Devin McCourty gathered Patriots defensive backs around him before taking on the Chargers, as he does every week.
"We know who we are now," McCourty told them. "We know."
The Patriots know they are a team that needs to play as a team. The offense needs to take care of the football and run it efficiently. The defense needs to get its hands on a turnover or two. The kicking game needs to change field position at every opportunity.
But when it comes to that group McCourty addressed pregame Sunday, there seems to be an identity forming. And its identity may be that it doesn't really have one.
Versatility. Multiplicity. Disguise. Those are things the Patriots defense has done well of late. Those are things that gave quarterbacks Kyler Murray and Jutsin Herbert headaches. They could be just as critical to Bill Belichick's plan against Jared Goff and the Rams on Thursday.
Over their last two games, Patriots defensive backs have helped hold the Cardinals and Chargers to a combined 4.0 yards per pass attempt, no touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 51.3. In those games the Patriots played their share of man coverage. But they've played more man-to-man than most NFL clubs over the last several years, and that hasn't quite been their modus operandi of late.
Through the first half of the season, the Patriots defense was second in the NFL in Cover 1 (man-to-man with a free safety) percentage at 49.4, per ESPN. In the last month, as the defense has changed up its looks more liberally, they've fallen to eighth in their Cover 1 percentage this season at 41.0.
Tapping into the experience levels and football IQs brought to the field by the likes of Devin McCourty, Jason McCourty, Jonathan Jones, J.C. Jackson, Stephon Gilmore, Adrian Phillips, rookie safety Kyle Dugger and even undrafted rookie Myles Bryant, they can change at a moment's notice.
They can play tough man-to-man defense on one third down. On the next they may play a man-match coverage -- with defenders exchanging a coverage responsibility mid-play -- or straight zone.
They can also drive quarterbacks crazy by changing where they align. Devin McCourty can play as a free safety, but he's played in the box as well. Jason McCourty has played in the slot, on the outside and as a safety deep. Dugger has played in the box, on the line of scrimmage and deep in split-safety coverage. Bryant has played as a slot corner and a safety. Jonathan Jones and Adrian Phillips are among the most versatile players on Belichick's roster and have played all over the field.
It's been hard to pin down where Patriots defensive backs will be or what they'll be doing on a snap-to-snap basis.
On one down they might appear ready to send an all-out blitz, but a player or two will drop into coverage at the last second. On another snap, the coverage presented could be a two-high safety look that shifts to a single-high coverage at the last moment. Against Goff, who has relied on having the help of his head coach in his ear until the coach-to-player communication system is shut off with 15 seconds left on the play clock, that's an advantage.
Up front the Patriots have gotten creative as well. Coverage players have become pass-rushers in a blink. Pass-rushers -- even defensive tackle Adam Butler, at times -- become coverage players.
The Patriots have the ability to blitz, but they've dialed that back recently, sending extra bodies on just 15 of 95 dropbacks the last two weeks, per Pro Football Focus. Instead, the Patriots have run games and stunts with athletic pass-rushers -- Butler, Chase Winovich, Deatrich Wise and Josh Uche have been staples on third downs -- in order to maintain numbers in the secondary.
By flooding a quarterback's vision with defensive backs and changing coverages, the Patriots have at times forced passers to hold onto the football. That's allowed twisting pass-rushers to get home. And that's resulted in some staggeringly-low passing totals allowed.
"Just good team defense," McCourty said last week.
The Patriots could go a few different routes against Goff and the Rams on Thursday. In sticking with what's worked for them these last two weeks -- mix in plenty of zone, don't go crazy blitzing -- they could have a winning plan.
Zone coverages would allow the Patriots to guard against the crossing routes that coach Sean McVay so readily orders up, and it could help limit the yards-after-the-catch totals upon which the Rams offense has sustained itself of late. Playing quarters coverage -- a zone look where four defensive backs split the deep part of the field into fourths -- back in Super Bowl LIII famously rattled Goff into finishing the game completing just 19 of 38 attempts for 229 yards.
By eschewing the blitz for more four-man rushes, the Patriots could prevent Goff from hurting them with quick-hitting "hots" for easy gains. Interestingly, while Goff is one of the worst quarterbacks in football under pressure (quarterback rating of 42.0, per PFF), he more than holds his own when blitzed (rating of 94.1). So if the Patriots can get home with four -- if, say, they can get pressure up the middle with a twist between interior rushers -- that could make life hard on the not-so-fleet-of-foot fifth-year quarterback.
The other option for the Patriots? Borrow the plan laid out by former Patriots play-caller Brian Flores and the Dolphins.
Miami held the Rams to just a 25 percent success rate on third down back in Week 8. Goff was 3-for-9 through the air in those situations for a 79.4 rating and a yards-per-attempt figure of just 2.2.
The Dolphins are a heavy man-to-man defense that used plenty of man coverage on third downs against the Rams -- including several all-out blitzes with no safety deep, like the one the Patriots used in Super Bowl LIII that led to a Stephon Gilmore pick. One such "Cover 0" snap on second down led to a Dolphins strip sack and a 78-yard return for a touchdown. Against the blitz in that 28-17 loss, Goff went 18-for-37 for just 177 yards (4.8 per attempt) and a quarterback rating of 60.3.
That game showed that Goff can be had against the blitz, but he hasn't been on a consistent basis in 2020. He has the third-most efficient pass-blocking offensive line, per Pro Football Focus. (Since losing All-Pro tackle Andrew Whitworth for the season in Week 10, they're ninth in pass-blocking efficiency.) Goff also has a top-five running back when it comes to pass-blocking efficiency. Malcom Brown ranks third among 39 backs with at least 25 pass-blocking snaps, having allowed only three pressures in 58 pass-blocking opportunities.
Whatever the Patriots do, they have to find a way to bother Goff. He's a different player when under pressure. They could do it by mixing up their coverages. They could do it by disguising their intentions until the ball is snapped. They could do it by rushing four of their best athletes, and if that doesn't work they could take the Miami route and blitz the house.
The Patriots have multiple avenues from which to choose. That's who they are now defensively. And the last few weeks have shown they're comfortable in that mode.