Dear Bill Belichick,
I don't want this message to come off as whiny, or as a "heat-of-the-moment" post-game rant. This is something that has been bugging me for a while and needs to be taken care of if you wish to take the Patriots into the playoffs and beyond. The Patriots have only lost five times out of the past two seasons, with one as a shoot-out to the Bills, one to a Dick LeBeau defense, and three to a Ryan defense. Those are all respectable losses, but the issue is not in who the Patriots lost to; it's a matter of how.
Mr. Belichick, I believe that the Patriots need some major adjustments. It was your call to remove cornerback Leigh Bodden from the team, the day before finding out Ras-I Dowling's injury report; that's your prerogative. It's been your call to play wide receiver Chad Ochocinco in front of sophomore Taylor Price, even though Ocho has been a no show for more than cinco games. This is your team and while I may not always understand your actions, I respect your decisions. Those actions, while important, are not what needs to be adjusted.
I'm talking about halftime. I'm talking about between drives. I'm looking at the offense and the defense. Bill, you need to adjust the squad. The defense needs to stop playing such vanilla defense that any respectable quarterback in the league (and there is an increasing number) can post a career-day. The offense needs to stop being so predictable throughout the game and so reliant on a few players. These are changes that must happen not just between games, but all throughout the sixty minutes.
After your loss to the Steelers, you had this to say:
We came in with our game plan. We hit him sometimes and there were plenty of times we didn't.
You have a game plan. I believe your strategy is a lot more fluid than it appears, but adjustments must be made for what's on the field. Teams with as many weapons as the Steelers will have no difficulty adjusting their offense- just ask any team that faces the Patriots.
The plan was to slow down Mike Wallace? Well, Heath Miller is wide open the entire first drive.
Try to slow down Miller now? Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders will both be open.
Want to play zone defense? The Steelers will run routes to draw the coverage away from the targeted receiver.
Want to play man? The offensive line can hold off the four vanilla pass rushers until a receiver finds himself open.
Those are the adjustments that will happen every time you face a competent offense. I'm sure you know that. So while it's wonderful to have an initial game plan, it's just as important to have an in-game plan. Know that sometimes you have to change your scheme if it's not working and it has absolutely not been working.
I had this to say about the defense after the Week 2 debacle against the Jets last season:
There were no offensive adjustments the entire game, despite the fact that they were playing against the league's best defense. There were no defensive adjustments, despite the fact that they were being lit up. Inexcusable coaching. The effect of losing so many coordinators over the years has started to show up the past couple seasons- and the team might have to reach out and pick up a free agent coordinator to rectify the situation.
Does this sound familiar? The Patriots have not made adjustments on defense in two seasons. Last season we could chalk it up to inexperience and youth on defense. This season we can point to a new scheme and new players. However, there can't be anymore excuses- this is not a bad defense. These are talented players who have skill sets that must be utilized in the defense. No more cookie cutter defenses and trying to plug players into a generic role- maximize the strengths of each player and use that to your advantage. Devin McCourty is not a physical corner in coverage so stop putting him on bump-and-run coverage. Offenses are too good to give such large cushions. For two years opposing quarterbacks have been given free reign to take the easy short pass and slowly move the chains. This defense is built with too many holes schemed into it to be successful against top offenses.
The Steelers just showed everyone what to do on offense- slow method drives that go to the open receiver. Now, not every team has the same personnel as the Steelers so this is just a warning for games against every playoff caliber team. The defense is built to try and take away the opposing offense's top player. When teams have as many weapons as the:
Steelers (Wallace, Brown, Sanders, Ward, Miller, Mendenhall)
Bills (Jackson, Johnson, Jones, Nelson)
Texans (Foster, Tate, Johnson, Daniels, Jones, Walter, Dreessen)
Chargers (Mathews, Tolbert, Jackson, Floyd, Gates)
Packers (Grant, Cobb, Jennings, Jones, Nelson, Driver, Finley)
Saints (Sproles, Thomas, Ingram, Colston, Henderson, Meachem, Moore, Graham)
...and many other teams.
There will always be another reliable player who can carry the team. Every playoff caliber team has three or four players they can rely on in order to win the game. By focusing on removing one of those players, the other players will be in better position to take advantage of the defense. As a result, teams like the Steelers can take what the Patriots defense gives them and march down the field. Of course, this defense is for between the 20s, which means that the Patriots show a different look in the red zone and have been very successful limiting teams to field goals.
So if the Patriots are capable of stone walling teams in the red zone, why can't they do it between the 20s? It's because they don't have the short field position of the red zone (the back of the end zone counts as a backboard of sorts). Corners are playing extremely far off of their receivers, allowing for quick throws. Corners are attempting to jam receivers and are getting burned over the top. Corners need to play close enough to give the defensive front enough time to generate pressure, but far enough away in case the pressure never gets there. Adjust.
You know that strategy you had to defend tight ends in coverage? Remember how to sent OLB Rob Ninkovich to jam the tight end before passing the player off to a safety over the top? What happened to that against the Steelers? The entire first drive where Steelers TE Heath Miller walked the ball into the end zone, he was "jammed" once- and that one time was a Harbaugh-strength pat on the back. When you have a scheme that works, why do you abandon it?
On the offensive side, I pose the same question: why do you abandon what works? Early in the season, the Patriots used the pass to set-up the run game and moved the ball with ease. Now, teams are adjusting and playing man coverage and generating enough pressure to force Brady to throw on the move, which is not his strong skill. As a result,the passing game is disrupted and the run game is not set-up. Teams have figured out how to limit Wes Welker and scheme to remove him by placing linebackers in his route. Deion Branch seems to have disappeared. The only players who can get open are Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and even when they're being productive, the offensive scheme seems to take the offense away from what's working.
The Patriots offense and, as a result, defense will live and die by how effective Tom Brady can be throwing the ball on offense. That's just the way it is. The run game will not develop without the pass game. The defense cannot hold down the opposing offense with the bend-don't-break style if the other team keeps getting the ball back after three-and-outs.
Bill, this is a team that has been looking for an identity since 2007. The defense does not have an edge and has lost its swagger. The offense hasn't looked dangerous since Buffalo. Adjust the attitude of the team. Market the team to its skills. For example:
Tom Brady: Accurate on short-to-mid range throws. Able to read the defense at the line.
What's happening: Slow snaps allow the defense to read the offense. Looking down the field instead of to the short and open receiver. (Listen to Ray Lewis towards the end, 5:00).
Solution: Play no huddle, give him versatile players on the field (Welker, Hernandez, Gronkowski, Faulk, Branch/Price) to move around prior to snap according to the defensive look. Throw deep sparingly and, instead, focus on releasing the quick throw for short yards to move the chain.
Gary Guyton: Fast player, solid in coverage against the outlet receiver, struggles to cover tight ends, struggles mightily in run defense.
What's happening: Opposing teams run towards whatever gap Guyton is blocking because it's an easy run. Sitting in zone coverage as opposing receivers catch in the pockets of the zone.
Solution: Don't play Guyton on running downs. Ever. Ever, ever. Don't play Guyton in the two-backer zone (ie: Spikes/Mayo take a zone, Guyton takes a zone) because the opposing player will sit in between and make an easy catch. Have Guyton in man coverage of the running back.
Each player brings their own unique skill set to the table. Use it, or don't use the player. Players like Guyton shouldn't be used the way they have been used. Players aren't interchangeable, despite the obvious desire by the front office. Individuals need to find their roles on the team and find out who they can be for the team.
The offense needs to re-find its identity because it's looked lost. Welker has been smothered and Brady hasn't been able to turn to anyone. Why not create an offensive scheme around Hernandez or Gronkowski? You knew going into the game that the Steelers were going to be playing without their top inside linebackers in their normal spot- so why not take advantage of the inexperience and plug away in the middle of the field?
On defense, this is what I've said about "bend-don't-break" since last season:
Bend-don't-break only works when the offense is able to consistently move the ball. If the offense can't score, and the opposition keeps chipping away with field goals and the occasional touchdown, what's the point of the defense? There isn't one. That defensive style relies upon the offense outscoring what the defense gives up.
The defense is reliant on the offense. The defensive game plan isn't expecting to stop any offenses, but instead limit the offenses. If teams get 8 possessions a game, they'll average around 24 points (or a field goal a drive [which is right where the Patriots are standing]). The offense must have at least four successful scoring drives in order to stay in the game and that starts with offensive momentum. Move the chains. Go back to what worked- throw to the open receiver. Throwing to the tight ends will open up lanes for Wes Welker. Throwing to Welker will eventually soften the defense against the run. Forcing the ball to the covered player will get the offense into a 3-and-out.
So Bill, I guess I'm trying to say it's great to have a game plan when you enter the game. It's great to have a back-up plan when the original doesn't work. However, sometimes it's best to go off-script and rewrite the game plan according to how the other team wrote their plan. The offense needs to adapt to what the opposing defense is allowing. The defense must make adjustments just to get off the field. Create schemes for the players on the roster, instead of forcing players into your schemes. Stop being vanilla and predictable and find some of your old creative genius.
Work with the players- there's clearly something wrong. The defensive players haven't been able to tackle and that alone has caused numerous third down conversions by the opposition. The offensive has never been so undisciplined and all the false starts and holding calls have stalled more drives than I can remember.
All these issues are fixable; it's not even mid-season. The Patriots are 5-2, the sky isn't falling, and both the offense and the defense have looked good at points in the season (albeit very different points of the season). This team has yet to put together a complete offensive and defensive performance and they're still one of the best in the league.
Bill, it's time for some adjustments. Adjust the offense to play off of Brady and his weapons. Adjust the defense to play off of the strengths of the individuals. Adjust the game plan during the game. Adjust the attitude of the team and find its swagger.
PS: Seriously though, why has the defense been so vanilla and simple the past few seasons? Mr. Defensive Mind, do something creative.