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Week 9 Patriots vs Washington: Bill Belichick Focused on Stopping Kirk Cousins on First Down

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Washington has been able to convert plenty of their third downs. Bill Belichick wants to stop them.

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has a habit of flattering opposing players. Sometimes he actually means it- usually when talking about legends like former Texans safety Ed Reed or Patriots legend Reggie Wayne- but a lot of the time he's just highlighting what he's seen on tape.

Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins isn't a world beater. He's an adequate starter of the Ryan Fitzpatrick or Kyle Orton or Nick Foles tier. Those are quarterbacks that are able to win within their scheme, but can't be expected to put the entire offense on their back. All of them have skills that make them starters.

"I think he does a lot of things well, seems like a really smart guy who manages the offense well," Belichick said about Cousins during a Monday press conference. "They have some check plays and things like that. He does a good job there. He's pretty athletic even though he hasn't run a lot, but he moves around quite a bit. They run bootleg moving pocket plays, things like that, so he definitely has quickness to create a little extra time to throw and does a good job of finding and using all his receivers, backs and tight ends and multiple wide-outs."

This sounds like a really nice way of saying Cousins extends plays with his feet and sometimes he manages to make a play.

Layered behind the coach speech, Belichick revealed his actually strategy for stopping Cousins, and it's the exact same as the plan against Fitzpatrick and the Jets: stop the run early and force Cousins to win with deeper throws on third down.

"Third down has been good, they're one of the better third-down teams in the league," Belichick said. "And one of the better red-area teams in the league, so I think that counts a lot for a quarterback to make plays in those situations when the coverage is tight and there is less space to throw.

"I think a lot of their success on third down is related to their success on first and second down - strong running game, again a lot of the West Coast passing style along with some bootlegs and moving pocket plays and that kind of thing. They get on track a lot - second-and-four, second-and-three, second-and-five - and then you're looking at having two downs to pick up four or five yards - that kind of thing.

"I think it all starts on first down to get a team into third down and longer type situations where they have fewer options in the passing game, like everybody. But they do a good job of running the ball and they do a good job of hitting a high number of percentage passes so they stay out of a lot of long-yardage situations, haven't been sacked very much, so they don't have a lot of bad plays."

Washington ranks 10th in the league with a 42.6% conversion rate on third down. For comparison, the Patriots rank 3rd with a 47.1% rate. Both teams rank in the middle of the pack with roughly 40% third down allowance rates on defense.

Washington is one of the more balanced offenses in the league on 1st down so the Patriots can't key in on the run on first down. Forcing Cousins and Washington into third and long situations will help reduce the conversion rate of the shallow crossers in 3rd and short situations.

"I think their balance is good," Belichick said. "I think they have a very good rushing game. They have excellent backs, they have a good offensive line and they have a good complementary group of play action passes to go with the running game, so even though I know they're pass plays but they really tie so closely into the running games - all the bootlegs and misdirection plays and things like that - if you're stopping one it's hard to stop the other."

If the Patriots can get ahead early and reduce the affect of the Washington run game, then a crucial part of the Washington attack- the playaction pass- is removed as a threat. The Patriots can reach this point by forcing Cousins and friends into 3rd and long situations the same way they approached the New York Jets.

Belichick might seem like he's heaping praise on Cousins, and he's being honest about the quarterback's skill set. But beneath the kind words, Bill knows the best way to take down the opposing offense.