Pass Rush and Coverage: Patriots Defensive Concepts

Pass defense takes both individual effort and eleven players working in concert to be successful. The two biggest defensive plays in the New England Patriots win over the Denver Broncos demonstrate how eleven great individual efforts, within the team concepts, can create big plays.

Not Fantasy Football

Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning posted big statistics in Sunday’s game, throwing for 438 yards and two touchdowns while being sacked only once. However, New England head coach Bill Belichick said after the game, “It’s not about a bunch of stats and stats this and stats that. We’re not playing fantasy football here. We’re trying to win.”

The Patriots did just that, prevailing 43-21 over what was the top scoring offense in the NFL. Manning threw two interceptions and converted just 3 of 15 third-and-fourth down situations. As they’ve done in the past, New England showed enough wrinkles to limit the high-flying Denver offense. By using a combination of pressure and solid coverage the Patriots defensive concepts stymied Manning and the Broncos.

Ninkovich Picks Manning

Denver held a 7-6 lead early in the second quarter when Manning made his first critical error, throwing an interception to Rob Ninkovich. The pick set up a New England touchdown and a lead that they would never relinquish.

Ninkovich interception of Manning

Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia drew up a clever rush on this play. They align middle linebackers Dont’a Hightower (#54) and Jamie Collins (#91) in both A-gaps, creating doubt as to whether they’ll rush Manning. Hightower compounds that confusion by taking a couple of steps forward, getting the attention of Broncos center Manny Ramirez (#66) before dropping back into coverage. Collins exploits Ramirez’s hesitation and blows past him to put heat on Manning. Edge rusher Akeem Ayers wins his matchup, and with two free rushers on his blindside,Manning is forced to hurry the pass. According to, Collins and Hightower hurried Manning 8 times in just 24 blitzes; the entire rest of the team tallied just six hurries against the quick-throwing Manning:

Ninkovich interception

Even though the Patriots are sending a middle linebacker, they drop seven into coverage, with Rob Ninkovich (green arrow) dropping into a zone rather than rushing off the edge. The Broncos run a high/low combination, with wideout Emmanuel Sanders (yellow arrow) running a shallow cross and Demaryius Thomas (red arrow) coming over the top. As Ninkovich told ESPN’s Mike Reiss:

“We knew they run a lot of crossing routes, but it’s not the shallow crossing route that is the No. 1 target. It’s the shallow route that pulls you up to get the over routes in there.

He’d rather throw the over than the shallow cross, so you let that [cross] go. [Sanders] ran a quick under and I just knew that he was going throw that over so I just backed straight up and he threw it right to me.”

Ninkovich’s film study paid off and put him in the right place at the right time to jump Thomas’ route. Perhaps given another split-second, Manning would have noticed the veteran dropping into zone, but heat from the Patriots rush scheme forced the quick throw and costly turnover.

Sack on 4th-and-6

Generating pressure on the quarterback hurries throws; blanket coverage on his initial reads helps the pass rush get home. That showed up in a big way on the Patriots’ only sack of the afternoon. With 2:09 left to go in the first half, the Broncos faced 4th-and-6 at the New England 34-yard line. The windy conditions made a field goal risky, and down 20-7 Denver needed points. They decided to go for it.

Ayers 9 yard sack 4th and 6 text

The Patriots rush just three, dropping eight players into coverage. As shown above, seven of those players drop roughly to the first-down marker. There’s tight coverage on the outside receivers and the right slot, and three extra zone defenders to provide help or tackle a throw short of the sticks. There’s nowhere for Manning to go with the pass.

Ayers 9 yard sack 4th and 6 text


Getting solid coverage with eight players doesn’t seem too hard, but how do you get pressure with three? It starts on the offense’s right side, where Dominique Easley gets a strong push against the RG, drawing the attention of Ramirez – even though the RT is available to help. Then, New England runs a “stunt”, with edge rusher Ayers (#55) looping behind Vince Wilfork (#75), who is matched up one-on-one with left guard Orlando Franklin (#74). Wilfork shoves Franklin backward, opening a direct route for Ayers to take down Manning.

Ramirez’s decision to help on Easley leaves him out of position to help with the stunting Ayers. The Patriots are rushing three against five blockers and at the end of the play three of Denver’s offensive linemen – the center and both tackles – aren’t blocking anybody. Manning doesn’t see Ayers until it’s too late, and the former Titan hauls the QB down for a key stop. The loss of nine also puts the offense in great field position for their subsequent touchdown drive, which makes the contest 27-7 at the half.

A Winning Combination

Pressure and coverage go together like peanut butter and jelly, like thunder and lightning, like Jets quarterbacks and turnovers. If a defense has one but not the other, effective pass offenses like Denver’s will pick them apart. Belichick and Patricia faced a big challenge with team sack leader Chandler Jones unavailable due to a hip injury, but they rose to it with schemes like the ones above to pressure Manning while still dropping plenty of defenders into coverage. Peyton had his moments, but the Patriots defense had their share as well, and the end result was a 43-21 victory.

Follow Dave on Twitter @davearchie.

Dave Archibald knows pass defense, specifically how coverage, the pass rush, excellent cornerbacks, versatile safeties and in-game adjustments can make a big difference.

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