With no playoff seeding implications involved, the New England Patriots treated Week 17 against the Buffalo Bills like a glorified pre-season game, resting many key contributors and limiting the snaps for most of their remaining starters on both sides of the ball.
An extremely vanilla defensive approach by the Patriots didn’t leave much to dissect after the 17-9 loss to the Bills, but a few wrinkles stood out.
Disrupting the quarterback is the primary strategy when combating opposing passing attacks ‒ and there are a number of tactics a defensive coordinator has at his disposal. Since not every team has a J.J. Watt-type pass rusher on their squad, defenses try to create pressure through scheme instead of relying on skill alone. Even defenses with elite defenders such as Watt understand that offenses will attempt to neutralize their most skilled pass rusher by sliding protection his way and double- or even triple-teaming him.
While sending more than four pass rushers is the most obvious way to generate pressure, it also brings the dangerous side effect of weakening coverage on the back end. The Patriots, who finished the regular season tied for 13th in the NFL with 40 sacks, don’t blitz much when compared to the rest of the league. Despite relying on four-man rushes most often, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has shown creativity in getting to the QB as the season has progressed, scheming pressure with well-disguised blitzes and well-crafted stunts.
Defensive linemen do not simply line up and go straight ahead on every play. In many situations ‒ particularly on passing downs ‒ a defensive coordinator will call for a stunt, which is a series of pre-planned movements by the defensive line in order to attack a specific area and/or blocker, sometimes even dictating how an offensive line will block, opening up rush lanes elsewhere that can be exploited.
While stunts are often combined with blitzes, the pressure concept used by the Patriots shown below utilizes just four rushers.
Facing 3rd and 7, the Bills operate out of the shotgun and empty the backfield. Countering Buffalo’s five receiving options, the Patriots deploy their dime package with four defenders on the line of scrimmage.
Chandler Jones ‒ who shifts inside as a defensive tackle on the play ‒ handles the pre-snap calls to make sure the front is properly set. Once settled, Jones aligns on the inside shoulder of the tackle (4i-technique) while Vince Wilfork positions himself on the outside shoulder of the center (1-technique). Both techniques aim to attack a gap and draw two blockers. On the perimeter, Rob Ninkovich (left) and Akeem Ayers (right) line up wide of tackle:
At the snap, Wilfork (A gap) and Jones (B gap) shoot forward but then slant toward the right. However, penetration into the backfield by either defender is not the main goal. Wilfork attempts to split the guard-center combo block with a swim maneuver, which effectively draws both blockers to stay engaged with the defensive tackle. Jones attacks the gap between the guard and tackle, drawing both blockers his way before sliding further outside.
The designed line stunt to the right by Wilfork and Jones works to create a huge rush lane between the Bills right tackle (engaged by Ninkovich) and right guard (occupied by Wilfork). To exploit this anticipated breakdown in pass protection, Ayers loops behind both interior pass rushers and bursts through the enormous gap virtually untouched for the drive-killing sack.
The defensive call works for many reasons, most notably the ability of Wilfork and Jones to occupy two blockers each. But tight man coverage in the secondary also plays a key role with the only open receiver running a shallow crossing pattern well short of the first down marker. It also helps that quarterback Kyle Orton’s first read appears to be wide receiver Sammy Watkins on a deep comeback route (if a fade route, Orton should have thrown the pass as soon as he completes his drop-back versus Cover 1). With Orton locked on Watkins and waiting for the long-developing break on the route, Ayers has more than enough time to loop around from hashmark to hashmark and bring down the QB.
Creating pressure on a quarterback without sacrificing coverage is the ideal recipe for success for any defense. Heading into the playoffs, the Patriots are likely to remain a defense that will rely mostly on four-man rush concepts and coverage to stop the passing game. Well-designed and perfectly executed line stunts like the one described above can be difference makers, especially when they result in third down stops and an appearance by the opposing punter.
Follow Brian on Twitter @Brian_Filipiak.