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 NFL continues to evolve. As a result, the league of the 2020s is markedly different from how it looked like 30, 20 or even 10 years ago.
Teams are therefore forced to evolve as well if they want to adapt to those ever-changing circumstances. The New England Patriots under head coach Bill Belichick are obviously no strangers to this, and have been among the league leaders in innovation for much of the past two decades.
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.
Some of those philosophical shifts were made to take advantage of the market, others more out of necessity. Regardless of motive, there always was one underlying foundation: getting the best players on the field to put the team in the most favorable position possible. The 2020 Patriots also experienced that, even though the outcome was not always positive.
Belichick’s team already shifted away from standard base personnel groupings on the defensive side for quite some time now, a trend that can be seen all over the league as the following graphic illustrates (via NFL data scientist Tom Bliss):
As can be seen, the standard 3-4 or 4-3 alignments with four defensive backs on the field are increasingly becoming a thing of the past. Whereas they were still pretty popular in the mid-2000s — shortly after the trend towards increased passing volumes were kicked off on behalf of then-Indianapolis Colts general manager Bill Polian — they are slowly starting to fade away. By 2020, nickel and dime looks were replacing traditional base defenses.
The Patriots were already ahead of that curve last year, when they played base defense on only 16.4 percent of their defensive snaps. For comparison, the rest of the league was in either a 3-4 or 4-3 front 27 percent of the time in 2019.
Last season, however, Belichick and company turned their use of sub packages all the way up to the proverbial 11: they played just 3.6 percent of their defensive snaps with four or fewer defensive backs on the field. In turn, their usage of multiple defensive backs increased quite drastically.
A breakdown of its different defensive alignments shows just how DB-heavy the team was in 2020:
- 2-4-5: 29.3%
- 2-3-6: 21.6%
- 3-3-5: 18.5%
- 2-2-7: 10.0%
- 3-2-6: 6.8%
- 1-3-7: 6.7%
- 3-4-4: 2.1%
- 2-5-4: 1.6%
- 1-4-6: 1.1%
- 3-1-7: 0.6%
- 4-4-3: 0.5%
- 4-3-4: 0.5%
- 3-5-3: 0.4%
- 4-2-5: 0.1%
- 1-2-8: 0.1%
First number: Defensive tackles/Defensive linemen; Second number: Linebackers/Edge defenders; Third number: Defensive backs
As the list shows, the Patriots were in a look with two defensive tackles (e.g. Adam Butler and Lawrence Guy), four linebackers (e.g. Chase Winovich, John Simon, Anfernee Jennings and Ja’Whaun Bentley) and five defensive backs on the field on 29.3 percent of their defensive snaps. Their next most frequently used alignments also featured five-plus players in the secondary — including 2-2-7 and 1-3-7 looks on a combined 16.7 percent of snaps.
New England’s use of nickel (five DBs), dime (six DBs) and quarter (seven DBs) sets did not happen by accident, but was rather a result of the team’s lack of quality at the linebacker position. Just take safety Adrian Phillips, who was playing the “star” role for much of the year.
The Patriots’ de facto base formation of years past usually saw two off-the-ball linebackers play in front of a secondary with five defensive backs. One member of that unit, however, normally aligned closer to the box almost as if playing a third linebacker role. Safety Patrick Chung is a prime example of that, as he would help in coverage against tight ends and running backs but simultaneously give the team an additional body versus the run.
That 4-2-5 look — which was oftentimes a 2-4-5 with four down-linemen — could therefore easily be manipulated into a 4-3-3 with Chung as the third off-the-ball linebacker. This role was still present on the 2020 Patriots in the form of Adrian Phillips, but the problem was that the other “normal” linebacker spots were oftentimes not properly manned.
As a result, New England relied heavily on using one off-the-ball linebacker like Ja’Whaun Bentley or Terez Hall with Phillips as the second man alongside them. This allowed the team to get its best players onto the field in the secondary, but it also created a weakness up front: Phillips may be a “linebacker at heart” but he is still built like a defensive back and therefore unable to consistently hold his ground versus the running game.
With Dont’a Hightower having opted out of the 2020 season and with Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins both playing elsewhere after departing in free agency, however, the Patriots no longer had the proper linebacker depth to help Phillips and the front seven as a whole. Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings had only a limited impact during their rookie season, while Brandon Copeland was lost to a torn pectoral muscle in October.
As a result of those circumstances, the Patriots were forced to make ends meet by using an increased number of defensive backs. The plan worked at times, but it just limited New England’s defensive flexibility against teams willing to run the ball — and there were quite a few of them down the stretch.
Heading into 2020, the Patriots will therefore have to find a way to move back towards the league averages when it comes to nickel, dime and quarter packages. Whether it is getting Hightower back, Uche and Jennings growing into off-the-ball roles, or other offseason additions being brought aboard to bolster the depth, New England cannot leave itself vulnerable in this area again.