FOXBORO – It was one sentence in a 26-minute press conference. It came at the very start of Bill Belichick’s Thursday address so it almost slipped by.
Belichick described the Falcons offense as being unique to prepare for. The Patriots will find, he said, “Things that we’re going to need to do well in this game that are different from any game that we’ve played here in a little while.”
It’s not just the inimitable Julio Jones or quarterback Matt Ryan, who had the best statistical year of any passer in football. It’s scheme and diversity within the scheme hatched by offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn was asked what he’d focus on if he had to stop his offense. Quinn replied, “Defending the whole field. And making sure you have balance between the run game and the pass game. That’s what makes playing against our team challenging and you see it every day in practice. We feature more players than we ever have. So, if you’re going to try to lean to one player or take certain players out, the term we use is, ‘How can we set it off.’ ”
The Falcons do what the Patriots do. Make you defend every inch of grass. Or plastic grass as the case might be. The horizontal/vertical threat posed by Atlanta is something new for the 2016 Patriots in that Atlanta does it a little better and with a little more commitment than anyone on their schedule. But it’s nothing new for Belichick.
He’s been dealing with diabolical offenses designed by a guy named Shanahan since 1985 when Belichick tried to scheme defenses to stop the offenses of Kyle Shanahan’s father Mike in games just like this one.
The first time they coached against each other, Belichick was defensive coordinator for the Giants and Mike Shanahan was offensive coordinator for Denver back in 1986. The Giants edged Denver in the regular season 19-16. They met again in the Super Bowl and Belichick’s Giants won, 39-20.
The two men butted heads intermittently as coordinators, then had a long-standing run competing against each other as head coaches of the Patriots and Broncos. Shanahan’s Broncos got the better of the Patriots, putting up a 5-3 record, including a win in the 2005 playoffs that broke the Patriots 10-game postseason win streak.
Earlier that season, Belichick told the media, “I've had the privilege of coaching in this league for a long time against a lot of great people, especially offensively...I have to put Mike right up there with any I've ever coached against...I don't think there is anybody any better at game-planning and creating problems for the defense. He takes a look at what you do and then he presents a situation for you that is tough to deal with. It's always something that is a little bit different, but it always hits right where it hurts the most.''
Shanahan sent the praise right back at Belichick.
“There's not a guy that I respect more in this business,” he said, “And that's before he became the head coach at New England. He understands offenses and makes adjustments continually through the game. You might have him for a play or two, but he'll make adjustments very quickly and you better go in a different direction. He understands what this game is about because he's been in it a long time and works at it.''
More than 11 seasons removed, the Patriots are back dealing with the same concepts Kyle Shanahan’s father used to stress Belichick’s brain.
Asked if there’s any Mike in Kyle’s scheme, Belichick answered, “Absolutely. You can see a stretch play, number one.”
And the bootleg off of that?
“They boot, yeah,” he agreed. “Absolutely, they boot, but like I said, they run the stretch and they’ve got backs that can run it. They do a great job with that and if you can’t defend that play however they do it, and they have a lot of different ways of doing it – they can do it out of 11, 12, tight ends together, no tight end, one tight end, motion a tight end, on and on, but if you can’t stop that play it’s going to be a long day.”
The concept of the stretch is simple.
The offensive line all blocks in the same direction, getting to the outside of their man and attempting to seal him. The back receives the handoff with building speed toward the perimeter and when he sees a gap, sticks his foot in the ground and gets his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage. All the flow goes one direction. The Broncos did it under Shanahan, the Colts did it with Peyton Manning.
What makes it tough to deal with is the downfield action off the stretch. The offense will send crossers at different levels so that, if it’s play-action, the defense – which needed to flow and be all-hands-on-deck to make sure there were no gaps in the run game – now has to react to pass-catchers moving at speed across the field. With the “boot” concept, a quarterback like Ryan (or John Elway, Jake Plummer or a young Peyton Manning), can fake the handoff, roll back to the weakside and find targets there.
Knowing what the hell you’re looking at – and diagnosing it fast – are key, said Belichick.
“The most important thing is to recognize the concept,” he began. “I mean look, they’re not going to come in here and run 60 new plays. They’re going to run the plays they’ve been running all year but dress them up differently, put a different look or a motion or combination and try to make it look a little bit different than anything we’ve seen or maybe something that they think will give us a problem to adjust to, and then do the things that they’ve been doing.
“I’m not saying there won’t be a handful of new plays in there, but I mean, look, the way they move the ball and score points, they’re not going to come in here and put in a new offense this week,” Belichick scoffed. “They’ve had so much success with what they’re doing, they’re going to keep doing it but make it hard for the defense to recognize this is the play, and by the time you recognize it, the play is over.
“You know, [the officials] are spotting the ball and it’s like, ‘Aw, that’s what that was.’ You have a second-late reaction to that, so they do a great job of that,” he explained. “They do what they do, they do it well. They really know what they’re doing, but defensively it takes you that extra split second to recognize it and sometimes you’re just a step too late and they got you. Then the next play it’s the same thing or another version of the same thing. I addition to that they have very good players, guys like [Devonta] Freeman, [Tevin] Coleman, [Mohamed] Sanu, [Julio] Jones, all of them. They’ve got the ball in their hands and what looks like a seven-yard gain could be 47. Their ability to make yards with the ball in their hands, break tackles, in Coleman’s case, out-run people. I don’t know how many times we’ve seen guys have a good angle on him and it looks like, ‘Ok, they’re going to intersect here,’ and they don’t. [Coleman] just out-runs him and now they’re chasing him and now 15 now looks like 35, so they get a lot of yards on the ability of their skill players to gain yards after they get in the space.”
Shanahan may not know exactly what he’s in for. But, being around the game as long as he’s been and having respect for Belichick, he understands he’s in a chess match with his father’s old nemesis and Pats defensive coordinator Matt Patricia.
The notion that the Patriots are a paper tiger defensively? Shanahan’s not buying.
“That blows my mind that people would be doing that,'' Shanahan said. "It's the best defense that we've seen in the NFL this year. The numbers show it. And watch the film and you see exactly why their numbers are the way they are. They are extremely tough to score against. That's why their No. 1 in the NFL. I believe only one game this year someone scored 30 points.
"They have very good players all around: players that are interchangeable that can be pass-rushers, that can be linebackers, that can be corners, that can be safeties. And they have an extremely good scheme. So, it's by far the biggest challenge we've had this year.''
For both teams. As we pack for Houston and brace for contrived outrage and hackneyed, low-hanging fruit lisitcles about how diabolical and detestable the Patriots are and the evil of pro football (delivered by people who are in Houston on someone else’s dime thanks to pro football), it’s good to remember that – at the end of it all – there will be a fascinating football game.