Patriots

Matt Cassel: How Patriots plan ahead for potential playoff opponents like Ravens

Matt Cassel: How Patriots plan ahead for potential playoff opponents like Ravens

NFL coaches have such a finite amount of time during the week. 

Bill Belichick has to prepare a message to send to the New England Patriots every day. He’s got to get ready for first down, second down and third down periods, then get ready for red zone, situational football and blitz packages.

So, there's no way the coaches can do that juggling act of breaking down film from an opponent they might play later on.

That job is up to the scouting department.

A big part of the scouting department’s job every year is doing research on a new opponent or a team you may not face a lot. Starting in the offseason, they’ll start writing up reports on teams you don’t have a ton of familiarity with.

As you get closer to the end of the season and the AFC playoff picture becomes more clear, it’s still up to the scouting department to get an understanding for your potential opponents.

So, when that day comes and you find out you're playing Chiefs or Texans or whomever, they can hand you a full packet of statistics and percentages when you walk into the building. 

That preparation is huge for coaches and players. You get all the information you need, and now you can focus primarily on, “OK, they like to do this on third down, they like to do that on first and second down.”

 That happens down the road for us, but in the meantime, the scouting department really takes the lead on all that stuff.

The young coaches on the staff who are still in assistant roles also do a ton of the heavy lifting in terms of breaking down film, breaking down an opponent and putting it into the computer system.

When that day comes and you find out you're playing Chiefs or Texans or whomever, they can hand you a full packet of statistics and percentages when you walk into the building.

Once you know your opponent, the scout team also plays a huge role.

I've played on a lot of scout teams, and many of them will have a little 10-minute meeting before practice to discuss how we can give the defense an accurate look.

Different assistant coaches run the scout team, and it might be the quarterbacks coach talking to you about how your opponent uses cadences.

For example: "They like to use ‘Blue 80,’ but when they go double cadence, they like to use 'White.' Or if you’re on the road, it might be something in terms of their foot strike."

The coaches will give you indications in those meetings based on what they’ve seen on film to help you simulate what the other team is going to do.

A team like the Baltimore Ravens is hard to simulate, though.

A scout team can't possibly give the defense the look that Lamar Jackson presents.

For one, their offensive unit has unique personnel. They run three tight end sets most of the time with one wide receiver and a running back.

Second, you can't possibly give the defense the look that Lamar Jackson presents.

A lot of times the scout team will have a wide receiver or running back run the zone read if they’ve ever run that in college to create that speed that Lamar has.

But a lot of times the defense is smart. They’re like, “Obviously they’re going to be doing a zone read here because they’re not going to be throwing the ball with a receiver or running back.”

So, it’s hard to really recreate that offensive unit because they’re special in terms of what they do.

But if Baltimore becomes the Patriots' opponent later on, that Week 9 game is something they'll absolutely lean on.

The Ravens can only change so much in terms of an offensive unit and what they’re doing. And why would they? Nobody’s stopped them.

So then you can take from that game, build from that and make yourself better the next time you go against an  opponent like that.

Editor's note: Matt Cassel had a 14-year NFL career that included four seasons with the New England Patriots (2005-2008). He's joining the NBC Sports Boston team for this season. You can find him on game days as part of our Pregame Live and Postgame Live coverage, as well as every week on Tom E. Curran’s Patriots Talk podcast and NBCSportsBoston.com.

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NFL exec 'wouldn't be surprised' if Patriots won AFC East without Tom Brady

NFL exec 'wouldn't be surprised' if Patriots won AFC East without Tom Brady

The New England Patriots have dominated the AFC East for the last 20 years, but will that historic run end in 2020 now that Tom Brady is no longer the team's starting quarterback?

The Patriots won the AFC East title nearly every season of Brady's career in New England. Since 2001, the only seasons in which they failed to claim the division crown were 2002 and 2008 (when Brady suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1). Brady owns an amazing 86-22 regular season record versus AFC East opponents, including a 32-3 mark against the Buffalo Bills.

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Despite losing Brady and other key free agents this offseason, the Patriots should still be among the playoff contenders in the AFC. But will they be good enough to win the division for the 12th consecutive season?

The Athletic's Mike Sando talked to anonymous executives around the league for reaction to all 32 teams' moves in free agency. One exec pointed to Patriots head coach Bill Belichick's impressive ability to know when to move on from a player as a reason for why New England might be more competitive in 2020 than people think.

“When they let guys leave, a lot of times those guys don’t do much,” another exec said. “I tend to believe in the coach who won six Super Bowls. The guy is pretty sharp. I just think he’d rather get rid of a player a year early than a year late, rather than lock in for two years. I wouldn’t be surprised if they won the division, even though it looks on paper like they have no chance.”

Oddsmakers actually expect the Patriots to win the AFC East. New England is the betting favorite to take the division with +100 odds on the DraftKings Sportsbook. The Bills are right behind at +160 odds, with the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins at +750 and +900, respectively.

The Patriots have the toughest schedule in the league for 2020, based on their opponents' 2019 win percentage. So, winning the division won't be easy for the Patriots, but their toughest competition likely will be the Bills, and they haven't won more than 10 games since 1999. The 1999 season also was the last in which Buffalo finished first in the AFC East.

There's no question the Patriots have lost several key players through free agency and trades over the last few weeks. However, the presence of Belichick as head coach and a roster that features plenty of talent on both sides of the ball should give New England a fighting chance to keep its firm grip on the AFC East for another year.

Curran: Fans prefer the Stidham-Hoyer duo in 2020

Wes Welker pushes back on merits of Bill Belichick's Patriots system

Wes Welker pushes back on merits of Bill Belichick's Patriots system

Just because Wes Welker played his best football in New England doesn't mean he enjoyed his Patriots experience more than any other.

The former Patriots wide receiver, now the San Francisco 49ers' wide receivers coach, admitted Wednesday he felt a weight was lifted off his shoulders when he left New England in 2012.

"Maybe a little bit," Welker told WEEI's "The Greg Hill Show." "I was still upset about it. I did want to be there, but there was part of me — I just like enjoying the game. I like having fun, all those things."

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Head coach Bill Belichick has established an unparalleled system of success in New England, but the "Patriot Way" can be demanding on players and isn't for everyone.

Now that Welker is in the coaching world -- he began as an offensive assistant for the Houston Texans in 2017 and joined the 49ers in 2019 -- he believes there's room for players to enjoy themselves while staying committed to winning.

"Coaching now, you learn a lot from the tactics and different things like that, but at the same time putting your own twist on it and understanding — I tell my guys all the time: ‘As long as we’re giving great effort and we’re on top of our assignments we’re going to be good. Once it’s not where we need to be, that is when we have problems,' " Welker said.

"I feel like you’re playing your best ball when you’re having fun and enjoying (yourself)."

Welker put up historic numbers with the Patriots, racking up 672 receptions over six seasons. He didn't always see eye-to-eye with Belichick, though -- remember the fallout from that "foot" press conference? -- and said Wednesday his New England tenure had some bumps along the way.

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“I think there were some times where I didn’t really feel that at times for different reasons — the guys that we had in the locker room, the camaraderie that we had was better some years than others," Welker said. 

" ... When you’re one of the highest-paid players on the team, you’re expected to deliver like a highly-paid player. There’s definitely pressure on that and all these different things is tough and it’s hard. Coach Belichick is hard on guys and tries to get the most out of him that he can."

Welker said in the same interview he wasn't surprised Tom Brady left the Patriots to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in free agency.

Welker believes Brady was motivated by a desire to prove he can succeed outside New England, but it's not a stretch to think Welker sympathized with Brady for wanting a fresh start after 20 years with Belichick.

"The way he goes about it is there are no superstars," Welker added of Belichick. "Everybody has their role on that team. Everybody is going to get called out. There’s no preferential treatment, and a lot of times he calls out the star players just to set the tone with the whole team."

Belichick's system obviously has reaped enormous benefits, but Welker apparently leans more Lane Johnson than Matthew Slater in his opinion of it.