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How Bill Belichick has the Patriots’ pass defense among the league’s best

Matthew Judon and the ability to pressure with four

One of the oldest clichés in football media is the idea of getting pressure with four. Before any big game, countless stories are written, and many a podcast is recorded, putting forth the idea that “well if this defense can get pressure with four on Sunday, they’ll slow down the opposition…”

There is a certain cadence to the sport, and its coverage, after all.

But there is a world of difference between the idea of getting pressure with four, and actually doing it on the field. This season, getting pressure with four has been critical to New England’s success on the defensive side of the ball, and they are among the best in the league at it.

According to charting data from Sports Info Solutions, the Patriots have 22 total sacks this season when rushing just four, second in the NFL. Only the New York Jets have more sacks when rushing four this year, which is why Sunday’s rematch could be a big defensive struggle.

More on that later this week.

New England also has 99 pressures on the quarterback this year when rushing four, behind the Jets, the Tennessee Titans, and the Washington Commanders.

Part of this comes down to personnel. Belichick has at his disposal a group of players up front who can win in one-on-one situations, including Deatrich Wise, Josh Uche, and Matthew Judon, who currently leads the league with 11.5 sacks.

But another part of this is how Belichick and the rest of the defensive coaching staff uses this personnel. In passing situations, New England loves to use an under front to create opportunities for Judon isolated against a tackle in a one-on-one situation. Take this play against the Indianapolis Colts from Week 9. With time winding down in the first half, the Colts line up for a 3rd and 6 at the Patriots’ 19-yard line.

Take a look at the defensive front:

This is New England’s under front, and it puts four pass-rushing threats on the left side of the line: Defensive tackle Davon Godchaux aligns over the center, with linebackers Anfernee Jennings and Uche outside of him. Then there is Raekwon McMillian, lurking just behind them.

With those four threats, Indianapolis has to slide the protection in their direction, leaving Judon, alone on the opposite side, in a one-on-one situation with the right tackle. Any chance of the guard helping on Judon is eliminated, when Godchaux comes off the ball and crashes into the A-Gap between the center and the right guard.

The result? Judon gets pressure off the edge, and flushes Sam Ehlinger out of the pocket:

Reinforcements arrive in the form of Uche, who cleans up the play for one of his three sacks against Indianapolis.

Here is another example of this look from New England’s defensive front, from their Week 7 loss to Justin Fields and the Chicago Bears. With the Bears facing a 2nd and 6 before halftime, New England again isolates Judon over the right tackle:

Again, the front creates an opportunity for Judon. Chicago uses a four-man slide to the left, leaving the right tackle in a one-on-one against Judon. The NFL sack leader beats the right tackle, getting to Fields for the sack:

The Patriots have also used their depth on the edge to their advantage, calling on a defensive front in passing situations with three pass rushers on the field. In these situations, Wise kicks inside, giving him the chance to work against interior offensive linemen, while Judon and either Jennings or Uche prowl on the edges.

On this 1st and 10 against the Cleveland Browns, the Patriots use that group, with Wise kicked inside while Judon and Jennings are on the edges. New England uses an even front on this play, and they manage to pressure Jacoby Brissett with this package, forcing the quarterback to simply throw the ball away:

Against the Colts in Week 9, New England used a similar package, this time with Uche in the game instead of Jennings. If you are wondering about the advantages of a pass rusher kicking inside to work against an interior offensive lineman, watch Wise against left guard Quenton Nelson on this play, while remembering that Nelson is one of the best in the league:

Through talent, alignment, and scheme, the Patriots have found a consistent way to pressure the opposing quarterback with just four this year.

But pass rush alone is not enough to succeed in the NFL, and Belichick knows that better than anyone.

So it is time to talk about what they are doing in the secondary.

Zigging while the league zags

One of the common themes to the Belichick Era Patriots is the notion that when the league zigs, Belichick zags. A simple Google search uncovers story after story about how Belichick goes his own way, whether in terms of roster construction, schemes on the field, or more.

What the Patriots are doing in the secondary this season is just the latest example, although for Belichick, it is simply a return to part of his core philosophy on the defensive side of the ball.

Before diving deeper into that, consider this, from Belichick. Every summer, usually around the middle of June, a debate breaks out on Football Twitter over which is more important: Pass rush, or coverage.

Summer on the bird app is fun in the football world …

Every time that debate rages, I think of this from Belichick, during a press conference in 2015:

It’s all tied in to the coverage. If you have the receivers covered, it gives the pass rush more opportunity. If you don’t have the receivers covered, then even a good rush isn’t going to result in a quarterback getting tackled, probably. The interceptions are a result of pass rush, just like sacks are a result of coverage.

I think it’s really team defense. The better team defense we’ve played, the more pressure we’ve had. I’d say when you look at a lot of our sacks, a lot of them are on three-man rushes, good coverage situations. Overall, you need good coverage to have a good pass rush, and a good pass rush to have good coverage. When those two have been in synch, we’ve been more productive. When they haven’t, we’ve given up some plays.

In Belichick’s mind, the success of the players up front means nothing if the coverage on the back end breaks down. Defenses need both to be successful, as the pass rush and the coverage need to work in concert.

Generally speaking, they have this season. Beyond the pressure numbers, consider what the Patriots’ pass defense has done to this point. New England’s defense has allowed an NFL Passer Rating of just 75.7 according to charting data from Sports Info Solutions, which is fourth-best in the NFL.

(The Jets are second-best in this category, for what it is worth. Again, more on that later this week).

They have allowed opposing passers an Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt of just 4.8 this year, fifth-best in the league. In terms of Expected Points Added, the Patriots’ have allowed an EPA/dropback of -0.153, which has them atop the league. (They were in second place heading into this weekend, behind the Philadelphia Eagles, but the Eagles slid back after their loss Monday night to the Washington Commanders).

What are they doing in the secondary that, in concert with the pass rush up front, is producing these numbers?

Well, they are zigging while the rest of the league zags.

Think about the bigger NFL picture this season. One of the huge storylines, in addition to how offenses are struggling and scoring is down, is the reliance on two-deep coverages. Quarters, Quarter-Quarter-Half, and other two-deep looks are being used more and more, particularly on early downs. As this piece from Josh Hermsmeyer found at the end of October, the growth of two-high coverages is continuing a trend, while single-high coverages have fallen out of favor:

So far in 2022, the rate of two-high safety coverage deployed on first and second down is 34.2 percent — up 9.1 percentage points from 2016.1 Meanwhile, single-high coverages have fallen out of fashion slightly, dropping from 56.2 percent on early downs in 2016 to 52.7 percent this year.

The growth of two-high usage prompted this piece from March of 2021 by Seth Galina of Pro Football Focus, arguing that two-high defenses were “set to take over the NFL.” As Galina argued, “[t]he purely single-high teams were at risk of getting run out of the building as offenses found better ways to manipulate their defense.”

One of the teams relying heavily on those two-deep looks? The Los Angeles Rams.

In all, 48.6% of all early-down snaps were played with that middle-of-the-field closed look, down from 53.9% in 2018 and 57.6% in 2019. And the important thing to know about these numbers is who is pulling the average down under 50%.

The Los Angeles Rams led the NFL in expected points added (EPA) allowed per play this regular season and played the fewest early-down pre-snap closed looks — only 11% of their early-down snaps were in a pre-snap closed look.

Eleven months later, the Rams would win Super Bowl LVI.

So while the league is trending towards two-high, Belichick is going in the other direction, continuing a pattern from a season ago.

According to SIS charting data, the Patriots led the league in use of single-high coverages a season ago (defined in their charting as Cover 1 and Cover 3), facing 351 passing attempts while in one of those coverages.

Through their first nine games, New England has faced 187 passing attempts in single-high, behind only the Atlanta Falcons and the Miami Dolphins. How have they fared on those plays? The Patriots have allowed an NFL passer rating of just 71.2 on those 187 plays, second-best in the league. Opposing offenses have a Yards per Attempt of just 6.5 on those plays, against second-best in the league (New England is behind the Eagles in both categories).

On those 187 passing attempts, the Patriots have allowed an EPA/Play of -0.20, tying them with the Dallas Cowboys for the best mark in the NFL.

While the bulk of the league is moving away from single-high, the Patriots are leaning back into it, and frankly, this should not be a surprise. As Steven Ruiz, now with The Ringer, wrote back in 2020, Belichick and his former assistant, Nick Saban, look at single-high coverages, particularly Cover 1, as a way to defend the middle of the field and force the quarterback to make tougher throws:

“I think [Cover 1] is the best coverage in ball,” Saban said during a coaching clinic during the 1990s. “It’s absolutely the best coverage in ball. They can’t run the ball. The quarterback’s gotta throw the ball outside. He can’t make any of the easy throws like when you play zone.”

The advantage of single-high, when it comes to defending the middle of the field, is the presence of extra defenders in that area. That gives New England some flexibility when it comes to routes attacking the middle of the field.

While there are various calls, tags, and variations of Cover 1, generally speaking there are two layers of inside help: The underneath defender, often termed a “rat” and the deep post-safety. They lurk in the middle of the field, at different depths, to take away throws to that area and give help to the rest of the coverage defenders.

Take this example, from New England’s win over the Browns. With Cleveland facing a 4th and 3, the Patriots are in Cover 1, with McMillian, the linebacker, as the underneath “rat” and Jabrill Peppers playing the role of the deep safety:

Cleveland tries to pick up this first down with a slant/flat combination to the left side:

As Brissett tries to throw this slant route, watch how McMillian — the underneath “rat” — influences the play:

McMillian — free to read Brissett and help on in-breaking routes — squeezes the slant route from inside-out. That forces the quarterback to adjust his throw, and the pass is behind the receiver, falling incomplete.

Now, the tricky part with playing single-high, and in particular Cover 1, is that you need to trust the players in the secondary to handle their man coverage responsibilities, or situations where they might not have dedicated help over the top. Belichick, however, has talent in the secondary this season, allowing him to run more of these coverage schemes. Whether it is veterans Jonathan Jones and Jalen Mills, or rookie Jack Jones, or other members of the secondary, Belichick has faith that these defenders can hold up in these schemes.

That faith has been rewarded on plays like this one from the rookie cornerback:

New England is in Cover 1 here — likely Cover 1 Cross with Adrian Phillips dropping down underneath to help on crossing routes — against the Packers. Aaron Rodgers tests the rookie cornerback on a deep out route, and Jones answers the call with a Pick-Six.

Now, let’s put this all together. Because remember, part of New England’s success this season stems from their pass rush — often with four — and their coverages working in concert.

Take this third-down play from the same game, starting with the pre-snap look:

What do we see up front? That four-man under front look, with Wise kicked inside of Uche, and Judon isolated outside of the right tackle.

What will we see from the secondary when the play begins? Cover 1, with linebacker Mack Wilson dropping underneath as the rat:

Green Bay tries to convert this play with Allen Lazard running a shallow from his middle alignment in the trips formation. With Jack Jones playing off coverage, and traffic created by the deeper route of Randall Cobb, this might be there for the Packers.

But watch as the coverage, and the pass rush, work in concert:

We can start up front. The Packers, perhaps trying to avoid giving Judon a one-on-one, use a half-slide on this play, with the center, left guard, and left tackle sliding in that direction, while the right guard, and right tackle, slide towards Judon. That puts the right guard in a position to help on Judon, but he cannot, because New England uses a stunt on the inside between Wise and Barmore. That forces the guard to peel back to the left and help out, giving Judon the one-on-one in the end.

As this unfolds, Lazard looks open on his shallow, and Rodgers is looking at him, but when Wilson drops off the line into the underneath rat alignment, he is in position to make a play if Rodgers attempts that throw.

Just as Rodgers comes off that route, Judon is working past the right tackle. The ultimate result? A throwaway under pressure from Rodgers, and a punt from the Packers.

Through nine games, the Patriots have their defense working in concert, just the way Belichick likes it.

Will that be enough for New England this year? That might depend on the state of their offense.

As I mentioned … more on that later this week.

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