One of America’s largest insurance companies uses the following slogan in its television commercials: "We know a thing or two, because we’ve seen a thing or two." This sentence could also be applied to the NFL, and in particular New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.
Belichick’s first season on an NFL coaching staff was 1975, when he worked as a low-level assistant for the Baltimore Colts. Since then, he has not only made himself a first-ballot Hall of Fame coach, he has also seen thousands of plays, formations and schemes. During NFL Films’ 2015 documentary "Do Your Job", Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia briefly mentioned this:
We’ll go to him with new ideas all the time – or what we think are new ideas, which is stuff he probably ran 30 years ago or 20 years ago.
As alluded to above: Belichick has seen a thing or two. And during yesterday’s press conference he once again demonstrated it by answering a question about Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Mohamed Sanu and if him throwing passes is something that needs to be prepared for:
Yeah, sure. We know he can do it. Look, this is the kind of game where a team could be working on a play like that all year and you're running out of games. I mean it could be a lot of other plays, too; a reverse, a pass, a double pass, some kind of gadget play, so absolutely. The longer the season goes I think the more you have to be prepared for those kinds of plays because, again, if the team has been working on it then at some point they're probably going to use it and the fewer games there are to call it. If you've been working on a play all year, a lot of coordinators, you might as well call it.
The thought of having some "leftover" plays is basically what the Patriots did during their 2014 Super Bowl run. The team used both a four-player offensive line concept and a double pass against the Baltimore Ravens, while using left tackle Nate Solder as an eligible receiver one week later against the Indianapolis Colts.
Following the answer above, Belichick was asked about the difficulties of defending gadget plays. He answered as follows:
Right. Look, you could draw up any gadget play you want. In the end it comes down to the basic fundamentals of your defense, so every defense is designed to defend the perimeter, to defend the deep balls, whether that's man to man, or zone, or four-man line, three-man line, whatever it is. It doesn't matter. You can't defend an offensive formation without defending the perimeter of the formation, without defending the vertical element that the formation could bring, defend the outside, defend deep, everything is in front of you - every defense has to have those elements to it.
Belichick starts at the base level. In order to defend a trick play, a defense needs to be able to play fundamentally sound in the first place. If it is able to do that, the groundwork for defending more complex or unusual plays has already been laid.
Who knows what you're going to be in? Who knows what play that they're going to run that you haven't seen before? You just have to count on the sound fundamentals of the defense to handle all of those things. Every time we put in a defense that's the first thing we do, is run strong, run weak, reverse, half back pass, passing game, four verticals, three verticals, double moves, deep crossing routes.
New England’s head coach then went on to talk about installing defensive concepts to ensure those fundamentals are in place. As he points out, gadget plays like reverses or half back passes are part of this process.
Make sure that those plays are handled by the assignments in the defense. If you're going to be light on something you don't want to be light on those. You want to be light on something else. You don't want to be light on a seam route or on a post pattern or not have a run-force guy if they run a reverse. I mean it doesn't mean you have it done right every single time, but there's somebody that's responsible for it and it's their job to make sure that they handle that responsibility based on however the play is designed.
If a player knows his responsibilities and recognizes a play accordingly, then he has all the tools to do his best to stop any sorts of trick plays. And if that is the case, it should not matter how the play actually looks like or if it has even been on display before.
In the end, therefore, it all boils down to one quotable phrase: Do your job.