Even the best laid pressure schemes of a defensive coordinator can go awry. Whether because of sound fundamentals in pass protection or a quarterback escaping the pocket to keep a play alive, a blitz that doesn’t hit home quickly can just as easily create a big play for the offense. In those instances, pass coverage and discipline in pass rush principles become critical.
In Week 2, the New England Patriots defense collected eight sacks against quarterback Tyrod Taylor and the Buffalo Bills on their way to a 40-32 win. A contributing factor to the impressive sack total – the Patriots highest tally in a game since the 2003 season – was the defense’s ability to keep the mobile Taylor from extending plays outside the pocket.
Knowing Your Opponent
A well-designed pressure scheme is only as good as the individual execution of the players involved. Early in the second quarter with the Bills looking to convert a 3rd and 2 through the air, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia dialed up a successful blitz aided by near-perfect execution across the board by his defense:
The above-pictured five-man blitz has several moving parts working in unison in an effort to confuse the pass protection, speed up the clock in the quarterback’s head, and keep contain. The two most-integral wrinkles within this pressure scheme involve the robber/spy role played by linebacker Dont’a Hightower (#54) and a line stunt between defensive tackle Malcom Brown (#90) and defensive end Jabaal Sheard (#93).
Covering up left guard Richie Incognito (#64) before the snap, Hightower’s first action post-snap is a step toward the line of scrimmage to entice and briefly occupy the offensive lineman. The linebacker’s pre-snap alignment and initial pass rush step has a domino effect. First, it allows linebacker Jamie Collins (#91) to shoot through the B gap unimpeded and forces running back LeSean McCoy (#25) to pick him up. It also appears to distract the LG just enough to allow time for Sheard to loop around Brown on the tackle-end game and penetrate the slightly ajar A gap.
Execution Goes Both Ways
However, as Hightower begins his drop into coverage over the short middle, Buffalo thwarts the interior pass rush threats through proper reads and quick reactions. McCoy delivers a jarring block on the hard-charging Collins, neutralizing the linebacker’s efforts into the backfield. At about the same time, Incognito swiftly pivots back toward center to find the oncoming Sheard and forces the defender to retreat.
With the most immediate pass rush threats stalled, this game of chess now hinges on Taylor’s first read and the New England secondary. It appears the QB’s first option is tight end Charles Clay (#85) on a quick out just beyond the first down marker. But the Patriots, playing Cover 1, have each receiver locked down in man coverage:
With Taylor’s first read taken away (and McCoy unavailable as an outlet receiver because of his blitz pick up), the QB begins to look for a rush lane, especially with defensive end / outside linebacker Chandler Jones (#95) starting to collapse the pocket from the backside. As Taylor pans to his right, a running lane appears between his guard and tackle:
Since all the receivers in routes are to the left of Taylor, the short side of the field is largely defender-free and can be exploited for a significant gain on the ground if the QB can escape the pocket. As Taylor starts to scramble, Hightower even slips from his robber position underneath, greatly reducing the linebacker’s chance to track down the QB if he breaks contain.
Respond To The Passer
Defensive end / outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich (#50), aligned in the same 9 technique as Jones before the snap, rushes the passer with a contain-first mentality. Working to stay at an even level with or just above the QB, Ninkovich’s main objective is to funnel any scramble his way back inside. The positioning of the DE, more so than his actual penetration into the backfield, deters Taylor from running his way. The rush lane inside remains open, though not for long:
Emerging from a mass of bodies, Sheard – initially stymied by the line stunt – remains active and disciplined. The defender works his way back into the play, responds to the passer’s movements in the pocket and fills the rush lane he initially he occupied at the start.
From there, Sheard remains patient as Taylor approaches, forcing the QB to cut wide and around Ninkovich who is still engaged with right tackle Seantrel Henderson (#66). Sheard stays in front of the QB, mirroring his movements and spilling him wider, while Jones closes in from the backside to drag down Taylor for the loss.
While Jones recorded the sack – his first of three in the game – the entire defensive unit played a role in preventing the third down conversion. Specifically, Ninkovich’s rush-contain, Sheard’s awareness and discipline as well as safety Patrick Chung’s tight coverage on Clay were all essential in keeping Taylor flummoxed in the pocket.
Following the game, head coach Bill Belichick was far from thrilled with his defense and their consistency in containing Taylor and limiting his scramble plays throughout the contest, especially late in the game as the Bills mounted a comeback. But when the Patriots defense remained disciplined in their pass rush principles, as noted by the coach, good results generally followed.
In Week 3 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the New England defense will again be challenged by a quarterback in Blake Bortles that can extend plays outside the pocket. Pressure schemes and blitz designs that emphasis rush lane integrity, such as the one described above, will be a coaching point throughout the week and an important component to defending the Jaguars offense on Sunday.
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Brian Filipiak knows about proper blocking technique, the basics of run defense, how to defeat an overload, and the point-of-attack.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.