Malleability — the critical component that continues to separate the New England Patriots from the rest of the league.
Perhaps some have gotten so accustomed to their unparalleled ability to mold and shape each week’s opponent-specific game plan into something entirely different than the week prior that they’ve been lulled into a false sense that this is a common trait among NFL teams.
In New England, when something isn’t working, it’s discarded. When something is working, it’s utilized and built upon. It’s not exclusively a week-to-week process, either. Time and time again we’ve seen wins manufactured from large-scale halftime adjustments; personnel packages and play designs scrap-heaped as unforeseen circumstances arise. At times these adjustments aren’t even made from half-to-half . They’re made on the fly from series-to-series.
It all stems from an environment of ego-reduction that has been established in Foxborough — something rarely seen or accomplished anywhere else in the NFL. Instead of stubbornly trudging onward when presented with new information that an idea or plan is failing, the Patriots acknowledge that being wrong is part of the process, and that it’s more important to quickly adapt in the moment.
All of this, of course, flies directly in the face of the narrative that commonly portrays the Patriots’ system as the end-result of an authoritarian, all-knowing Bill Belichick whose lofty ego is matched only in size by his intellect. Does he have final say on everything that happens on the field and with the roster? Of course. But, you’d be hard-pressed to find an organization with a climate more primed for the flow of information between its players and its coaching staff than New England.
One thing I’ve learned this season is that the players have a lot of freedom on the #Patriots to make suggestions in terms of play calls and adjustments during games. You hear a lot of, “the players came to the sideline and said this would work.”— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) November 27, 2018
With that said, expect the Patriots’ schematic malleability to be put on display once again on Sunday afternoon as they host the Minnesota Vikings.
In their decisive, two-touchdown victory on the road against the Jets in week 12, it became clear after a back-and-forth opening quarter that the Jets front-seven was unable to sustain leverage at the point of attack with consistency. Josh McDaniels dialed up a heavy dose of 21-personnel (two wideouts with Rob Gronkowski, James Develin, and a running back) on a season-high 34% of the team’s snaps as the Patriots continued to carve out massive holes on the ground. New England’s offensive line put together their most complete performance of the season as they paved the way for running backs Sony Michel and James White to have career highs in rushing yardage.
That will not be the case this Sunday.
In fact, don’t be surprised to see Patriots take the offensive game plan in an entirely different direction — operating primarily from the shotgun, employing a ton of 10 and 11-personnel groupings, and splitting everyone out wide to force the Vikings to guard every inch of the field. Why? Here are three reasons.
The Vikings’ defense comes into the contest ranked fourth in rushing yards allowed per game (93.6), third in yards allowed per carry (3.7), and fourth in DVOA against the run (through week 11). A big reason for that — both literally and figuratively — is Linval Joseph.
The Patriots have faced a serious slate of talented, run-defending interior defensive lineman this season: Marcell Dareus, Chris Jones, Akiem Hicks, Kenny Clark, Jurrell Casey, etc. None of them are better against the run than Linval Joseph.
Simply put: the man is violent. His quick, powerful hands punch and stick to blockers, allowing his long arms — which are as thick as telephone poles — to maintain separation while he scans the backfield before shedding his man. Once free, he has the quickness to chase down runs from behind that no 6’4”, 330-pound human should be able to. He’s also incredibly smart, and has great instincts for when the inside trap play is coming.
Joseph keeps gifted linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr clean and available to read, penetrate, and disrupt, and he consistently allows new teammate Sheldon Richardson — a familiar face for the Patriots from his years with the Jets — to work one on one on the interior.
He is the best safety in the business, and it’s pretty tough to make an argument for anyone else over him. He is a complete player who the Vikings use as chess piece to eliminate aspects of their opponent’s offensive game plan.
So far in 2018, Smith has played 99.29% of the teams snaps, and is the league’s highest-graded safety against the run according to Pro Football Focus. Injuries to strong safety Andrew Sendejo and new Viking George Iloka have forced Smith into the box a bit more in, where he is lethal at diagnosing run concepts and impacting the game at the line of scrimmage.
Identifying where Smith is on every play will be pivotal to how the Patriots go about attacking the Vikings defense — particularly in the red zone, where Minnesota is the best in the league. Spreading the Vikings secondary out with formations and forcing Smith to tip his hand as to his assignment by utilizing motion with Rob Gronkowski when he’s lurking in the box will prove critical.
Defensive Back Depth
It will likely be talked about quite a bit this week, but the injury suffered in week 12 by number-one corner Xavier Rhodes is a massive one. Trae Waynes will assume number-one duties if Rhodes is not able to give it a go this week. With talented first round pick Mike Hughes already on injured reserve, Mackensie Alexander and undrafted free agent Holton Hill will be slated for quite a bit of action on Sunday.
That is the primary reason we should see a large decrease in the amount of big personnel packages from Josh McDaniels and the Patriots offense this weekend. Alexander and Hill will immediately become targets of Tom Brady’s once they step onto the field, and the goal should be to keep them in the game as much as possible.
By consistently forcing Minnesota into dime and nickel packages, the impact of Linval Joseph is severely diminished, All-Pro safety Harrison Smith’s coverage responsibilities can be uncovered, and the pressure is dialed up on two wide-eyed, unproven corners.
It’s wild what a difference a week can make in the NFL.