down swiftly even if he did make the catch.
The clear way to beat this defense, though, is to give Belichick and Patricia too many things to think about. The scheme above was successful because Pittsburgh came into the game with too few weapons and once those were taken away the other options were easy meat for this unit. Atlanta has Julio Jones, a bigger and slightly faster version of Brown, but it also has a versatile (if sometimes clumsy) receiver in Mohamed Sanu and a third option in Taylor Gabriel who actually has more touchdowns than Jones in 2016. Out of the backfield they have the twin threat of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. The Falcons have led the league in scoring largely on the basis of the speed with which Matt Ryan gets the ball out, but if he can hold it long enough for plays to develop fully there is no way that even the Patriots can effectively cover so much offensive talent.
Whilst slowing down the play itself might be one way to beat this defense, another way is to speed things up. This is far from the youngest defense in the league and it is based around three big heavies at the line of scrimmage, effectively three nose tackles. Keeping New England on the field and unable to substitute is key to wearing down their veterans and keeping those big guys without a break.
Finally, even though Atlanta have three speedy receivers, it is the linebacking corps which is the most vulnerable element of this defense. Having traded away Jamie Collins to the Browns, the Patriots only have Dont’a Hightower as an out-and-out linebacker at the top of their depth chart. The rest are either retreads from other teams who are used in situational plays, such as Barkevious Mingo and Kyle Van Noy, or hybrid defensive end-linebackers such as Rob Ninkovich and Chris Long, who are great at going forward but not so hot at dropping into coverage. Indeed, in recent games they have tended to hold those kind of players and instead blitz with the likes of safety Patrick Chung, which means that there’s also a gap in the middle of the secondary to look for, too.