On Thursday, I broke down the New England Patriots on offense, highlighting the play of quarterback Tom Brady and how their scheme may look without tight end Rob Gronkowski dominating the middle of the field. For the purpose of this piece, I wanted to examine the defensive side of the football and what makes this team so tough to move the ball against.
The versatility and multiplicity you see from New England on offense is mirrored on defense. At any time you may see the Patriots line up in any of a wide array of defensive fronts with different personnel groupings. This is a subpackage team, with lots of different combinations of nickel and dime personnel sets that keep offenses guessing. Up front, they mix up the location of their pass rushers routinely and their ability to come at you in waves makes them very effective.
The number one name you need to be aware of is Chandler Jones, one of the most productive edge rushers in the NFL. With 10.5 sacks on the year, the former first-round pick is having one of his best seasons as a pro. His combination of length and athleticism makes him a tough matchup for offensive linemen.
Look at this play against rookie tackle Ereck Flowers of the New York Giants. This is why length can be such a great trait for defensive linemen. Jones puts his left arm right into Flowers' chest on this bull rush. By using just his left arm and keeping his body positioned the way it is, the tackle has a small target area to get his hands in to actually block him. Jones uses his athleticism to bend his knees and drive the rookie back into Eli Manning's lap, and then uses his free hand to knock the ball out and force a turnover in the red zone. This was a fantastic play by Jones to maximize his length and turn it into a huge play for the defense.
Here against Buffalo, you can see Jones' quickness and burst come into play. He fires off the ball hard, then he stutters to get the left tackle to break down. Jones then flies past him on this inside counter move to bring the quarterback down for the sack.
New England likes to send pressure when they can, this time sending a Triple A-gap blitz at the Bills. This is a good example of that third rusher not always being the man who comes up with the sack. When the left guard sees the rusher coming into the A gap, he leaves his man to pick him up, thinking he has help behind him from the running back. No one is there to pick up the guard's initial responsibility, linebacker Dont'a Hightower, and he gets the quarterback for the sack. This was a good example of attacking opposing protections, and this blitz Sunday night is another one.
New England was very effective at sending linebackers up the A gap on delayed blitzes against Denver, something Greg Cosell highlighted in this week’s Advance Scouting piece. This wasn't a delayed blitz, but this was a great example of game planning from defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. New England expected the Broncos to slide the protection right. With two potential rushers to the left, the Patriots have isolated linebacker Jonathan Freeny on a running back. One of those potential rushers from the left side drops out into coverage, meaning two Denver offensive linemen are left to block just one defender, and Freeny gets in scot-free on the back, wins his matchup and brings Brock Osweiler down for the sack.
Freeny is explosive and really flashed in Sunday night's game against the Broncos, but New England expects Jamie Collins back at the linebacker position this week. Collins, a former first-round pick, has missed the last four games due to an illness, but is one of the freakiest defenders in the league because of his athleticism and burst in the open field. As you can see on this blitz against the Cowboys, he's got the ability to close quickly on the ball, and he is someone the Eagles' offensive line must be prepared for in the structure of the pressure scheme.
Wherever you look on this defensive front, there are former first-round picks. Jones, Collins and Jerod Mayo are all impact players on this team. Up front, they've added a pair of first-round picks in consecutive years who are also beginning to hit their stride.
Last year's first-round pick, Dominique Easley, is quick, powerful and has the ability to penetrate into the backfield because of his unique first-step quickness. He then has the burst to close on opposing quarterbacks, as he does here against the Colts.
This year's first-round pick, Malcom Brown, fell further than many analysts thought in the NFL Draft, dropping to the Patriots with the last pick of the first round. Bill Belichick jumped at the chance to add another disruptive force inside, and the rookie from Texas likely had his best game of the season against the Broncos on Sunday night.
I mentioned earlier that this is a subpackage defense, and that they play a lot of nickel and dime. As you likely know, "nickel" means you play with five defensive backs on the field. "Dime" means you have six. Well, I've seen the Patriots play a good amount of "dollar" as well, with seven defensive backs on the field in certain situations. On this sack from Rob Ninkovich, the Patriots had the Broncos' receivers completely bottled up in the secondary. Osweiler had nowhere to go with the football, forcing him to break the pocket before being brought down by Ninkovich near the sideline. This Patriots defense is fast, disruptive and very multiple. There is a lot for the Eagles' offense to prepare for on Sunday afternoon.
Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team's games, practices and opponents.