Belichick has the answer for the Saints offense and defense
Belichick setting the standard in the NFL
By Pat Kirwan
Special to NFL.com
Pat Kirwan, an experienced coach and NFL front office executive, joined NFL.com this season. From 1989 to 1997, Kirwan held several positions with the New York Jets, including defensive assistant coach, assistant pro personnel director and director of player administration. He has managed the salary cap, negotiated player contracts and trades, and evaluated pro and college player personnel. Prior to joining the Jets, Pat was a scout for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Arizona Cardinals as well as the offensive coordinator at Hofstra University for six years. He most recently wrote for CNNSi.
(Sept. 16, 2002) -- I worked with Patriots head coach Bill Belichick for six months back in 1997 and a few things about him were immediately clear to me. He was one of the hardest-working coaches I had ever been around, very innovative, an excellent teacher, and regularly studied old game tapes from 8-to-10 years ago to prepare his gameplans.
From what I heard, he found some spread offense concepts from 8-year-old game tapes that convinced him of a way to defeat the Steelers in Week 1. The result? New England was successful in spreading out the Pittsburgh defense and throwing the ball until the game was over.
The Oakland Raiders wisely took the blueprint Belichick devised and expanded it from 43 pass attempts to 64. The Steelers are 0-2 and have a fire burning that Belichick started and only the Steelers can put out. Speaking of fires Belichick has started, the Rams haven't seemed to put out the blaze from the Super Bowl, and now the Jets have one roaring.
What makes Belichick so intriguing to me is the things he does on defense. I went to the Patriots-Jets game to get a close-up look at what Bill is up to these days. Some teams claim to be a 4-3 defense and pretty much show the opposing offense some variation of that package on every down. Other teams hang their hat on the 3-4 system. Belichick does it all, and then some.
The Patriots threw many different things at the Jets, and believe me, the list is long and very difficult for any team to prepare for. But Belichick would love to see his next opponent try and get ready for all he has done over the past two weeks, because he might do none of it next week.
As one NFL scout said to me in the press box Sunday, "We can't play the Patriots with the same offensive stuff he sees us do every week. He'll have answers for all of it." I pointed out at the end of the game that the Pats have 10 sacks in two games from nine different players. His reaction was, "That's scheme that's winning games."
I asked two New England players I know very well about the defense, and both simply believe Belichick will always put them in the best position to succeed. That kind of trust in a coach makes a team very dangerous.
Against the Jets, New England's defense came out in a 4-3 defense for the first series. The second series, the unit employed a 3-4 defense. Then they got real creative, substituting safety Victor Green for linebacker Ted Johnson and having safeties Tebucky Jones and Lawyer Milloy on the field with Green. It didn't matter what personnel grouping the Jets were in because I witnessed Belichick sending the three-safety package on the field for a first-down defense before the Jets sent in their offensive personnel.
As another scout said to me at halftime, "I can't get a feel for which one of those three safeties is going to come up and blitz, which one is going to lurk in the crossing route area and which one will play deep middle, but it sure is effective."
If coaches and scouts have to go to great lengths to study what Belichick has up his sleeve, how are the players going to understand it in time for the game? There's no doubt in my mind Belichick makes preparation for his opponents almost impossible. He turns it into a guessing contest, and NFL coaches like to know what to expect.
Teams have a hard time preparing for Bill Belichick's schemes.
I was an advance scout for years, and no one enjoyed when I returned from a scouting trip and said things like, "They might do this" or "could do that" or "They did something different each week I watched them." Believe me, scouts reporting about the Patriots can't answer many questions in a definitive manner.
Belichick loves to roll defensive packages through the game, especially early, to get opponents confused and scrambling on the sideline. The three-safety package stopped the run and looked perfect for passing downs, but then cornerback Terrell Buckley would come in for safety Green.
When you sub a defensive back for a defensive back, you're not really going from base defense to nickel defense like most teams. Rather, you're going from "big nickel to little nickel." Later, on a third-and-20 situation, Belichick had his safeties lined up closer to the ball than linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who was lined up about 12 yards off the ball and spying Curtis Martin. The Jets threw a short pass to Martin, and there was Bruschi unblocked to tackle him and force a punting situation.
I firmly believe Belichick calls defenses more like offensive plays than a normal read-and-react approach. He clearly keeps his opponents on their heels and eventually dictates what offenses will do.
No matter what defensive package he called, there was always a flavor of blitz pressure. Next week we might see no blitzing from his calls, but this week, I counted 16 blitzes during meaningful game situations. Of the five sacks New England registered against the Jets, one was most telling -- the safety blitz by Tebucky Jones in a dime defense that resulted in a forced fumble that he picked up and ran 24 yards for a touchdown.
One longtime Jets employee said to me after that play as he shook his head, "We're playing against a genius, and he's better now than when he was with us."
Last year, Belichick blitzed the Rams a lot during their regular-season matchup and almost beat them. He came back in the Super Bowl and didn't blitz at all. Right in the middle of all those exotic defenses, he threw in -- for one snap -- five linemen down against a three-wide-receiver set. I sat there and thought, "Just another thing to practice all week."
The secret to Belichick's coaching style is two-fold: He looks for really smart players and he communicates all the different ideas in a very succinct manner.
Belichick's offensive creativity is equally impressive. Here are a few examples of his and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis' twists to keep the opposing defense honest.
On one shotgun formation, the center snapped the ball directly to the upback while quarterback Tom Brady acted as if the snap went over his head. It pulled some of the defensive players upfield and running back Kevin Faulk ran for a first down.
During a fourth-and-1 situation, the Pats sent their "jumbo" personnel on the field in what appeared would be a traditional power-run call. Instead, Brady yelled "shift" and the players exploded into a spread set. Brady waited for the defense to adjust and then ran a sneak for a first down.
A little later in a first-and-10 situation with two tight ends, two wide receivers and one running back on the field, Brady faked the dive and reverse every team is running now, stood still for a second, then turned and threw a deep pass to David Patten for 39 yards while Jets linebackers were converging on the dive and secondary people were defending the reverse.
Belichick's team is so well-coached that when one of his receivers made a grab that might not have been a legal catch, his players sprinted up to the line of scrimmage and almost got the ball snapped for a sneak before the Jets could throw the challenge flag. I'm sure by next week, they'll have that play down for the next time the situation arises.
The truth is: Belichick's next few opponents might see an entirely new scheme on both sides of the ball and that's where the dilemma lies in preparing for the Patriots.
He seems to play every player on the roster and has neat little packages for each and every one of them. His tight ends are a great example of how hard it is to get a feel for what he's doing. Christian Fauria, Cameron Cleeland and rookie Daniel Graham can all be in together, or any two of them in, or one of them or none of them. In the Pats' first 20 plays I recorded, they were in six different personnel groupings.
During the third series of offensive plays, he sent out four different personnel in the first four plays, which can create stress on a defense. Belichick is a defensive coach and makes sure his offense does all the things he hates to see from an opponent. It seems to be a big part of the Patriots' design, and I guarantee you it's working. All you had to do was be up in the booth with me and talk with the scouts trying to get a "feel" for all the things New England does. Or simply look at the 0-2 start of both the Rams and Steelers to get a grasp of what's going on after teams play the Patriots.
When I look at New England's roster, there really are no "star players." I asked two personnel directors, "Who would you double-team on the Patriots roster?" After a long pause, both said no one. Brady might be on the verge of becoming a great player and it's scary to think what Belichick will think up with a top-flight quarterback. Receivers Troy Brown and Patten are just two hard-working short guys. I like both defensive ends Anthony Pleasant and Bobby Hamilton for their effort, but neither is bound for the Hall of Fame. The Bills cut running back Antowain Smith last year. All of this means that a lot of credit must go to the coaching staff.
Many good coaches seem to want to copy the Patriots. Teams like the Raiders, for example, are effectively using 3-4 principles as a change-up on defense.
When New England signed Green right before the start of camp for reasonable money, many people I spoke with felt they got a good quality player to back up starters Jones and Milloy. Little did they know Belichick was in a dark film room studying ways to get all his safeties on the field together, or that he picked up Buckley, who has been fabulous playing in Belichick's system, and linebacker Mike Vrabel, who couldn't break into the Steelers' starting lineup but is a quality starting linebacker in this system.
It's a pleasure to watch a well-coached team that creates its own competitive advantages with imagination, attention to detail and preparation. The Patriots' 11-game winning streak dating back to Nov. 18 last year will come to an end sooner or later, but when you stop and realize that their past five opponents -- Oakland, Pittsburgh twice, St. Louis and the Jets -- combined for 68 points, you get a full grip on what is really going on up in Foxboro. The team that was an underdog to win the Super Bowl and already an underdog against the Steelers and Jets this season, is anything but an underdog.
Oh, by the way, the Patriots' game plan for next week's opponent, the Kansas City Chiefs, was done by the time the plane landed in Boston following the Jets game.
[Edited on 27/9/2003 by BillyCarpenter1]
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