Before their seven-sack explosion in Week 12, the Patriots pass rush has left something to be desired, to say the least, this season. Through the first 11 weeks, the Pats managed just 17 sacks as a team (T-26th in the NFL) and pressured opposing quarterbacks 31.7% of the time (26th in the NFL).
Early on in the season, the lack of pressure combined with breakdowns in the secondary created a perfect storm for the Patriots pass defense.
However, in recent weeks, the secondary has begun to take shape, and the trust in the back end to consistently cover receivers downfield in man to man situations has allowed for the coaching staff to get creative to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
In the last two weeks, the Patriots blitzed Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore and the Raiders’ Derek Carr a combined 36 times. In the previous four games, the Patriots blitzed opposing quarterbacks a combined 35 times. Furthermore, those blitzes have had tremendous success both producing sacks and making it difficult to complete passes downfield.
Carr and Moore combined to go 14-28 for 124 yards, one touchdown, one interception, and a passer rating of 59.2 when the Patriots brought extra pass rushers. Those blitzes have also produced five sacks for the Patriots including four against Moore and the Dolphins in Week 12.
Below, I’ll go to the tape to illustrate how the Patriots coaching staff has managed to piece together a useful pass rush by leaning on a talented secondary to bring pressure from all over the defense.
Let’s start with Miami’s first drive of the game that ended in a three and out.
The situation here has a massive effect on the Patriots’ play call as it’s a 3rd and 2, which means the defense is expecting Moore to deliver the ball short and over the middle.
Instead of bringing pressure from the edges, the Patriots drop their edge defenders into passing lanes, taking away both the tight end and Jarvis Landry in the slot. The pressure then comes from Roberts and up the middle forcing Moore to throw this ball away over the running backs head.
The blitz, even though it didn’t create a sack, sped up Moore’s process, and the coverage on the back end worked in tandem with the blitz to take away his two easiest throws.
Here, the Patriots run what’s called an inverted blitz, where they bring pressure with both linebackers blitzing the A-Gap and drop the two defensive ends into coverage.
We’ve seen this type of blitz produce interceptions in the past as opposing quarterbacks don’t expect the ends to drop and throw the ball right to them. However, this blitz doesn’t end in an interception, but instead Elandon Roberts’ first career sack.
First, let’s credit Roberts for a great first step after the snap to get around the center immediately, and then the pursuit after Moore leaves the pocket to run the Dolphins quarterback down for the sack. Second, Roberts’ alignment on this play already gives him a clear advantage to rush the passer.
By lining him up over the center, the Patriots gave Roberts the best possible opportunity to time the snap count because all he had to do was look down at the ball right in front of him and wait for the center to snap it.
And finally, the Patriots make it even more difficult on the Dolphins by also blitzing David Harris. By blitzing Harris, the running back is forced to step up and block Harris to avoid him being a free runner.
That makes it an easier play on Roberts as all he has to do is beat the center to get to the quarterback. If the Patriots don’t bring Harris up the middle, the running back is there to pick up the blitzing Roberts.
On the very next play, the Patriots bring Moore down again when Trey and Marquis Flowers combine for the sack.
On this play, the Patriots line both Flowers and Kyle Van Noy over the center and left guard. They then run a stunt or a twist with the defensive line and loop Flowers and Van Noy around the edges.
Now since Trey Flowers is an absolute force, he gets pressure just by jumping inside on the tackle, but when Moore tries to escape to his right, the other Flowers is waiting for him.
The Patriots have also gotten contributions from players in the secondary to help bolster the pass rush as well. Over the last month or so, the slot corner blitz has become a regular occurrence for the Patriots defense.
Here, the Patriots send Jonathan Jones on a blitz on third down.
The blitz doesn’t create immediate pressure, but the pocket does cave in on Moore. More importantly, take a look at how the Patriots cover up the holes created by blitzing Jones from the slot.
Patrick Chung is the safety at the top of the screen that’s responsible for rotating down to take Jones’ man, Kenny Stills, running out of the slot, and he does that with ease.
Also, the rest of the Patriots’ cornerbacks are in man coverage and do a tremendous job locking onto the Dolphins’ receivers. Moore wants to go to his favorite target in receiver Jarvis Landry, but the Patriots run a bracket coverage of Landry with Butler getting underneath the stealthy receiver and Devin McCourty providing safety help over the top.
Malcolm Butler ends up with the pass breakup, and the Dolphins are forced to punt.
Against Miami, the Patriots also had a few instances where players made heady decisions to go after Moore. On this play, Patrick Chung isn’t blitzing but is in coverage on the tight end that stays into block.
When the tight end goes to block Flowers on the edge, Chung knows he’s now free to go after Moore in the pocket. Chung puts a nice move on the guard to get around him and registers the quarterback hit.
Also, notice the coverage by Jonathan Jones in the secondary. Moore delivers a decent throw despite taking a big hit, but Jones is able to battle with Landry to the ground and get the ball out.
That was Miami’s last chance to make this a game on a fourth down play late in the fourth quarter. Another excellent example of coverage and pass rush working in tandem.
With injuries and a lack of talent in the front seven, Patriots fans have been clamoring for the coaching staff to draw up some exotic blitzes to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
We’ve seen them turn up the heat more and more in recent weeks culminating in the last two games where blitzing has been a significant part of the game plan on defense. From this perspective, it appears that this is the type of defense the Patriots have wanted to be all season, given that the matchup and situation doesn’t completely take them out of it.
However, due to the struggles in the secondary, the Patriots were forced to play a more coverage based defense to protect against big plays.
In the last two weeks, we have finally seen the coaching staff’s trust in Stephon Gilmore, Malcolm Butler, and the rest of the Patriots’ secondary grow to the point where they felt they could start coming after opposing quarterbacks. The results have been off the charts. Both regarding successful blitzes and overall success of the pass defense.
The Patriots held Matt Moore to just 215 yards passing on 34 attempts (6.3 yds/att) and Derek Carr to 237 yards on 49 attempts (4.8 yds/att).
Say what you want about those two quarterbacks, especially Moore, but both have a decent group of receivers and have had varying degrees of success in the past, with Carr being a legit MVP candidate in 2016.
The Patriots haven’t been a blitz-heavy team in recent seasons like the Jets or Panthers, and will undoubtedly adjust their strategy based on their opponent, but it appears that they’ve found ways to generate pressure after the defense struggled mightily to do so for most of the season.
(h/t to @PFF_Louie for his help on this post. A must follow for all Pats fans)