While the quality of the opposition can be argued, one thing cannot be denied: the New England Patriots have played some marvelous defense so far this season, holding opponents to exactly three points during the first three games of the year — a feature that is unprecedented in the Super Bowl era. The Patriots did exactly what you would want them to do against inferior opposition, which is dominate from start to finish.
One reason for the team’s defensive success is the its ability to use a wide array of weapons on all three levels. New England has both solid starter-level talent across the board and a deep rotation in its front seven and secondary, bound together by a smartly applied scheme. During a conference call on Tuesday, head coach Bill Belichick dug a bit deeper into the topic of how depth has helped fuel his club’s success on this side of the ball.
“I think it starts with practice,” said Belichick when asked about the impact the defensive depth has on the unit’s ability to stay consistently productive. “We practice really a lot of players so we’re in there in different combinations in practice and fortunately, or unfortunately, if we end up with a situation where somebody’s unavailable for the game, then in a lot of cases those rotations have already occurred on the practice field.”
“Like in Kyle [Van Noy]’s case: of course he would have been active for the game [against the Pittsburgh Steelers] and he would’ve had a major role in the game, but John [Simon], and Jamie [Collins Sr.], and Shilique Calhoun, and [Chase] Winovich, those guys, they were all working there anyway, so the adjustment for those guys is really not that big. It’s a little more playtime,” he continued, talking about the Patriots’ season opener.
Van Noy, of course, missed the Patriots’ first game of the year due to the birth of his child. The defense, however, did not skip a beat and held a talented Steelers offense — one that still had quarterback Ben Roethlisberger available at that point — to only one field goal as well as a 25% conversion rate on third down. The unit continued its strong performances the following two weeks when it shut out the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets.
According to Belichick, however, replacing players one-for-one is not as easy as it may seem: “Where it impacts the team the most on a situation like that is not just defensively in the defensive packages, it certainly takes away some depth, but also affects you in the kicking game as far as players who are on four phases. Or maybe it could be less than that — two phases — then you don’t only have to replace them on defense but you have to replace them in the kicking game.”
“I think it’s a little bit challenging defensively when you have several different packages, an early down package and a couple of different third down packages, sometimes the same player doesn’t always replace him in all of those situations,” continued Belichick when talking about his team’s depth. “Depending on who the player is and what the game plan is, that could get a little more challenging.”
“But, overall, our depth is good. Those guys get a lot of work in practice and they’re somewhat interchangeable,” added Belichick. While the Patriots have not needed their depth to help with injuries yet, having multiple players available to play different positions will help a ton from a schematic perspective. So far, New England seems to have only scratched the surface of possibilities.