Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The enigma of the Patriots' defense...

While Bill Belichick has never been given to hyperbole, a victory against the Colts would surely have brought a smile even to his perpetually morose face had the fourth quarter not made the game as tight as it did. New England’s defense is undoubtedly two things: young and talented. Yet they’re also prone to lapses of complete non-aggression on a scale that Gandhi would’ve been proud of.

The beginning of the game started fortuitously for the Patriots as an Indianapolis penalty on the kickoff ensured Peyton Manning would start at his own 11 yard line. Sure enough, the Colts started in their traditional no huddle and did a good job (initially) of keeping the yardage short, hitting Austin Collie on in-cuts and running with Donald Brown.

Problems arose for the Colts only when the 3rd down yardage became long. On a 3rd and 6 at the New England 46 yard line, Peyton encountered something that he doesn’t normally run into: pressure up the middle.

The pictures below illustrate the best of New England’s defense. In this play, Belichick went with a Nickel Defense (four linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs). To help with the picture (which is admittedly out of focus thank you very much NFL Network on Itunes), I’ve color-coded their secondary.

In red are the two cornerbacks (Devin McCourty on the top of the screen and Kyle Arrington on the bottom) as well as safety-turned-nickel-back Patrick Chung (lined up in the slot). The linebackers (Jerod Mayo on the bottom covering Jacob Tamme and Gary Guyton in a middle zone) are highlighted yellow.

Notice how at this point in the play Peyton has received the ball and is ideally placed to survey the field, unencumbered by any pass-rush since New England elected not to bring a blitz. His first read is toward the bottom of the screen looking for either the tight end (Tamme) or wide receiver Reggie Wayne. 

Knowing that Indi needs only a short completion to get the first down, New England has five defenders in tight coverage at this point in the play (negating the quick throws Peyton loves so much). So far, New England is winning the play with their secondary.

Only a few moments have passed since the first picture but already you can see the fruitful efforts of defensive tackle Mike Wright (with the yellow dot over his head). Though unheralded, Wright is good at doing exactly what he’s accomplished in this play: destroying the pocket by simply bull-rushing his blocker.

Peyton’s ability to step into his throw is completely stunted and his feet are more perpendicular than parallel (in other words, he can’t get the required zip on his passes). This is perfect for the defense because while New England still has everyone covered at this point in the play, their short zones fail to prevent a medium route that gets between the deep coverage and the underneath coverage.

As it turned out, Peyton tried to throw to this exact route (a medium crossing route to Blair White who can be seen running on the far left of the picture.) However, since his feet weren’t properly set, he got too much loft on the throw and it sailed into the arms of Brendon Meriweather for an early interception.

Basically, New England’s secondary won the first part of the play and their pass-rush won the second part. Each unit needed to execute and they both did, because neither could succeed without the other. Had the coverage failed, Peyton would have fired underneath right after receiving the ball. Had the rush failed, he would have had too much time and found the holes in New England’s zone.

Yet New England’s defense is far too inconsistent, and especially their pass-rush goes through spells where they create no pressure at all. This is particularly disturbing when it happens even as they blitz. The priority of fixing this became all too clear at the end of the first half when Peyton drove the Colts down the field and faced a 2nd and 10 at the Patriots’ 11 yard line with seven seconds left in the half.

Notice the difference in the picture here and the picture from before. Instead of shrinking the pocket, New England defensive linemen are perfectly contained (their defensive tackles are stuck almost at the line of scrimmage). 
Peyton’s able to set his feet perfectly and step into the throw (which was a perfect fade into the corner for a touchdown to Reggie Wayne). Even though the coverage was tight (and actually Brandon Meriweather probably should have made a play on the ball) Peyton threaded the needle because, well, he’s Peyton Manning and that’s what he’s on this earth to do.

You can’t let Peyton set in the pocket. It’s as simple as that. You might be able to take away the underneath routes, but the medium and deep ones are unstoppable if he can step into his passes.

Thankfully for the Pats, they don’t play Indianapolis every week, but their defensive woes remain the main argument against them winning the Super Bowl. At some point in the playoffs, a team like the Colts (or possibly the Colts themselves) will force New England to make a stop.

That’s the underlying question with the Patriots: can they get a stop when they absolutely need it? Sure they won the game because of an interception, but can they consistently replicate it? Judging from Bill Belichick’s continual grimaces when the subject of his defense is broached, you don’t have to be a genius to see what he thinks the answer is at this point in the season. It will be interesting to see how this theme progresses because, as has often been the case in the last decade, New England’s play will have major consequences within the AFC.


  1. Solid analysis. Agree on all points about how pocket "shrinkage" affects Peyton Manning worse than when he takes off his Sony 3D glasses. But how come no mention, when talking about the Patriots defence, about their leading (and NFL leading) tackler, Jerod Mayo? He is quietly having a colossal season and could be the difference-maker come snowball time. Shenanigans.


    P.S. Love the visual work here

  2. Haha Sean Paul I was getting up close to 1000 words so I cut it off. I agree Mayo has been a force and has improved in pass defense, but Chung and Wilfork are also guys I'd look it for leadership.
    The other thing that I didn't get to was the play-calling when they're ahead by more than a touchdown in the second half. Making them play a little conservatively (for me) is a mistake with a young unit like this. They might not have given up a 50 touchdown to the Colts but they gave up a 70 yard drive in 2 minutes. That kind of defeats the theory to be conservative if they score that quickly. I think they should keep bringing blitzes more often on 1st and especially 2nd downs...

  3. This is probably my favorite thing you've written man. You know your football and I love the use of the pictures. Patriots D will surely get tested this week (at Chicago) and next (vs. Green Bay).