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.

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"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. 

Preseason action "always beneficial for Rob Gronkowski, but will he play Friday?

Preseason action "always beneficial for Rob Gronkowski, but will he play Friday?

FOXBORO -- When there was an obsession over Patriots workloads earlier in camp, it felt for some reason like a new phenomenon. And maybe it was as it related to Tom Brady. But he's 41 now. He took more time off in the spring than he's used to. His reps in certain practices were obviously scaled back. 

The reaction was predictable.  

But when it comes to dissecting workloads and overanalyzing snap counts, that's par for the course when it comes to Rob Gronkowski. The game's top tight end has also long been one of its most injury-prone, making his summertime participation in Patriots practices and preseason games one of the most intriguing parts of camp on a year-in, year-out basis. 

Though Gronkowski finished last season contemplating retirement, he also finished it relatively healthy. That means there's no reading into how well he's cutting or planting or making mid-air adjustments to back-shoulder throws in practice in July and August. 

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Gronkowski's preseason game snap counts can always generate discussion, however. And he helped contribute to the chatter on Sunday when he met with reporters at Gillette Stadium and was asked if he found it to be beneficial when he saw playing time in exhibition games No. 2 and 3 last year.

"I mean, it’s always beneficial whenever you go out there in the preseason," he said. "You want to go out there, get the timing down, get some live reps. So, just going to prepare like a normal game this week like I’m playing, and then it’s up to the coaches."

That Gronkowski played at all last preseason was a veer from the norm for him. The 46 snaps he saw (14 against the Texans, 32 against the Lions) were his first preseason plays since 2012. He ended up being named a First Team All-Pro and helping his team to the Super Bowl. His argument, then, that "it's always beneficial" to play in preseason games may have some merit. 

But in reality, his preseason workload has been a less-than-stellar gauge for how his season will play out. Consider this. Gronkowski didn't see time in any preseason games in 2013, 2014, 2015 or 2016. Those seasons ended in a torn ACL, a Super Bowl title and an All-Pro nod, an AFC Championship appearance and an All-Pro nod, and back surgery.

Had it not been for hellacious hits from TJ Ward and Earl Thomas, Gronkowski might've been a four-time All-Pro in that four-year stretch of no preseason work. 

Good with preseason snaps. Good without them. 

The Patriots will account for myriad inputs when determining how much Gronkowski should play this preseason, or if he should play at all. The number of snaps he played last season -- his 1,078, including playoffs, were more than any tight end last season -- are part of the equation. How he's responded to the work given in camp thus far could play a role as well. 

If he's going to see any time, odds are it would be this week against the Panthers. But because he played as much as he did last season, because he's not returning from an injury and there's not as much "rust" to shake off as there might've been last summer, it'd come as no surprise if Gronkowski remained on the sidelines Friday night in Charlotte. 

Even if Gronkowski wants to go, the risk and reward of playing him just doesn't seem to add up for the Patriots. If timing is the big benefit . . . well, even Gronkowski admitted his timing with Brady was pretty good if not perfect.

"I mean, I would say we’ve got some good chemistry over the years, but we’re always working on it," he said. "We’re always looking to improve, and we’re always looking to get better."

But does improvement require preseason game action? History would suggest it does not.

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