FOXBORO — Steve Belichick held a small card over his mouth as he spoke into a headset. Jerod Mayo double-checked with him on a call, then DeMarcus Covington did the same. They all stood within shouting distance of Bill Belichick — with Steve the closest — as the Patriots defense stymied Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers on Sunday Night Football.
From our vantage point, it was difficult to make out who was doing what on the Patriots sideline. Was it safeties coach Steve Belichick making the defensive calls? Or was it Mayo, the inside linebackers coach, relaying calls to linebacker Dont'a Hightower while holding a large menu of play-calls on the sideline? Or was it Bill Belichick, who at times was silently flipping through "all-22" still images as his defense aligned?
Though the coaching roles weren't crystal clear through the press box glass, what was obvious was that it was a group effort on the part of the Patriots defensive coaches Sunday. Despite experiencing a massive amount of turnover, the group still held last year's passing yardage leader to three points in the 33-3 win — the same total the Patriots allowed to the Rams in their last meaningful game.
Last year's linebacker coach Brian Flores has moved on to become head coach of the Dolphins, taking former Patriots corners coach Josh Boyer with him. Last year's defensive line coach Brendan Daly is now coaching that position with the Chiefs.
With those coaches on the move, there's no doubt there were improvements to be made on the sidelines this summer as a younger group got adjusted to more responsibility.
But Bill Belichick seemed confident that they were coming along in that regard just before the season began.
"Yeah, we're making progress," Belichick said at the time. "I think we're certainly sharper than we were — that wasn't very sharp."
On the sidelines Sunday, the Belichicks, Mayo, Convington (outside linebackers coach) and Bret Bielema (defensive line coach) all stood in a row, all with headsets on, signaling to each other and their players throughout the night. In between series, they huddled up — with Belichick seemingly leading the discussion — to quickly reconvene and hash out any adjustments.
Meanwhile, Patriots defensive players — many of whom have been in Belichick's system for years at this point — tried to do as much in-between-series recon they could as well.
"I think because of the experience we have in the secondary, when we're over there talking it's guys playing so many different roles that we're just discussing whatever it was," Devin McCourty said. "So when the next guy's in a different role, and he's in a role that a guy just came from, we can talk about this so they know what to expect.
"I thought that showed up throughout the game, us just continuing to talk and try to get things on the same page. They gave us some things that we kind of talked about, maybe, and we just did a good job of getting on the same page on every play. A lot of that comes from just being able to talk on the sideline.
"You'll see sometimes, the whole coaching staff is still meeting, talking about the last series and we're over there, Jay [Jason McCourty]'s holding the [Microsoft] Surface and we're going over it on our own because we've got a lot of guys that have played here for a
When Belichick was done meeting with his assistants, he went back to his spot on the sidelines to watch the offense and the assistants met with their players to dispense whatever had been discussed.
The flow of information on the sideline was steady as the coverage was tight for the Patriots on Sunday. And they got enough of a pass-rush that Roethlisberger and his teammates never could get into a rhythm.
For coaches like Mayo and Steve Belichick, having an important role in the overall function of the defense means they've come a long way. Late in Mayo's career, when he landed on injured reserve, he and Belichick used to spend hours in what Belichick called his "QC dungeon" — where quality control coaches spent their time breaking down tape and learning the game.
Players don't want to say who's calling the plays, though several indicated it would be Mayo this summer. Whether it's Mayo or Steve Belichick or someone else, communication is clearly the focus for that section of the staff at the moment. And the early returns are good.
Even their players would tell you that.
"I think the cool thing is that they both have great relationships with the players," McCourty said of Steve Belichick and Mayo. "Maybe it's because they're a lot closer in age to us. All throughout the week we're talking.
"Before drives, Steve's asking us what we like. Even earlier today, just talking about different things that we liked. Same thing with Mayo. So I think the thing that's been great around here is just constant communication. Not just players, but players and coaches just communicating what we like, what we don't like and just making sure we're all on the same page.
"I think that's how you play your best football, is when the guys on the sideline are working well together with all of the guys on the field because we're the guys out there that have got to make the plays."
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