For the first time since 2010, the New England Patriots’ defense will not be at least partially led by Matt Patricia. As most Pats fans know, Patricia wasn’t officially the defensive coordinator until 2012 but served as the primary defensive play-caller for two seasons before earning the title. Brian Flores appears to be following the same path, gaining defensive play-calling duties while remaining the linebackers coach.
As long as Bill Belichick is the head coach, it will always be unclear how much influence the defensive coordinator has over the scheme. For example, I doubt any New England DC will ever have the same power that Wade Phillips has in Los Angeles. So, while the departure of a coordinator would indicate major changes for most teams, it remains a mystery whether New England’s scheme will change with Patricia’s exit.
With that said, it’s worth exploring potential scheme changes now that Patricia has moved on, even if they are minor. One area, in particular, is the defensive line. Under Belichick and Patricia, New England’s defensive line has continuously shifted alignments, essentially running a hybrid 3-4, 4-3 defense. There are wrinkles with every scheme, but technique, especially on the interior, has remained relatively consistent.
The Patriots have historically asked their interior lineman to play a conservative, two-gap approach. New England wants big bodies like Malcom Brown to control blockers, read, and react. The opposite would be a Jim Schwartz style defense, where interior linemen are often asked to get upfield and disrupt the backfield as quickly as possible.
Given New England’s scheme, it’s not surprising the Patriots’ defense isn’t making many disruptive plays in the backfield. Football Outsiders has a stat called “stuffed percentage,” which tracks the percentage of runs where the running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage. Below is a look at New England’s NFL rank in “stuffed percentage” since 2010:
Since 2010, New England has consistently ranked towards the bottom of the league in “stuffed percentage,” never finishing higher than 21st. It should be noted, this isn’t just a Matt Patricia phenomenon; under Dean Pees the Patriots never finished higher than 19th (2008) in the same category.
The Patriots simply don’t make run stops behind the line of scrimmage, which is partially by design. That doesn’t necessarily mean New England is willingly giving up big chunks of yards on the ground, nor does it indicate the Patriots always have a bad run defense. For example, the Patriots finished 21st in “stuffed percentage” in 2016 but finished fifth in overall rush DVOA.
What the trend does indicate is that New England prefers their linemen to control blockers, freeing up linebackers to make plays. That works great when you have talented linebackers. Unfortunately for the 2017 Patriots, once Dont’a Hightower went down, the talent simply wasn’t there.
Football Outsiders tracks two other metrics: “second level yards” and “open field rank”. The second level metric tracks yards earned by a running back between 5-10 yards past the line of scrimmage, divided by total carries. This assigns less responsibility to the linemen, and more towards the second level of the defense. The open field metric tracks yards earned by a running back 10 yards or more past the line of scrimmage.
In 2016, when the Patriots finished fifth in total rush DVOA, New England ranked seventh in second level yards and first in open field yards. In 2017, the Patriots ranked 29th and 28th, respectively, while finishing 30th in overall rush DVOA. The 2017 Patriots weren’t making disruptive plays behind the line of scrimmage, which is normal. Unfortunately, their second level of the defense wasn’t making plays either, which is a death sentence for a conservative, gap control scheme.
There are risks with every scheme. Aggressive, upfield schemes can be vulnerable to traps and leave holes throughout the line of scrimmage. The risk for a gap control team like New England is that it relies on linebackers and edge players to make the correct reads and finish plays. It also helps if the interior linemen can shed blocks and make tackles. New England didn’t have the depth or athleticism at linebacker and edge to support the scheme.
There were certain types of offenses that New England could defend, like the Titans. Tennessee ran the ball up the middle with heavy packages and was limited in the passing game. The Patriots were able to stack the box with extra lineman and stop the run with big bodies like Lawrence Guy and Malcom Brown. However, against a creative and athletic team like the Eagles, the Patriots didn’t have the athletes at linebacker to compete. New England needed extra defensive backs in coverage and the Eagles spread run game exposed the Patriots’ lack of athleticism in the box.
Which brings us to 2018 and the new defensive leadership. New England’s scheme is most likely a Bill Belichick system, as opposed to Matt Patricia’s. But perhaps Belichick will be willing to give Brian Flores an opportunity to tweak the current scheme. If Flores is able to make changes to the scheme, the defensive line will be the most intriguing group to follow. The Patriots’ defensive line has basically followed the same approach for over a decade. Alignments have changed and have looked crazy at times, especially on passing downs. But the early down approach has remained relatively the same: gap control, read, and react.
We likely won’t see a complete overhaul in 2018, but as Flores gains more control over the defense, it will be interesting to see if there are any changes to the scheme and technique of the defensive line.