NFL coaches and commentators routinely talk of “making adjustments.” But what does that really mean? This series of plays from the Patriots’ 30-7 victory over the Vikings illustrates how the Patriots defensive coaching staff makes in-game adjustments.
Minnesota took a 7-0 lead early in the first quarter with an 8-play, 80-yard drive. The final two plays gained 24 and 25 yards respectively, and each employed an unusual formation to fool the Patriots’ defense. Both plays began with motion by wide receiver Cordarelle Patterson into the backfield to create confusion. If you read our “Know Your Enemy: Vikings Offense” preview, you’ll know that Patterson had a key 67-yard touchdown run out of this look. Here he doesn’t get the ball, however; he’s just a decoy.
The Patriots shift into a zone, but receiver Adam Thielen’s route draws defenders Darrelle Revis and Devin McCourty away and opens a hole on the left side. Tight end Rhett Ellison has just 14 career catches in 29 games and was likely not considered a threat by the defenders, adding another level of deception to the Vikings play design. He’s wide open and it’s an easy big gain.
Patterson motions into the backfield again on the very next play and the Vikings fake the ball to him on an end-around.
This time the Patriots stay in man coverage and cornerback Logan Ryan follows Patterson. The defense, including free safety McCourty, shifts towards the left side to defend the end-around, opening space on the back side. The routes on the right side are deep routes calculated to create additional space, as defensive backs Revis and Patrick Chung have to follow their assignments rather than watch the ball. This opens acres of space underneath for running back Matt Asiata. Because McCourty was cheating over to stop the end-around, he is unable to catch Asiata, who takes a short pass 25 yards for the game’s first touchdown.
If using Patterson as a decoy was so successful, why didn’t the Vikings do this all game? The answer can be found in the last play in the first quarter, when Minnesota attempted to use this tactic again.
This time, the secondary makes the right adjustment. Ryan, who was in man coverage on Patterson on the offensive right side, drops to the middle of the field, effectively playing free safety. McCourty charges in to pick up Patterson leaking out of the left side. It’s essentially the same defense as it was pre-snap, just with Ryan and McCourty swapping roles and sides. Revis and Tavon Wilson (in for Chung) stay in man coverage. Patterson is accounted for and there’s safety help deep, so no one has to cheat anywhere to help. Everyone can just do their jobs, and the defense stays fundamentally sound. Since the trickery doesn’t open any holes in the defense, Minnesota is unable to get anyone open, and the New England pass rush hauls down Matt Cassel for a loss of three.
The successful tweak is subtle, but it takes discipline, understanding, and teamwork to make such an adjustment. The tendency is to over-react to a dangerous player like Patterson shifting or going in motion, and as we saw in the first two plays, that can open up holes elsewhere. The Patriots were able to find a tactic that responded to the pre-snap motion but remained fundamentally sound. The results were dramatic – for the rest of the game Cassel was just 14 of 29 passing for 124 yards, throwing three interceptions and getting sacked five more times.
Just because a coach knows what adjustment to make doesn’t mean the players can execute it. The versatility of McCourty and Ryan is key here. McCourty began his career as a corner and Ryan got work at safety in the preseason. This preparation paid off in Week 2, as New England was able to make a quick adjustment and shut down the Vikings offense the rest of the way.
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Dave Archibald knows pass defense, specifically how coverage, the pass rush, excellent cornerbacks, versatile safeties and in-game adjustments can make a big difference.