It was, in some ways, my true introduction to Pats Pulpit.
Having joined over the past off-season, primarily to cover the quarterbacks in the draft, things changed a bit in a post-draft landscape. Pieces were written breaking down pivotal plays from the season before, how quarterbacks might fit into systems, and the like. But one piece stood out over an off-season of work. A piece on the future of defensive football.
Drawing on charting data, film study and statistical analysis, the piece argued that the future of defense in the NFL might run from Ames, Iowa into Foxborough, Massachusetts. With the prevalence of spread offenses working their way into the professional game, what better way to try and defend them than by drawing inspiration from defenses that face them week in and week out in the college game? Despite misgivings about the “lack of defense” in the Big 12, Iowa State had put together a 3-3-5 defense using a Tite front that was at least slowing down some of these high-powered spread offenses.
It seemed, at least, that Bill Belichick was paying attention. Last season the New England Patriots’ defense ran some variation of this defense on 15% of their plays, not a huge number, of course, but it was when they used them that caught my eye. Such as a 2nd and goal from the 4-yard line against the Kansas City Chiefs:
Again, this is a 2nd and goal play. The Patriots employ a 3-3-5 package on this play, even in the red zone, and they use a 4i-0-4i defensive front. You can see how the players up front attack their gaps and force Kareem Hunt (#27) to cut in the backfield, where he runs into Kyle Van Noy (#53) and Elandon Roberts (#52). Van Noy keeps his outside leverage which forces Hunt back into the hole, and Roberts fills the hole for the stop.
So you can stop the run even with this light box, provided the defenders are sound with their gap responsibilities. You know, the whole “do your job” premise of the organization’s philosophy?
It also helps when you have athletes at the linebacker spots who can some down on the edge, protect the outside and are athletic enough to string out running plays to the outside, where more help can arrive.
Like Van Noy does on this toss play to Tyreek Hill (#10) on a 3rd and 1 where the Patriots - you guessed it - employed a Tite front and a sub package:
New England employs a 3-2-6 defensive package, using safety Patrick Chung (#23) as a joker-type player, dropping him down into a linebacker’s alignment. Up front they use a 4i-0-3 defensive formation, and they bring Van Noy down over the tight end. Once more, provided the players up front are disciplined, they can stop the run. Here, Van Noy strings out the toss play to Hill and then gets help from the boundary player, and the run is stopped for no gain.
By now you are probably wondering: Why are we revisiting this piece from May now, on Halloween?
Because of what the Patriots face this weekend.
Sunday night the Patriots take on Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens. The second-year quarterback is slowly changing how the quarterback position is played, both as a passer and as a runner. His passing numbers are solid, with an Adjusted Net Yards per Pass (ANY/A) of 6.70 (13th in the league) and his QBR of 70.9 is fifth in the league, behind only Dak Prescott, Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson. If you want to talk about more advanced metrics, Jackson’s Expected Points Added per Play (EPA/P) is 0.2, 12th among passers. (Data courtesy of Ben Baldwin from The Athletic Seattle).
But when you consider what Jackson brings to the table as a runner, the picture becomes even more formidable. Despite a bye last week, Jackson still is 10th in the league in rushing, with 576 yards under his belt. He averages 82.3 yards per game (edging out Saquon Barkley) which is good for ninth in the league.
He is truly a difficult player to defend, and how the Patriots choose to contain him on Sunday night is going to be fascinating to watch.
Bringing us back to the Tite front.
The beauty of being a football fan in this day and age is the wealth of incredibly intelligent football analysts who are covering the game. One such analyst is Seth Galina, who covers the sport for a number of outlets. Back in February he wrote about how the Tite front was one way to combat the spread offenses in the college level, in this fascinating piece that is well worth your time. As Galina opines, the Tite front eliminates the situation where a defense (such as a 4-2-5 front) has a linebacker with a duality of responsibilities. That is why run/pass option plays can work against those 4-2-5 fronts: A linebacker can cover the slant underneath, or defend against the run, but he cannot do both. From Galina:
The Tite front eliminates this perpetual conflict for linebackers.
In a Tite front, there are no open B gaps. The gaps that are open are the C gaps (outside the offensive tackles), but, again, defenses are fine with the ball-carrier having to run east-west before turning his shoulders and dashing to the end zone. Linebackers can be a little more passive and less committal as they wait for the ball to go downhill.
Now the problem, at least in using the Tite front in the NFL, is that there is a lack of opportunities for edge rushers. A problem I examined in the earlier piece, pointing out how the Patriots could still generate pressure from these packages, just by relying on defensive backs blitzing rather than true edge rushers. Like this play:
On this play against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 15, again the Patriots put five defenders on a line using a 3-2-6 sub package. This time they blitz Van Noy and Hightower, and while they do not get to Ben Roethlisberger (#7), they influence the throw with pressure and the pass is intercepted by Duron Harmon (#21).
Now, one of the weaknesses with the Tite front, and something Galina highlights, is that it almost forces you to play zone coverage in the secondary. Something we know the Patriots do not exactly run often, as they have been a heavy Cover 1 - and even Cover 0 - team this year:
The other weakness is that the Tite front limits the coverages you can play behind it. Teams are almost forced to play zone coverage with the C gap open. Man coverage doesn’t work, because the two outside backers can’t both be in man coverage and responsible for a gap.
But what if you wanted to play more zone coverage, to keep your eyes in the secondary on a quarterback like Jackson? What if you wanted to use the Tite front, to try and take away some of their run game concepts by being sound in gap discipline? The Patriots have done the latter at times, as we have seen. Could they combine it with the former this week? Would there be evidence of that working against Baltimore?
What if the Tite front meshes better with zone coverage in the back end, as Galina told me in a Twitter discussion about this very topic?
I think it makes sense especially if they decide they are gonna play zone against Lamar. The front fits zone better than man— Seth Galina (@SethGalina) October 30, 2019
Last year in the Wild Card round, you saw the Los Angeles Chargers use the Tite front and zone coverage early against the Ravens. This is the first play of the game:
Here is the end zone angle of that play:
Yes, that is your high-dollar defensive end Joey Bosa (#99) aligned as a 5-technique. But he helps string out this run from Jackson (#8) to where he has help on the outside, and the play is stopped for a loss.
Then there is this example, from early in the second quarter on a 3rd and 2:
Once more you see the Tite front, gap discipline up front, the athleticism on the edges, and a play stopped for no gain.
When the Ravens traveled west to take on the Seattle Seahawks, they saw a bit of this from Pete Carroll’s defense as well. On back-to-back plays in the first quarter, Seattle got heavy and used this alignment to stop the Baltimore ground game. On this first play you can see the playside defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson (#99) aligned in a 4i-technique, and he combines with safety Marquise Blair (#27) - playing perhaps the Chung role - combining for the stop on Jackson:
Then on the very next play Seattle uses the same front. And, well, let’s just say it is nice to have a Jadeveon Clowney (#90) around to chase plays down from the backside:
Now the wild card - no pun intended - in all of this is the growth from Jackson. In that game against the Chargers the Ravens’ offense started to move the ball late in the game when Jackson was forced to throw from behind. The steps he has made as a passer this season have been impressive as well. But we all know how Belichick approaches defensive game-planning: He wants to take away what you do best. If he does that, and you manage to beat him, then congratulations to you on a job well done.
In looking at the defensive personnel, this scheme and front fits with what the Patriots have put together, as posited in the piece from May. Adam Butler and Danny Shelton have been impressive in the interior. They have defensive ends who can slide to the inside like Lawrence Guy and Deatrich Wise Jr. We know about the athleticism they have now with Van Noy and the return of Jamie Collins. Plus, with Chung and the rest of the secondary, they have defensive backs who can both play in zone schemes and are willing to help downhill in run support.
The personnel fits as well.
So on Sunday night, look for the Patriots to roll out more of these Tite fronts, more zone coverages, and look to eliminate part of what makes this Ravens offense difficult to defend.