The NFL is always evolving. Whether it is new trends in play-calling being adapted from the college level, trying to invest in different player types or personnel groups in order to exploit market deficiencies, or simply morphing the offensive and defensive units in an attempt to take advantage of rule changes, the league in 2020 is different from how it presented itself 10, 20 or 30 years ago. Teams are therefore regularly forced to adapt.
For the last two decades, the New England Patriots under head coach Bill Belichick were better at this than any other club in the league.
Belichick used the 3-4 defense as his base alignment in the early 2000s, when most teams were investing in 4-3 personnel. He and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels embraced the spread looks being popular in college to build the most explosive offense the league has ever seen up to that point in 2007. They used two-tight end sets before other teams did, and went run-heavy when the entire league was focusing on the passing game to go on a Super Bowl run in 2018.
Now, Belichick and company are again on the forefront of a philosophical shift. With the passing game becoming an ever bigger part of the offensive game — a trend that was started as early as 2004 but is becoming increasingly prevalent — defenses have started to phase out base looks to instead put more cornerbacks and safeties onto the field as a countermeasure. Nowadays, nickel defenses consisting of five defensive backs are already employed on 59 percent of drop-back situations according to USA Today’s Doug Farrar.
What stood out in 2019, however, was that dime looks were used more commonly than base alignments as well: defenses used six defensive backs on 20.9 percent of passing snaps, compared to 18 percent in the classic defensive look with four DBs on the field. New England’s number one scoring defense was as active a participant in this development as any team in football last year. A look at the Patriots’ different personnel alignments, as compiled by Patriots Wire’s Brent Schwartz, shows this:
- Nickel (2-4-5): 26.7%
- 3-4 Base: 16.4%
- Big Dime (1-4-6): 15.4%
- Big Nickel (2-4-5): 12.7%
- Big Dime (2-3-6): 10%
- Other (short yardage/goal line/heavy): 6.4%
- 4 CB Dime (1-4-6 or 2-3-6): 6.1%
- Quarter (1-3-7): 4.1%
- Nickel (3-3-5): 2.2%
As can be seen, the Patriots were in a base look on just 16.4 percent of their defensive snaps last year regardless of situation — noticeably lower than the league average of 27 percent. A schedule that included pass-heavy offenses such as the Kansas City Chiefs’, Miami Dolphins’, or New York Giants’ may have played a role in this, as could have general league-wide trends such as a) passing the football instead of running it even on early downs, or b) using multiple tight end sets and other hybrid formations.
Looking at it from another perspective, though, we can go back to an oft-quoted statement by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels: “Whatever style you want to be, it should reflect the talents of your team.”
The Patriots’ strongest position group last year — and arguably the best position group in all of football — was their secondary. Led by Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore and veteran safety Devin McCourty, the unit was near the top of the league in multiple statistical categories: no other defensive backfield registered more interceptions during the regular season (25), gave up fewer passing touchdowns (13), or had a better defensive passer rating (62.8). New England spending the vast majority of its snaps with five-plus defensive backs on the field and more than a third with six-plus should therefore not be seen as a surprise.
Belichick and company identified the strength of their defense and employed their personnel accordingly, effectively daring teams to try their luck on the ground instead of moving the ball through the air against the NFL’s best pass defense. Of course, the fact that the Patriots were built that way in the first place could be attributed to the team seeing a necessity to do so because of the recent growth in teams’ willingness to pass the football no matter the down and distance.
Other teams have started to follow this trend from a schematic perspective. Once more, though, Belichick was at the forefront of this shift.