FOXBORO -- The Patriots defense underwent a bit of a transformation this offseason. Not only did the coaching staff on that side of the ball undergo myriad changes, but the personnel plan shifted as well.
They decided to shrink.
Not everywhere. But on the edge of their defense they got smaller. Out went Trey Flowers (265 pounds) via free agency. Adrian Clayborn (280) said so long. In came the likes of Jamie Collins (255) and Chase Winovich (250). To the edge on more of a full-time basis went Kyle Van Noy (250).
In training camp it was evident: In their base packages, the Patriots became more of a 3-4 team, accentuating their depth and talent at the linebacker position. Even well before the season, they looked like a well-oiled machine as they ran through a rotation of versatile edge defenders that included Van Noy, Collins, Winovich, John Simon, Shilique Calhoun and occasionally Dont'a Hightower.
They even split their linebacker room into two: Inside linebackers were coached by Jerod Mayo; outside linebackers were coached by DeMarcus Covington.
The results thus far, with an athletic and versatile group of "second-level" defenders who often play right on the line of scrimmage in two-point stances, have been historically good. And this week that group will be put to the test as they see their first truly athletic quarterback in Bills passer Josh Allen. Though raw and prone to poor decision-making at times, Allen provides distinct challenges with his legs that Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Luke Falk did not.
Bill Belichick hasn't openly told us that a shift toward more athletic outside linebackers on the edge of his defense is to combat the wave of athletic signal-callers strewn throughout the league, but it would make sense if that was part of his thinking. Consider the players the Patriots will face during the challenging five-game stretch of their season later this year from Weeks 9-14: Baltimore's Lamar Jackson, Philadelphia's Carson Wentz, Houston's Deshaun Watson, Dallas' Dak Prescott and Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes. All can both pick up yardage with their legs as well as extend plays to find teammates deep down the field.
The Patriots have for years wanted to keep those types of players in the pocket in order to limit the potential for explosive plays that result from scramble-drills throws, and that'll be the case once again this weekend.
"He's a sixth receiver option for them on third down," Belichick said this week. "Really any down because he's very good running with the ball. But he's just as dangerous to extend the plays, buy more time for the receivers to get open and then they make a big play down the field."
At 6-5, 245 pounds, Allen is a unique challenge and looks more like a tight end than a quarterback when he's carrying the ball in the open field. According to Pro Football Focus, he has more scrambles this year than any quarterback (13). He's only one rush attempt (scrambles plus designed runs) behind Jackson with 26, and he's second behind Jackson in terms of rushing yardage (105).
Allen has been more accurate this year than he was as a rookie, ranking sixth in the NFL in Pro Football Focus' adjusted completion percentage (81.3), but he still struggles in certain situations. There are only three quarterbacks in the league who's thrown more "turnover worthy" passes, per PFF.
Allen has faced pressure on almost 40 percent of his dropbacks this season, but on those plays, his athleticism has helped him avoid sacks; of the 48 snaps on which he's been pressured, only five has resulted in sacks. He averages 6.8 yards per attempt under pressure with two touchdowns and one pick. His rating under pressure, 78.7, isn't great but it's not abysmal. Tom Brady's is 80.4.
The numbers would suggest that forcing Allen to stay in the pocket and make good decisions from behind center is probably the better approach than trying to flush him off his spot. From a clean pocket, according to PFF, he's completing 72.3 percent of his passes (18th in the NFL) and he has a rating of 86.1 (24th). That rating is less than 10 points better than when he's under pressure. Brady is 47 points better when working from a clean pocket.
"Big arm, can make all of the throws," Mayo said of Allen on Tuesday. "I mean, honestly, you see him throw off his back foot 60 yards down the field, so you definitely have to take care of the deep part of the field. But then you look at his legs, right? You look at this guy making plays, running around. You have to account for him in the run game.
"It’s not like a Michael Vick as far as that 4.3 speed, but he’s one of those crafty guys – he’s only in his second year, but very crafty as far as moving throughout the pocket – so it’s definitely going to take all the guys to kind of contain him and make him play from the pocket."
The Patriots did an effective job of surrounding Allen last year in his Week 16 game in New England, limiting him to 30 yards rushing on five carries. They tried to confuse him by showing him man-to-man pre-snap (sending a defender with a motioning receiver) and then playing zone in order to keep eyes on him in the backfield just in case he decided to take off. They also played man-to-man "rat" coverages with a free safety deep and a linebacker lurking in the short-to-intermediate area, the latter having the freedom to spy Allen and make sure he didn't break free for a big gain.
It'd come as little surprise if the Patriots plan was similar again this time around, particularly since their personnel is built for the matchup. Not only do they have faster edge rushers to chase Allen for when he inevitably breaks the pocket. They also have a variety of athletes from which to choose to serve as one of their "rat" defenders.
Hightower would make sense since he's typically starting downs at the second level in the middle of the field. If he's in man coverage on a running back, that might leave Ja'Whaun Bentley or Elandon Roberts to be the "rat."
If the Patriots want to shake things up and make use of that deep outside linebacker room, they could take Van Noy and use him as a spy from his usual spot on the left edge. Collins, the best athlete of the bunch, would make plenty of sense as well since Allen would have trouble winning a foot race with the prodigal Patriot.
Collins has played primarily on the edge in his second go-round in New England. But in his first run with the team, he was often off the line of scrimmage "in the bubble" aligned across from guards. Moving him out into space -- often with lighter tight ends, who he's better suited to physically dominate -- has been beneficial. But "rat" responsibilities would fit his skill set as well.
"I think we all know or have known for quite some time now that Jamie’s a very versatile player," Mayo said. "He has great size, great length, he’s able to do a bunch of different things . . . He’s made a lot of big plays for us thus far. He’s definitely playing the run well. His first stint here, he was more in the bubble and now he’s more on the edge on the early downs, but he’s doing a good job wherever we ask him to play."
On the linebacker group, Mayo added: "These guys are totally different than I was as a player. I was your classic inside linebacker. When you look across the room, you look at all of our linebackers, they’re able to do a lot of different things. Anytime you’re able to have guys who can put their hand in the dirt, who can blitz from off the ball, who can cover from off the ball, it’s always beneficial to the coaching staff."
They should be particularly beneficial this week as they take on a raw but talented athlete at the quarterback position in Buffalo.
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