FOXBORO -- Soon after the Patriots took the practice field on Thursday, the defensive backs were put through a drill that reporters haven't seen much of this season.
One by one, they attacked the backfield as if they were blitzing. When the quarterback rolled to his right, the defenders stayed under control with their arms down until the quarterback lifted his right arm with the football in hand. At that point, the defenders shot up their left hand, like they were closing out on a shooter at the three-point line.
Interesting drill. Hands down, breaking down. Hands come up when the ball does. Not over-pursuing.— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) November 29, 2018
Belichick yesterday: "They run a lot of stretch runs with the boots off it. Kirk’s really good at that. He’s good at throwing on the run." https://t.co/tCpCssVIxt
The Vikings, as Bill Belichick detailed Wednesday, frequently utilize that type of play-action play with quarterback Kirk Cousins faking a stretch run to the left, then rolling back to his right to pass.
"They run a lot of play-action passes," Belichick said. "They’re very good at that. They run a lot of stretch runs with the boots off it. Kirk’s really good at that. He’s good at throwing on the run. He’s quick and he’s athletic to get out of the pocket and he gets outside, throws the ball well, makes good decisions, so that’s a problem."
So it makes sense as to why the Patriots would work on stopping it. But why have the defensive backs so deep into the backfield?
Well, they've been a part of the rush plan. Six Patriots defensive backs have recorded some type of pressure this season, according to Pro Football Focus.
Patrick Chung has seven total pressures, including a sack. Stephon Gilmore recorded a sack late against the Titans in Week 10. On the first play of the second half against the Jets last weekend, both Gilmore and Jason McCourty blitzed off the edge.
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It's not a sign that the Patriots are blitzing significantly more than they did last year (30 percent in 2018 versus 28 percent in 2017, per PFF). But, if it's not a frequent choice by defensive play-caller Brian Flores, it is a relatively consistent part of the Patriots plan to occasionally send a smaller, faster defender after the quarterback.
Not that they'll bring just anyone from the secondary.
"It’s definitely something we evaluate," Flores said earlier this month. "There’s good blitzers, there’s not so good blitzers from the secondary. I think we’ve got a good group here, whether it’s Pat Chung to [Devin] McCourty to Jon Jones to Duron Harmon. I mean, I think we’ve got a good group of guys that can pressure the quarterback.
"It’s not something you can do on every snap, but I think it gives the offense a little bit of a different look, kind of helps us in a variety of ways from a disguise standpoint, from a scheme standpoint. It’s just a different look to the offense. So, as much as we can do that, when we can do it, it’s helpful."
Chung was through the line easily against the Jets when the Patriots brought the house after Josh McCown. As one of the defenders furthest from the play at the snap, he was left alone twice as linemen turned to their responsibilities on the interior first.
He laid out his keys for a successful defensive back blitz recently: "Scheme, No. 1. Trust that everyone else is doing their job so that you can come free. And being under control."
That last point is critical.
"It's seven-on-seven NFL now and the quarterbacks can run," Chung said. "So you have to be under control . . . You're running full speed and you think he doesn't see you, and then he moves."
The risk, of course, is the numbers sacrificed in coverage. This week, for example, will the Patriots be comfortable bringing someone like Gilmore off the edge and then leaving a receiver like Stefon Diggs to work on a safety or a linebacker?
Flores knows he and Belichick have to pick their spots. But when they do ask their defensive backs to pressure, a rare sack opportunity might give them a jolt.
"You're cover, cover, cover," Chung said. "Then they say go blitz, and you're like, 'Yeah!' "
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