Patriots

The mother of re-invention: How Belichick, Patricia got creative with banged-up front

The mother of re-invention: How Belichick, Patricia got creative with banged-up front

FOXBORO -- Bill Belichick finished off his postgame press conference last weekend with a comment that seemed rooted in a couple of the football virtues he espouses most. It was both "next man up" and "the more you can do . . ." all wrapped into a quick two-minute response.

The question that prompted it was simple enough. Belichick was asked about the performance of his linebackers in Dont'a Hightower's absence.

PATRIOTS MIDSEASON AWARDS:


"We were a little light on the defensive line, three tackles and three ends," Belichick explained. "We had a little bit more depth at linebacker in this game -- five plus Brandon King -- so those guys helped to supplement the front with the depth that we were missing on the defensive line."

It made sense. Without Malcom Brown (ankle) and Hightower (torn pectoral), the Patriots front seven was down two of its key pieces. In order to try to fill in the gaps, more front-seven bodies were required. And with a surplus of linebackers, that's who the Patriots turned to. 

But it was the way in which those linebackers were used that harkened back to a creative approach that we've seen before from Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. It was an approach that could potentially become a staple for a team that we know is now a) without Hightower for the rest of the season and b) expected to have Shea McClellin back soon but still short on pass-rush help. 

Three years ago, the Patriots deployed their versatile ends and talented blitzing linebackers to confuse opposing offenses. Some of the game's smartest quarterbacks had trouble identifying rushers versus coverage players against the Patriots defense in 2014: Rob Ninkovich picked off Peyton Manning in a blowout win in November of that season when Ninkovich dropped from his spot at left end; Akeem Ayers intercepted Philip Rivers in December of that year with the same kind of deception. 

Those schemes haven't been put in a box and tucked away in Ernie Adams' storage closet since then. The Patriots have broken them out on occasion, particularly when they had both Hightower and Jamie Collins at their disposal. But when the Patriots took on Rivers and the Chargers again last Sunday, they seemed more committed to those ideas than they have been all season. 

In order to mix up their front-seven personnel and supplement a relatively thin front, they employed their linebackers aggressively. At times, they brought one linebacker to give the Patriots an added body in the middle of the line of scrimmage, allowing the backside end to stay at home. At other times, the Patriots brought a linebacker up the middle and dropped an end into coverage. Every so often they brought two linebackers and had both ends drop. 

The uncertainty it created for the Chargers offensive line paid dividends in the 21-13 victory for the Patriots. 

In all, we counted 19 plays -- more than one-third of last week's total for the Patriots defense -- during which it appeared as though it was part of the design for a linebacker (or two) to attack the line of scrimmage.  Here are three of those 19 that illustrate how the Patriots were able to help their front by getting aggressive with their 'backers . . . 

FIRST QUARTER, 10:26 REMAINING, 2ND AND 15

As you can see in the image above, before the ball is snapped, Patriots middle linebacker Elandon Roberts was already moving toward the Chargers offensive line. He's an instinctive player against the run, and perhaps he noticed a Chargers tell that allowed him to get a jump. But this was so early that it seemed to be part of the design. 

The Patriots were in a diamond front here, with five players at the line of scrimmage and Lawrence Guy on the nose. This should mean one-on-one matchups across the board in the trenches. But when the tight end motioned in as a fullback, the Chargers suddenly had a six-on-five advantage. 

Which five were the Chargers blocking, though?

The Chargers may have actually seen a six-on-four advantage here. They knew they didn't care about Trey Flowers on their right because the play was going to the left. If the fullback could kick out Kyle Van Noy on the left edge, the Chargers thought they could get double-teams on Deatrich Wise and Guy in order to open running lanes. 

That's where Roberts' (No. 52) aggressiveness helped the Patriots. This early in the game -- even though Roberts had already come up the field three times in eight plays -- the Chargers weren't expecting him. And suddenly it was six-on-five again.

Los Angeles center Spencer Pulley was busy paying attention to Guy and had no time to seal off Roberts after reacting late. The result was a tackle by Roberts and a two-yard Melvin Gordon loss. 

That brought up a third-and-17, which the Chargers could not convert, and their drive eventually ended in a missed field goal. 

SECOND QUARTER, 2:10 REMAINING, 3RD AND 2

Good communication from the Patriots front-seven here. Seconds before the above shot was taken, Roberts had running back Branden Oliver outside in man-to-man coverage. Once Oliver motioned into the backfield, the back became Flowers' man. That freed-up Roberts to get up the field yet again. 

In the image above, you can see another diamond front, and you can see that Roberts isn't exactly keeping his intentions secret. He's ready to attack. 

The Chargers line saw Roberts showing blitz. But what they didn't see was Roberts' communication to Flowers before the snap for Flowers to take the back in coverage. That meant right tackle Michael Schofield still believed his focus should be on Flowers, even though Flowers wasn't rushing. 

When the play began, Roberts was picked up easily by the center. Wise was doubled after Van Noy dropped. Alan Branch was manned up by guard Kenny Wiggins.

Schofield, however, was confused.

When the ball was snapped and Flowers dropped, Schofield was blocking air. That left Oliver (5-foot-8, 208 pounds) to take on Patriots undrafted rookie defensive lineman Adam Butler (6-foot-4, 300) one-on-one. It didn't go well for Oliver. 

The matchups created by the scheme may not have resulted in a sack, but they resulted in the Patriots hurrying Rivers despite being out-manned up front six-to-four. Rivers had to get rid of the football quickly, the pass was incomplete, and the Chargers were forced to punt.

THIRD QUARTER, 12:07 REMAINING, 2ND AND 11

This time the Patriots showed a four-man front, no nose tackle, but once again Roberts made it clear before the ball was snapped: He wanted the Chargers to know he was rushing.

After Rivers made a call to his line, he received the snap, and Roberts sprinted up the field. Both Patriots ends, however, dropped into coverage. That allowed both Patriots defensive tackles, Guy and Branch, to be doubled. 

What the Patriots did next evened the odds on the interior of the line. They brought David Harris up the field to loop in behind Roberts. With Gordon staying in to pass protect, and with Roberts driving into the center, the Patriots had a 2-on-2 situation with their two 'backers matched up on the Chargers center and back. 

The running back lost his matchup with Harris -- and quickly. Harris trampled Gordon on his way to Rivers, forcing Rivers from the pocket. Rivers eventually fumbled and lost 20 yards on the play to bring up a third-and-31 situation.  

The Patriots weren't perfect when they brought their off-the-ball linebackers up the field. In fact, they used their linebackers in that fashion on two of the first three Chargers plays of the game and allowed 22 yards. But they took their chances as the game wore on, understanding that deception might help them improve their odds in a banged-up front-seven.

"There are some scheme things, creating pressure on the offense, whether you're walking those guys up pre-snap or bringing them post-snap," defensive line coach Brendan Daly said last week. "No matter how you kick it, you're just trying to create some issues for the offense to deal with."

With Hightower out for the remainder of the season, Belichick and Patricia may feel like they can continue to keep offenses guessing by mixing and matching with their linebackers and defensive linemen in the second half of the season. It's worked before. 

Young, talented safeties available for Patriots entering 2018

Young, talented safeties available for Patriots entering 2018

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent at that spot, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today, we put the safety position in focus keeping in mind that this is one position that’s morphing as quickly as any in the NFL.

OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES

HOW THEY PERFORMED


Fine. OK. Pretty good sometimes. But certainly nothing that can be confused with dynamic. In a league stocked with playmaking safeties. They are in the right place and – aside from Jordan Richards - are sure tacklers. They communicate well. They get the concepts of the defense and do their bit on special teams. But the safety group combined for six picks and four of those came from Duron Harmon. Patrick Chung was murder on tight ends in coverage but the third-down performances in some of the team’s biggest games was abysmal. The Steelers and Eagles were both 10 for 16 on third down and the Jags were 4 for 6 in the first half of the AFCCG. Devin McCourty played with an injured shoulder down the stretch that has since been surgically repaired but he just didn’t have a lot of impact plays in 2017. Richards, after three seasons in the league, has a handful of nice tackles as a box safety. Other than that, he’s got a very long way to go in a very short amount of time to approach the level of play expected from a second-round pick. 

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Jordan Richards, Devin McCourty, David Jones, Damarius Travis

WHO ISN'T?
Nate Ebner

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?


Not dire at all. But looming. McCourty is signed through 2019 and has a $13.4M cap hit next season when he’ll be 31. Chung is 30 and entering the last year of his deal. Harmon is signed through 2020 and is just 27. Unless the team thinks Richards is the heir apparent to Chung – which would be alarming – they need to get back in the draft pool to find someone at what I believe is one of the NFL’s most important positions. The team puts so much on both Chung and McCourty that it will take years for a new player to gain the depth of knowledge and nuance at the spot. And then there’s the versatility and kicking game expectations they deal with. Whether its in the draft or in free agency, spending needs to be done. But for this year, the need is a 5.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY


This is a position stocked with talented young players. Here are some of them: Green Bay’s Morgan Burnett, the Rams’ LaMarcus Joyner, Kenny Vaccaro from the Saints, San Fran’s Eric Reid and Tre Boston from the Chargers. Vaccaro’s coming off an injury. Burnett and Joyner are both going to be high-cost options. Reid is already anticipating some teams steering clear of him because of his outspoken support for Colin Kaepernick.  Further down the free agent chain are players like Boston who was outstanding in 2017. Reid, Vaccaro and Boston are players the Patriots could target. Boston is the youngest and healthiest of the group and already theorizes that he will probably move on from the Chargers.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?


Alabama has a pair of safeties who’ll be coveted, the first being Minkah Fitzpatrick who is a top-10 prospect. The other is Ronnie Harrison. Stuck in between those two as a top-20 prospect is Derwin James from Florida State. The reason I could see the Patriots taking a safety in the first two rounds is because the right one can address myriad needs – coverage at the linebacker level, run-support and playmaking. Stanford’s Justin Reid (6-1, 204 pounds) and Va. Tech’s Terrell Edmunds (6-2, 220) are bookends to the type of safety builds the Patriots could use. 

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS CAN ADDRESS IT?


Make a run at Tre Boston. If the price is too high, settle on Edmunds or Reid.

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Report: Bortles receives 3 year, $54m contract extension

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File Photo

Report: Bortles receives 3 year, $54m contract extension

The Jaguars had plenty of talent last season, especially on defense.

But question marks remained due to some of their offensive players.

Could Blake Bortles play well enough to support the strong play of the Jacksonville defense?

He delivered this past season and helped bring the team to the AFC Championship. 

Now he will be in Jacksonville for several years to come.

According to a report from NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport, Bortles and the Jags have agreed to a new 3-year contract worth $54m. 

Adam Schefter of ESPN confirmed the extension, adding that Bortles can earn up to $66.5m with incentives. The contract includes $26.5m guaranteed. 

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