The Patriots have let opposing teams back into the game many times this season- the Bengals made a second half comeback at the expense of Darius Butler, the Chargers came within a false start of tying the game, the Steelers made a 4th quarter push and the Colts were within one terrible Peyton Manning decision of losing the game. After every game, Patriots fans everywhere, especially myself, bemoan the usage of the prevent defense. However, after the Colts game, Bill Belichick had an interesting statement to make:
How much did the defense change between the first three quarters and the last 10 minutes?
I’d say probably just the overall execution. There weren’t any new calls. Just tried to disguise what we did, mix it up. They beat us on a couple things. In the end, we were able to make the play. We were able to make some plays early in the game. I think it was just one of those games where you don’t want to let them know what you’re trying to do. You disguise it. Just want to keep trying to mix it up.
Did you go to a prevent defense with a 17-point lead?
No. We played the way we played the whole game. … We missed some tackles. He made a great throw there on the middle read for the last touchdown. They had a good play on the pop pass where he faked the run and hit the slot over the middle. They had some good plays. We had some good plays. Luckily, we just had a couple more than they did.
Oh, really? The defense didn't go into prevent defense? I guess by the actual definition of "prevent defense" the Patriots didn't use the formation of 7 defensive backs. If Coach Bill says they didn't use prevent defense, I guess I'll listen and agree with him. So for current and future reference- no, the Patriots are not using the prevent defense. I'll stop complaining about the Patriots using prevent defense when they allow opposing teams back into the game.
After further research, I was expecting to my my new statement to be, "Hey, stop playing soft coverage." Instead, I'll say, "Hey, coaches...carry on."
Here are some examples:
Go to time 2:30 in this highlight video. The Patriots had just given up an onside kick and the Chargers were within 10 points. This technically isn't the prevent defense. But look at the linebackers- they're playing 9 yards deep. The corners are still playing a reasonable 5 yards off their receivers. Where are the two safeties? Unseen until 2:40 in the video as they were playing 20 yards down the field.
What happens? Well, the receivers run by the cornerbacks who are covering them. This leaves the cornerbacks covering underneath. The plan is that the safeties are playing over the top to take away the deep pass. That's the plan. But what actually happens? A pocket is created around the receivers. The safeties are too deep to make a play on the receiver, leaving space for the quarterback to thread the ball and move the chains. The safeties aren't getting in position to make plays on the ball or even to prevent the quarterback from throwing in the first place. Any above average quarterback can complete the pass with such soft coverage over the top.
In fact, I think the defense would be better off with the cornerbacks playing 7-8 yards deeper off the receivers and the safeties playing only 15 yards deep. This prevent mid-range pass pockets from creating and forces opposing teams to take only 5 yard passes at a time, as opposed to taking the 20 yard pockets down the field.
Here's the Steelers highlights from 2:47 onward. From the Steelers first fourth quarter drive, it's clear than the Patriots are using a similar defense to the one against the Chargers. Safeties are deep and the corners are playing close man. Go to exactly 3:00 in the video. There, Mike Wallace of the Steelers catch the ball over the top in a pocket with safeties too far away. He picks up yards after the catch and moves the chains easily.
What happens on the James Sanders interception? Ben Roethlisberger throws underneath. Instead of taking advantage of the space over the top, the Steelers decide to run a route inside into traffic. The Patriots defensive back, I'm pretty sure Pat Chung, is able to get a hit and James Sanders is able to run into position to get the ricochet. The Patriots were utilizing a 3 safety set, with Sergio Brown on the tight end Heath Miller. Halfway through the video, you get to see where Sanders is playing. He's 15 yards down the field. Devin McCourty was playing contain and routed the receivers to the inside. Sanders is close enough, after the reroute, to head towards the targeted receiver.
The Patriots should try and utilize this style of defense more frequently. They should have cornerbacks on outside contain, not underneath contain. They should try and reroute the opposing receivers to the middle of the field and closer to the safeties where the safeties can make more plays on the ball.
Colts highlights, starting from 3:40. The Colts are down 10 and the Patriots have their corners playing 5 yards off their man and the safeties are over 15 yards deep. Receivers are allowed to dictate the routes and are all given free releases. There is actually really good coverage by all the corners, but Pierre Garcon routes a hitch route than Manning throws him a jump ball to catch. Devin McCourty was actually in good position to stop the play- he was playing underneath like how all Patriots corners play late in the game. The only difference is that he overruns the route as Garcon hitches and Manning is able to hit Garcon as McCourty runs past him. There's a clear improvement in all of the coverage by the cornerbacks. The improvement needed is for the receivers to be rerouted. If the corners can stay as close to their receivers as they were in the Colts game, while also rerouting their receivers and moving them where they want, opposing quarterbacks won't be able to anticipate where their receivers will be.
Later, with the Colts down 3, the Colts once again drive down the field. However, the corners are still playing fantastic coverage. The Colts are able to pick up large chunks of yardage the same way they gained yards at the end of the first half- poor tackling by the Patriots. The Patriots are not playing prevent at all. In fact, they're playing close man coverage. The corners have developed so much over the season that they're in position to succeed on plays. It's just a combination of pin-point accuracy from Manning to put the ball where only the receiver can catch it with poor tackling by the corners that allowed the Colts to move the ball. If Arrington makes the tackle at the end of the first half, the Colts will be much more hard pressed to score before time runs out. If Jacob Tamme isn't able to slink out of a tackle for an additional 7 yards and get out of bounds, the Colts might be further away from the field goal on the final drive.
What happens on the game sealing interception? You know how I was saying that opposing quarterbacks were throwing in the bubbles created by the corners playing underneath and the safeties playing over the top? Well, Sanders was sitting right in the receiver's bubble. The Patriots' safeties are never in this position in soft coverage and Sanders disguised his role and put him in a spot where Manning wasn't expecting him- right on his man.
Just watching game tape of games over the course of the season, it's clear to see the improvement in play by the cornerbacks. Where they used to be giving up lots of space over the top, now they're hugging the hips of opposing receivers. They still must improve on rerouting the receivers to take away the over-the-top pass, just as the safeties must work on reading the quarterback's eyes to be in position to make a play on the ball- just like Sanders. The defense is clearly improving.
I have to give half of a shout out to patriotguy2. After the Colts game, he was the only one not blaming the defensive scheme for the scare, but the effectiveness of the defense. He's right. It's not the fault of the scheme. In fact, the Patriots didn't change their defense at all late in the game. It's the players needing to take the next step in stopping receivers from having free reign. The players are improving. They need to reroute receivers to the inside to best utilize the deep help of the safeties. There's definitely room for improvement.
So when the defense lines up late in the game, with a big lead, it's up to the players to stand their ground. The scheme's putting them in position to do so. It's on the players to execute and stop opposing offenses. The players need to stay on the same page as their coaches in order for the defense to succeed because the coaches are drawing plays where the players are in position to thrive.
So here's a message to the players: "Step up your game. Move the receivers."
And here's a message to the coaches: "...carry on."