Situational football is at the core of Bill Belichick’s coaching philosophy: his players and assistant coaches have to be prepared for whatever comes up on the football field in order to make sound decisions based on their knowledge and prior work. Practicing those hypothetical situations is therefore an important step in getting the team ready for whatever could come up on the field, but 2020 will make it a bit more difficult.
Belichick, however, does not sound concerned despite the Coronavirus pandemic forcing the NFL to cancel its preseason schedule this year and also prohibit teams to hold joint training camp practices. The New England Patriots’ head coach spoke with reporters on Monday about situational football and explained how he and the team approach a training camp in which game situations will have to be simulated as opposed to studied versus another club.
“We’ll have to create those [situations],” Belichick said. “As we get to different points in camp depending on what we’re ready for, what we have installed, what situations we’re ready for, and then we’ll have to create those situations, practice them against ourselves or practice them against a simulated opponent. We work against ourselves, we do what we do, but that may not be what everybody else does, so we would have to create that.”
Creating different situations in practice has been a New England speciality under Belichick, with or without preseason.
The most famous example may come from the team’s preparation for its Super Bowl 49 meeting with the Seattle Seahawks. The Patriots, based on work done by research director Ernie Adams, were able to get a good grasp of which plays Seattle liked to run in the red zone — knowledge that was later used in practice and subsequently laid the basis for the game-sealing interception by cornerback Malcolm Butler late in the fourth quarter.
The Super Bowl is an extreme example that is a) based on an entire season worth of film on an opponent, and b) taking place with the 53-man roster already set, but the general idea is the same: different situations get simulated in practice in order to get offense, defense and special teams ready for various in-game scenarios. Preseason and joint sessions help do that, particularly in regards to finalizing the team, but Belichick sounds confident in the Patriots’ ability to adjust even without exhibition contests and cross-squad practices this year.
“There are other ways we can work on those situations,” he said. “Ultimately, we’re going to have to go out there and do them against ourselves. That’s one of the advantages of practicing with another team. When we didn’t practice with another team, then it was the same situation. Even though there were preseason games, the fact of the matter is that with a minute to go in the game, the players who are going to be doing that in the regular season generally weren’t on the field anyway for that situation.
“Without the joint practices — which again, sometimes we’ve had, sometimes we haven’t — but then we’d have to create those situations ourselves and coach them and evaluate them and all of the things that go with them. So, that’s where we are this year.”
New England would have had at least one joint session this summer leading into its preseason opener against the Detroit Lions, as well as four exhibition contests. Instead, the team will not see other players until its first regular season game versus the Miami Dolphins in September. Nevertheless, the players are finding positives in the situation as it presents itself — something cornerback Joejuan Williams pointed out during his own media session on Monday.
“You’re facing three different quarterbacks, you’re getting three different looks,” he said when asked about practicing against a QB group consisting of a top-three — Jarrett Stidham, Cam Newton and Brian Hoyer — that is getting equal opportunities so far in training camp. “It’s going to make us better as a defense.”