When listening to members of the New England Patriots speak about their approach to the game of football, one word gets mentioned regularly: fundamentals. What seems like a generic answer coined by head coach Bill Belichick himself is actually a core concept at the heart of the so-called ‘Patriot Way’: the oft-used phrase of doing one’s job, for example, is dependent on the ability to play fundamentally sound football in all its aspects.
Just look at the 2018 season, which ended with New England atop the NFL mountain for the sixth time since Belichick joined the organization in 2000. While the club itself had its ups and downs, especially early in the season, it eventually was able to overcome its inconsistencies all the way to a championship. Along the way, the Patriots proved themselves again as being one of the masters of fundamental football.
This was quite obvious on the defensive side of the ball, especially when looking at one statistic: tackles. Tackle numbers per se are not indicative of anything, of course, but with some proper contextualization they can help better understand a team’s ability to perform the fundamental parts of playing the game — from players positioning themselves well in order to make a stop, to actually them being able to get take down a ball carrier.
In 2018, the Patriots were outstanding at those things. According to advanced analytics website Pro Football Focus, New England missed just 74 tackles during its nineteen games. When comparing that to the team’s actual tackle numbers, we can find out that the club missed on just 8.2% of its overall tackling attempts. All in all, the Patriots’ defenders were ranked first in the NFL — tied with the Minnesota Vikings — with a 91.8 tackling grade.
For comparison, the average NFL team received a tackling grade of ‘only’ 69.8. New England’s defense was clearly above that, and while multiple factors contribute to this success, fundamentals is a key element. Look no further than the post-game statements after the Patriots’ victory in Super Bowl 53 — a 13-3 affair agains the Los Angeles Rams that was the lowest-scoring championship game of the Super Bowl era.
“We had a good game-plan and we did it with our fundamentals and we just dug deep,” said linebacker Kyle Van Noy after the game. While ‘fundamentals’ includes everything from pass blocking, to punting, to coverage, the gist remains the same: the Patriots’ focus on fundamentals helped them come away victoriously on the game’s biggest stage and is as big a part of New England’s defensive success as any.
This should not come as a surprise, however, considering that the team’s coaches regularly point out the importance of playing fundamentally strong football. “We spend a lot of times on fundamentals here, and I think as you look at teams throughout the season, one of the things that breaks down is their fundamentals,” said then-defensive coordinator Matt Patricia in 2017 when discussing the Patriots’ abilities to stay productive late in the season.
“Pad-level, tackling, focus on the ball. If you can really maintain that stuff all the way through the year and you’re playing at your highest level, that’s what you’re going to revert to in the end,” he continued. Patricia, who joined the Detroit Lions as their new head coach after the 2017 season, lived through this mantra for six years as the Patriots’ defensive signal caller. While the results were not always perfect, the approach proved to be the right one year-in and year-out.
Patricia’s de facto successor saw this the same way, unsurprisingly. Brian Flores, who called New England’s defense last season and now serves as head coach of the Miami Dolphins, pointed out the importance of fundamentals and technique during a regular season conference call: “It’s something we preach here, we talk about every week and we practice them every day in our individual drills.”
“I think that’s where it starts. You can say all you want about first down, second down, but it starts with fundamentals,” Flores said. “You can’t have a good play without good fundamentals. When we play with good fundamentals, we have good production on those downs, and when we don’t, we don’t. So, we’ve just got to continue to stress the fundamentals and do a better job of playing with good fundamentals and technique.”
2018’s success in this regard speaks for itself — especially when looking at the playoffs. While the AFC Championship Game against the Kansas City Chiefs was a defensive struggle for New England in the second half, the team did its job in the first. Two weeks later against the Rams, the unit performed at a historically high level: the pass rush was productive, the coverage was tight, the tackling sure. This in combination with excellent communication made the Patriots to stop LA’s high-flying offense.
At the basis of it all lies the focus on fundamentals, something that gets taught in a top-down principle in New England: it all starts with Bill Belichick, who is the maestro behind the Patriots’ defensive evolvement over the years and has implemented the unit’s blue-collar attitude. “Any player would tell you that in order to be good in this league, you’re going to have to be good fundamentally and technically,” said Belichick last year.
For the players themselves, this focus on fundamentals is part of their daily routine — and something newcomers, unlike the aforementioned Kyle Van Noy, who has been with the team since 2016, quickly recognize as well. You see a lot of hard-nosed football, a lot of great guys. Technically sound, fundamentally sound,” said defensive edge Michael Bennett, who was acquired via trade in March, after one of the Patriots’ offseason practices.
“I think that’s what makes this team one of the best teams in the NFL.”