I’ve been on a number of NFL teams, and a lot of them address situational football. But I’ve never been around a team that does it as meticulously as the New England Patriots.
They started drilling it into our minds as soon as we got there in the spring. In the offseason before my second year, Josh McDaniels would give me quizzes and tests. Things like, "Who are we identifying for the offensive line in protection issues?" and "If we see this safety rotation, who can we re-identify to help protect ourselves to avoid throwing ‘hot’?" Simple stuff like that.
During the season, it’s a whole different animal.
You've probably heard from 100 different people that the Patriots are a game plan offense. Here's what that means: We’re going to watch the defense specifically to identify their tendencies, what they do situationally and what their philosophy is.
It starts with the defensive coordinator. They literally go through everything so you truly understand, historically speaking, where this guy comes from, what his background is and what his foundation is.
From there, we’d start to dissect the defense. On Tuesdays during game weeks, we would sit with Bill Belichick and go through the scouting report on every one of their DBs who we thought were going to play: corners, safeties, nickel backs, and sometimes even linebackers we thought we could take advantage of in the pass game. Then we’d go through strengths, weaknesses and an overall summary.
At the end of that session, we’d actually get to sit there and watch film with Bill, which was one of the most educational things for a young player: to see the game through Bill’s eyes and understand what he was talking about. So, by the time we got in on Wednesday, we had a great understanding for why these plays are being called and what our matchups were.
Some of it could be as simplistic as, hey, this cornerback has great transition and quickness, but he's a little smaller and we think he struggles on the deep ball, so we can take our shots on this guy. Or, this safety has really good range, so we’re going to have to make sure we do a really good job with our eyes when we’re throwing the seam route to get him off his mark.
That's how the preparation starts. And then each day leading up to Sunday was a different situation. We did our first- and second-down install and our drive starters on Wednesday. Thursday was mainly our third down day and Friday was our red zone day.
We’d install all of this based on the other team’s tendencies. Every part of that game plan changed for different teams, and that’s why we broke it down into sections. When we got into the game, we’d verify in the first quarter that that’s exactly what the defense is trying to do, and we’d get a feel for how they’re going to call the game.
I specifically remember one game during my rookie year: In all of the film we’d watched to that point, our opponent had played a "Tampa-2," which means two high safeties. And all of a sudden, they came out playing "post-safety", which means one safety in the middle of the field and man coverage across the board.
Well, our game plan was set up with a bunch of Tampa-2 beaters, because that’s what we had watched on film. That’s what we prepared for all week.
So, at halftime, we went in and scratched the whole game plan. Bill said, ‘Look, this is what we’re doing. This is what we’ve got to do in order to match what they’re doing.’ And he went up to the whiteboard and wrote out new plays.
After that, we knew the different plays and concepts that we were going to move forward with in the second half. We came out and had a great second half and won the game.
Most teams will try to talk about situational football, because that’s what we do for a living. But I’ve never been anywhere else where I’m going through dry runs of two-minute drills in the offseason while Josh McDaniels is yelling different situations at me.
In New England, no situation is that overwhelming, because somehow, some way, it's something that we’ve covered at some point. So, when things come up in the game, you don't need to have this elaborate discussion on the sideline. It’s an understanding that everybody has already repped and gone through this.
That's what separates this group from the rest of the league.
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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