Patriots

Patriots coverage switched gears in second half to slow Bengals

rowe_on_green.jpg

Patriots coverage switched gears in second half to slow Bengals

FOXBORO -- It was as if the Patriots defense just said screw it. 

Through the entire first half and one drive into the third quarter, the Patriots mixed their zone and man-to-man looks in the secondary. They tried to keep quarterback Andy Dalton on his toes by showing him different variations in coverage, but he was slowly picking them apart. 

When Brandon LaFell caught a five-yard touchdown with 11:14 left in the third quarter, Dalton improved to 17-for-21 passing for 201 yards. By then, Bengals had possessed the ball for almost 22 minutes, and they held a 14-10 lead.

Changes needed to be made. 

Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia pulled linebacker Dont'a Hightower aside on the sideline to talk things over. Then he met with members of the secondary. Everyone was going to have to be on the same page, and the difficulty the Patriots had with their communications system may have further underscored the need for some good sideline discussion.

"They were just capitalizing on maybe -- I wouldn't want to say a weakness -- but kind of like . . . a hole," said safety Duron Harmon after the game. "And we kind of just got through it and took away where they were trying to exploit it. We tried to make them go elsewhere and it worked in our favor."

The Patriots plan of attack shifted from both a scheme and a personnel standpoint.

Whereas they were mixing their coverages earlier in the game, allowing Bengals receivers to find soft spots in their zone looks, Patricia's unit shifted to more of a man-to-man focus in the third quarter. In so doing, the Patriots also altered some of their matchups, deploying corner Eric Rowe much more often in the second half, using his athleticism to mirror Pro Bowl wideout AJ Green.

It was a plan that relied more on phyiscality and aggressiveness, and it helped force Dalton to complete just four of his final 10 attempts for 53 yards.

In order to fix the problem, first the Patriots had to diagnose it. 

Openings in New England's zone looks -- which led to first downs for Green (11:54 remaining in the second quarter), Tyler Boyd (4:26 left in the second) and Green again (3:51 left in the second) -- helped get the Bengals on the board with a two-yard Dalton touchdown run.

Those gaps hurt them again early in the third quarter when Green converted a third-down opportunity with a 23-yard reception that was dropped in behind corner Logan Ryan and in front of Harmon. Boyd found another hole on the same drive between corner Malcolm Butler and linebacker Elandon Roberts for a 27-yard chunk play. 

Receivers were being allowed to move freely through the Patriots secondary, and when they sat down in open areas, Dalton had time to find them. 

On the drive following LaFell's score, linebacker Dont'a Hightower then changed the game with his safety, but it appeared as though the Patriots had already started to make changes by matching up on the back end -- perhaps helping force Dalton to hold onto the ball for as long as he did before Hightower caught him. 

The next time the Patriots defense was on the field, Ryan covered Green for a play, helping force an incompletion at the line of scrimmage. Then Rowe took Green -- allowing safety Patrick Chung to match up with Bengals tight ends -- in New England's three-corner looks. 

Acquired in a trade with the Eagles just before the start of the regular season, Rowe had not played a defensive snap for the Patriots going into the Sunday as he learned the system and worked to overcome an ankle injury. But on Sunday, he capitalized on his chance, using his 6-foot-1 frame to jam Green at the line of scrimmage and prevent him from getting the timing he wanted with his routes. On one play down by the Patriots goal line in the fourth quarter, Rowe got physical with Green -- grabbing his arm at one point mid-route -- and batted away Dalton's attempt in the corner of the end zone. 

"The key is just you gotta get a jam on him," Rowe said. "I made sure each time I was lined up with him, I got a hand on his chest. I didn't want him to have a free release because that makes my job tougher . . . Then playing the ball in the air [on the pass breakup]. Once I saw his eyes get big, I just looked back for the ball . . . But really, the main thing is just getting a hand on him."

As the first half came and went, Rowe knew there was a chance that things could change in the game. He knew that all of a sudden he could be checking one of the game's best receivers in his first time playing for coach Bill Belichick, and he relished the opportunity. 

"It felt great just getting back on the field, getting that adrenaline rush again, especially with the challenge of going against AJ Green," Rowe said. "Man, I missed that . . . That's kind of what I'm best matched with: tall long guys like AJ that like to run deep routes. I like to run. I can run with them. So that kind of is a good fit for me."

The shift to using Rowe and taking on Cinci's "12 personnel" packages with three corners instead of three safeties meant a little less playing time for Harmon, but he knew, "we had to get up on them."

"We had to make a few adjustments defensively and it worked," Harmon said. "It worked well. All you can be is excited that the coaches saw the game plan that needed to be changed. We changed it, and it worked in our favor."

After the game, Belichick credited coaches as well as players for being able to communicate and change course in the secondary. On Monday morning, he went even more in depth on how helpful having players like Harmon and safety Devin McCourty can be in games like Sunday's. 

"When you play that position, you know, a good player back there can really see all 22 guys," Belichick said. "He sees the players in front of him. He can [see] the players on the outside  -- the receivers, the corners -- and really get a good feel for the game. It’s a picture that you don’t see from the sideline or from the press box. And so throughout the course of my career, those players a lot of times can give great information and great perspective on how they see the game from back there, where they see the quarterback looking, where they see things from receivers or route combinations or formations and so forth.

"With Duron and Devin back there, those are two very smart players. They’re experienced players. They know what they’re looking for. They know the passing game very well from just an overall schematic standpoint, but then specifically with each team that we play and the quarterback, and again, the route combinations and situational tendencies that our opponents have or have shown.

"It’s not unusual during the course of the game to ask them or for them to comment on something that’s happening or isn’t happening and how the quarterback is reading a certain coverage or a certain look or where receivers are located and so forth. As I said, it’s something where I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of guys throughout my career who have really done a good job with that and Devin and Duron I would say are two very good ones."

McCourty, in particular, seemed to help spark some of the right changes, according to Belichick. 

"As he normally does in the course of that type of a game, you know, some of the comments and observations that [McCourty] made affected some of the things we were thinking about doing," Belichick said. "I think as usual he was right on the money with his observations, especially when you go back and take a look at the film a little more closely today. You see what he saw."

Chris Long doesn't put stock in Brady-Belichick drama. "It took everything to beat them."

Chris Long doesn't put stock in Brady-Belichick drama. "It took everything to beat them."

In an interview with The Big Lead, Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long spoke on the drama surrounding Tom Brady and Bill Belichick

It's safe to say he doesn't put much stock into it

I just think any NFL team, any NFL locker room under a lot of stress over a year period, there are going to be storylines people can choose to kind of blow out of proportion or not pay attention to. I think everyone’s going to pay attention to sometimes really small issues. Whatever people are alluding to going on up there hasn’t affected their play, it hasn’t affected their bottom line. It hasn’t affected how they executed on Sundays. 

Long played with the Patriots during the 2016 season and won Super Bowl 51 with them before signing a two-year contract with the Eagles. The Eagles then went on to beat New England in Super Bowl 52. If anyone outside of the Patriots' locker room has an idea of the culture inside the past two years, Long has to be one of them. 

It took everything for us to beat them. It took a heroic performance by Nick Foles and we had to play our best game. So while everybody likes to always point to the Patriots as being under duress or there’s some drama in the locker room, there’s drama in every locker room that you could blow out of proportion. They’re just on top and those stories sell because they’ve been so great.

ESPN's Seth Wickersham released a story detailing some of the issues that arose in New England over the past few years in January, and with Brady missing almost all of the Patriots' voluntary workouts last month, some have started to wonder whether this is the end for one of both of Brady-Belichick. 

While their hasn't been much public acknowledgement from either side about the drama, but Long certainly doesn't see much substance to the noise. 

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

 

Tony Romo's Super Bowl prediction draws response from Tom Brady

Tony Romo's Super Bowl prediction draws response from Tom Brady

Tony Romo's Super Bowl prediction of the Jacksonville Jaguars taking over the AFC title from the Patriots and facing the Green Bay Packers in Atlanta in SB53 drew a response from Tom Brady on Instagram.

The NFL's official Instagram account posted a photo of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Jags cornerback Jalen Ramsey with the prediction of Romo, the former Dallas Cowboys QB now the analyst on CBS' No. 1 NFL broadcast team. Here's a screenshot, complete with Brady's comment:

Appearing on the NFL Network earlier this week, Romo said rumors of a rift between Brady and coach Bill Belichick are overblown. “I think they probably squabble just like any married couple for 20 years, and then they also love each other.

“I just think when you work together for 15 to 20 years, whatever it is, I think that whenever you have the success that they have, people have to come up with stuff,” Romo said. “I also think that I’ve been upset with my coaches before, and then you come back and you’re fine. And then you get upset with them, and you come back and you’re fine. It’s a part of sports.”

Brady and the Patriots report to camp on July 26.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE