That unit’s dominance has been borderline supernatural through the team’s 7-0 start. New England leads the league in most defensive categories after allowing 14 points or fewer in each of its games this fall. And that moniker was especially appropriate after Bill Belichick’s team threw so much at Jets quarterback Sam Darnold that he claimed he was “seeing ghosts” by the second quarter in Week 7:
So how do you get a quarterback who’d put together one of his finest games as a pro in a win over the Cowboys to collapse like a dying star one week later in a 33-0 shellacking?
The Patriots have a plan to spook opposing quarterbacks.
Step 1: Dial up blitzes on clear passing downs
Belichick’s defensive strategy was clear from New York’s first possession. If the Jets were in a passing situation, a blitz was coming.
New England didn’t need stunts or subterfuge to confuse New York’s offensive line. It just sent more defenders than the Jets had blockers, then watched as Darnold lost his composure in the ensuing chaos. This was his very first dropback of the game:
the Patriots might blitz Sam Darnold 1,000 times pic.twitter.com/nk0gLfxk1J— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) October 22, 2019
An empty backfield left four prospective receivers and six blockers in front of Darnold. The Patriots single-covered those wideouts and sent everyone else, including safety Duron Harmon, meaning at least one player would have a mostly free run at the young quarterback.
Once the play started, both Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower got through the line untouched to force Darnold into a bad decision. A split second later, Devin McCourty had his fifth interception of the season and the offense had the ball inside the New York red zone.
This happened again early in the second quarter, only this time Darnold didn’t even have a chance to get a pass off:
Van Noy's TD run didn't count, but let's not ignore the fact that if not for the lucky clash of feet the Patriots would have scored a touchdown because the Jets' offense doesn't know how tackles work pic.twitter.com/Gz2fHe3Fnd— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) October 22, 2019
An empty backfield meant an extra rusher for New England. The Patriots defensive backs allowed a little more cushion for a short pass, but it didn’t matter. John Simon came through completely unblocked for a strip sack and the Jets narrowly avoided giving up one of the league’s most embarrassing fumble return touchdowns of the year.
At this point, the Patriots had taken up residence in Darnold’s head. Not only was he seeing receivers that didn’t exist and throwing to routes his actual targets were never meant to run, his accuracy had been shredded to hamster bedding by the mere threat of pressure. Even when his wideouts broke free from New England’s press coverage, he couldn’t get the ball to them.
Here’s his footwork on that first interception (where he’s facing seven guys) vs. his footwork on his fourth and final one (this time against a four-man rush):
That latent nervousness at the threat of being sacked won’t translate against more veteran passers. Fortunately for them, the Patriots have an elegant complement to their violent pass rush.
Step 2: Trust your defensive backs to handle man coverage near the line of scrimmage without safety help
Those blitzes that damned Darnold were the result of Cover-0 defensive packages that left every receiver locked into single coverage. New England can do this thanks to a versatile group of defensive backs who’ve been able to handle pretty much anything that’s been thrown at them.
High-profile stars like Stephon Gilmore and Devin McCourty have paired with less familiar faces like Jonathan Jones and J.C. Jackson to create a blanket of coverage. Through seven weeks, this defense has allowed only a single passing touchdown, hauled in 18 interceptions, and held opponents to a 35.6 passer rating — four points lower than if an opposing QB went 0-of-20 with no interceptions every Sunday.
That allows Belichick to get creative with his blitzes, even if his selection against the Jets was a rather academic affair. The team’s corners snuck up to the line of scrimmage in press coverage knowing that a flooding pass rush would likely force a quick shot and limit the distance their targets could cover downfield. The Patriots are daring opposing quarterbacks to fire off passes into a tight windows because their defensive backs have the green light to jump routes as soon as the ball’s in the air.
Or, as Pats Pulpit’s Taylor Kyles put it:
The Patriots are just toying with Darnold. DBs are waiting for him to let it go quickly against these blitzes and attacking the ball in the air before receivers even know it’s out of the QB’s hand— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) October 22, 2019
That’s been the backbone of the New England defense, and eight different players have used it to haul in interceptions in 2019; 15 players have at least one pass defensed.
Step 3: Strength in numbers
One of my early-season concerns about the Patriots was how the defense would operate after the loss of Trey Flowers’ dynamic pass rush. No one player in the trenches took up as much of an opponent’s gameplanning spotlight as the do-it-all lineman who left for the Lions in free agency. I thought this would limit the damage the rest of the defense could do as blockers shifted their focus elsewhere.
This was incorrect.
New England has gotten major contributions from established Pro Bowlers, rookie debutantes, and players who had to claw their way to a roster spot alike. The team’s front seven has yet to showcase any glaring weakness in its pass rush. The following players each have at least two sacks through seven games:
- Van Noy
- Chase Winovich
- Michael Bennett
- Danny Shelton
- Adam Butler
The Patriots aren’t collapsing pockets because one guy is breaking through protection; they’re doing it because a handful of guys are. New England’s defense is a swarm, and that’s taking away lanes for opposing passers to run through to daylight in the midst of a dominant start.
Still, the Patriots have plenty to prove, even if they rank No. 1 in scoring defense, yards allowed, yards allowed per play, opponent passer efficiency, and about a dozen other categories. The question now is whether it can continue against tougher competition.
Step 4: Figure out if this can work against a quarterback who’s actually good in 2019
New England has fielded the league’s scariest defense through seven weeks, but it has done so against a lineup of underwhelming opponents.
Six of the Patriots’ victories this season have come over teams with two wins or fewer. The one team with a winning record — the 5-1 Bills — start the notoriously uneven Josh Allen at quarterback. He and Week 1 opponent Ben Roethlisberger are the only two QBs New England has faced with winning career records as starters.
It’s not especially surprising Belichick has found a way to baffle players like Luke Falk, Colt McCoy, Daniel Jones, and the 2019 version of Ryan Fitzpatrick. It’s going to be a lot more challenging to do the same over the team’s next six games.
Baker Mayfield, next man up to face the Pats in a Week 8 showdown in Cleveland, may lead the league in interceptions, but covering Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry is an entirely different challenge than a Robby Anderson-Demaryius Thomas combination. After that, the Patriots have Lamar Jackson and the Ravens. If Jackson can escape the pressure of a Cover-0 blitz, he’ll absolutely feast in the space created when his wideouts push New England’s secondary downfield and there’s no linebacker (or, more likely, safety) waiting as a spy in the second level.
The back end of the schedule is filled with more passers who can escape pressure, buy time, and take shots. Dates against 2016 draft class standouts Carson Wentz (Eagles) and Dak Prescott (Cowboys) follow in Weeks 11 and 12. The AFC’s race for homefield advantage will kick into high gear when the Texans and Chiefs bring likely MVP candidates into matchups in Weeks 13 and 14.
Deshaun Watson has a career 76.5 passer rating (and three interceptions) in two prior games against lesser Patriots defenses. Even though his offensive line has been its typically unimpressive self, he’s still having the most impactful and efficient season of his young career so far and remains one of the league’s toughest QBs to contain.
Patrick Mahomes remains Patrick Mahomes, and while he’s currently dealing with a dislocated kneecap, he’s slated to be healthy before he travels east to Foxborough in December. The Patriots held him in check for two quarters last year to start the AFC title game. He played six other quarters against Belichick’s defense last season and threw seven touchdowns.
New England isn’t as scary as Darnold made it seem, but it’s still loaded with a million different ways to derail a quarterback’s best-laid plans. When every part of that unit moves together, it creates a fast-moving horde that can overwhelm blockers, shut down wideouts, and make quarterbacks see specters.
That’s been incredible against some of the league’s least impressive quarterbacks. If the Patriots want to make it to their fourth straight Super Bowl, that defense will have to stand up against good passers, too.