The New England Patriots’ defense was on the field for 187 snaps during the team’s 2016 playoff run. The unit played 69 snaps apiece against both the Houston Texans and the Pittsburgh Steelers, while seeing a lighter workload – 49 snaps – in Super Bowl LI against the Atlanta Falcons.
Of those 187 snaps, seven were nullified by penalties, leaving 180 to look at when outlining the team’s favorite personnel packages. And just like on offense, there have been a lot of different combinations, as New England used 62 unique variations during the postseason.
While the number of different alignments was high throughout the Patriots’ three playoff games, the number of players used was not. Only 18 saw defensive playing time over the course of the postseason, tied for the lowest among the NFL’s 12 playoff teams.
However, not all players have seen the same amount of playing time as a look at the team’s favorite personnel combinations shows:
Jabaal Sheard, Chris Long, Trey Flowers, Dont'a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Malcolm Butler, Eric Rowe, Logan Ryan, Duron Harmon, Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty
New England’s dime package was the most-commonly used personnel group during the postseason. The package, which due to the lack of big-bodied defensive tackles is a clear pass-first grouping, has been called upon 17 times. 15 of those plays were indeed passes, gaining six first downs, a touchdown and an average of 7.1 yards per attempt.
Without a true defensive tackle on the field, the Patriots often turned to second-year defender Trey Flowers to align on the interior. Despite seeing most of his playing time as a defensive edge, Flowers versatility allows the team to move him around the formation depending on down, distance and personnel.
Rob Ninkovich, Trey Flowers, Malcom Brown, Alan Branch, Elandon Roberts, Dont'a Hightower, Malcolm Butler, Eric Rowe, Logan Ryan, Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty
The second-most commonly used personnel group is a standard 4-2-5 nickel package. Two defensive edges (Ninkovich, Flowers) flank interior tackles Malcom Brown and Alan Branch, with two linebackers and five defensive backs (three cornerbacks, two safeties) playing behind them.
Despite using five defensive backs, the bulk up front allows the team to still be stout against the run – and opponents have tried running on this group a lot. Overall, this personnel group was on the field 13 times and 10 of those saw runs being called. On average, those runs gained a mere 2.0 yards. For comparison, the three passes gained an average of 10.0 yards per attempt.
Rob Ninkovich, Trey Flowers, Malcom Brown, Alan Branch, Elandon Roberts, Dont'a Hightower, Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Duron Harmon, Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty
A similar nickel package as the one above but with one difference: Cornerback Eric Rowe is on the sidelines while safety Duron Harmon is on the field. This, in turn, allowed the Patriots to play two-deep coverage (Harmon, McCourty) or to use Harmon as the lone high safety with McCourty playing closer to the line of scrimmage.
Again, teams were often willing to try their luck on the ground against this personnel group. Eight times, it was on the field, and on five occasions it was faced with a running play. Overall, teams gained only 16 yards on the ground against this group (3.2 per carry) and did not fare much better on the three passing attempts (5.0 yards per play).
Jabaal Sheard, Trey Flowers, Malcom Brown, Alan Branch, Elandon Roberts, Shea McClellin, Malcolm Butler, Eric Rowe, Logan Ryan, Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty
While this package is the fourth-most commonly run, New England only used it in the AFC Championship Game. The opposing Pittsburgh Steelers calling five passes and two runs against it and were moderately successful, gaining an average of 5.1 yards per play.
The most noteworthy difference with this personnel group compared to others is the absence of Dont’a Hightower. While Hightower played 100% of the snaps against the Texans and Falcons, he was only the third linebacker in the rotation against the Steelers with Shea McClellin taking his spot on the field. Hightower was limited throughout the week with a shoulder injury, so this swap could have been the result of that.
Rob Ninkovich, Chris Long, Trey Flowers, Dont'a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Malcolm Butler, Eric Rowe, Logan Ryan, Duron Harmon, Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty
The final personnel group in the top five of most-used packages is another dime formation. The two differences to the most-used group are Rob Ninkovich being part of it instead of Jabaal Sheard, and opponents having less success through the air: Of the seven snaps this group of players was on the field together, seven pass plays were called for an average of only 3.7 yards per play (compared to 7.1 with Sheard on the field).
The Patriots typically relied on the same group of players during the postseason but mixed them up together to keep them fresh, especially on the front end of the defense. What does stand out, though, is the heavy usage of two young players: Second-year edge defender Trey Flowers and rookie linebacker Elandon Roberts.
While Flowers consistently played more snaps than Roberts, who was a part of the linebacker rotation next to Dont’a Hightower, both saw that the coaching staff trusted them in high-pressure situations.