The New England Patriots defense played arguably its most complete game of the season on Sunday night. Against an explosive Green Bay Packers offense, the unit allowed just 17 points and 368 yards of offense — a mere 250 of which coming via the pass. While a reenergized pass rush played a big role in this, so did a secondary that covered tightly and camouflaged its looks well against one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks.
However, the latter is not as easy as it appears to be as Patriots head coach Bill Belichick explained during a conference call on Monday. “Disguising at the expense of being out of position and not being able to make the plays that you need to make or be where you need to be, that’s a bad thing,” Belichick said when asked about his defensive backs were able to use deceit to their advantage against Green Bay.
The Packers in particular pose a special challenge because of their quarterback: Aaron Rodgers is an experienced player that has the intelligence and processing speed to quickly come up with a countermove if the defense tips its hand or is too aggressive. “It’s hard against Rodgers no matter what you do,” Belichick said about the future Hall of Famer. “Whether you blitz or don’t blitz, play zone or play man. He’s seen it all and he can certainly handle it all.”
“I don’t think you’re going to fool him. You just try to keep him off balance and hope you can make a play somewhere along the line,” New England’s head coach continued. While Rodgers had a solid statistical day — he completed 24 of 43 pass attempts for 259 yards and a pair of touchdowns — the Patriots’ approach when it comes to disguising defensive looks worked well especially late during the 31-17 game.
While Rodgers completed nearly 60% of his passes over the first two quarters of the game, his accuracy went down to 50% in the second half. And in the fourth quarter, as the Patriots started to pull away, he was able to connect on just two of his seven throws while also getting sacked twice. Part of it was execution on the offense’s side, but part also was the Patriots defense making life hard for one of the NFL’s premier quarterbacks through its use of disguise.
For Belichick, however, this is a fine line to balance on. “Sometimes you want to try to disguise it. Sometimes it might be better just to not be too far away so that it doesn’t take quite as long to get there, but you don’t want the quarterback to see it. You just try to find the right balance there, the best way to execute it,” he said. “The good thing is disguising, but the bad thing is being out of position.”
More often than not on Sunday night, New England’s defense was in position to make plays, whether it was extra pressure from the secondary or playing diverse coverages down the field. A big reason why the Patriots were able to do all those things is the chemistry of the team’s safety group: Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon have been in the league for multiple years and have more than four seasons of experience of playing together.
“I think the safeties did a great job of [disguising looks],” said Belichick about the group. “If the safeties can work together and complement each other as part of the disguise, then that’s a good thing. [...] It’s always a fine line, and that’s why experience at that position is so important: disguising is good and you want to try to do it, but you have to be in position to handle your responsibility.”
“Devin and Duron and Pat [know] where they need to be, what they need to do, how much risk [they can take] or how far away they can be from that responsibility and make it look like they’re doing something else that they would normally do and trying to tie different calls in based on the formations, because we have no control over the formation the offense comes out in,” Belichick continued praising his defensive backfield.
But despite an experienced safety groups, disguising looks remains a challenge for the defense. “We don’t know where they’re going to be when we make a call, so once they align, then the variables on disguise change quite a bit,” Belichick said. So how do the Patriots do it? According to their head coach, this depends on multiple variables like players, formations, situations and the opposing offense.
One general approach, however, is building a foundation for the players but trusting them to make the correct reads no matter the situation that comes up. “We give them certain parameters, but in the end, all the decisions that they make out there are their decisions,” Belichick said. “We trust them to make good ones and make the right ones. [...] They’re the ones that are playing the game and they see and can recognize things a lot better than a coach can.”
For Belichick, this is not something that can easily be done, though. “It takes some understanding and experience,” the NFL’s best head coach said. Ultimately, however, doing the disguising well is just one part of the exercise — the players still need to finish the plays. “The execution of the plays is more important than the disguise,” said Belichick. On Sunday against the Packers, it was.