In the first round of April’s NFL Draft, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick traded down three spots and selected Christian Gonzalez, a cornerback who fit precisely what the team lacked on the back end. Few were surprised.
The next day, with the team’s second-round pick, he chose defensive lineman Keion White. It was an unexpected selection on the surface, but it’s a position where Belichick has a great history of drafting players and developing them. A few hours later, he took hybrid linebacker/safety Marte Mapu.
The initial reaction from draft experts was confusion. The Patriots were coming off a year when their offense ranked toward the bottom of the league. And their response was to spend their first three draft picks on defensive players?
But those two nights in April were the culmination of Belichick’s offseason plan, one that is looking more and more wise after his team played relatively well in nearly upsetting the mighty Philadelphia Eagles in their season opener. Put succinctly, Belichick’s plan for the 2023 Patriots was simple: zig where the others are zagging.
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— New England Patriots (@Patriots) September 11, 2023
• With the rest of the league prizing high-flying, matchup-based offenses in an age of analytics, Belichick has set out to build a positionless defense capable of removing that advantage.
• With everyone else scorning special teams amid rule changes deemphasizing that phase of the game, Belichick has bulked up on specialists in free agency and the draft.
• With other teams using defenses with two deep safeties to take away explosive plays, Belichick has built a passing game centered around quick throws to receivers who can excel after the catch with room to run.
• With the rest of the league prioritizing small, quick defensive linemen who can rush the passer, Belichick has tried to create a bruising running game that can go right at those players instead of using the wide-zone schemes that are so popular around the league.
The next phase of Belichick’s post-Tom Brady roster construction is here, and its goal is to have an answer for each NFL trend.
The ensuing 16 games will dictate whether that plan was a success, but the early results were positive — even if the Pats did lose to the Eagles. The defense’s positionless back end gave the Eagles’ otherwise dominant passing game fits, limiting Jalen Hurts and company to 170 yards. The New England offense showed signs of life after a slow start and offered hope for the kind of varied approach that was absent a year ago.
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Now, as the Patriots prepare for the Miami Dolphins on Sunday night in an AFC East that is suddenly wide open following the Buffalo Bills’ Week 1 loss and Aaron Rodgers’ season-ending injury, it’s worth reflecting more on Belichick’s plan for this group.
Let’s start with the defense. Belichick figured, in part, that if the Patriots weren’t going to be able to quickly amass the firepower to keep up with the rest of the division offensively (again, this is pre-Rodgers injury), he could beat them a different way. So he bolstered the defense with interchangeable parts. The rest of the league wants to play defense one way and get really good at playing it that one way. Roughly a third of the league has hired disciples of Vic Fangio to put his scheme in place (and, in the Dolphins’ case, they actually hired Fangio). But Belichick wants to run what Jerod Mayo calls a “matchup defense.”
That required a roster of players capable of doing multiple things. Enter White, a defensive lineman who can set the edge and rush the passer. Add Mapu, a linebacker who can stuff the run or drop back to safety and run with receivers. Move around veterans Jabrill Peppers, Jalen Mills, Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips, and you’ve got plenty of options on the back end.
The idea worked well in Week 1 against the Eagles, who managed only one touchdown against the Patriots defense. But the test is tough this Sunday, too. Mike McDaniel’s offense may be better than any in the AFC at creating matchup advantages and exploiting them. So the prime-time game at Gillette Stadium on Sunday will offer another early test.
Does your coach use a personnel because he wants to or because he wants you (the defense) in something specific?!?
— Dan Orlovsky (@danorlovsky7) September 11, 2023
Belichick also spent time in the offseason studying defenses around the league. He’s familiar with the Fangio scheme. He borrowed parts of that defense and quickly implemented them for Super Bowl LIII when the Patriots limited a high-powered Los Angeles Rams offense to three points.
It’s a system that relies on two deep safeties and shell coverages to take away explosive plays. In a lot of ways, it’s an answer to the big gains the Kansas City Chiefs consistently made in recent years. It’s a defense that’s willing to give you short gains in exchange for taking away your big shots, betting you can’t consistently move the ball 5 yards at a time for long drives throughout the game.
But Belichick has constructed this Patriots offense to do just that with the help of new coordinator Bill O’Brien. They chose receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster over Jakobi Meyers in free agency because Smith-Schuster is better after the catch, and they figured O’Brien could draw up plays to get him open underneath while two deep safeties worry about other things. And Belichick is still committed to a hard-nosed running game even after offensive-line issues and an early 16-0 deficit meant the Patriots had to throw the ball more than normal in their first game.
Up next is the ultimate test for this offense. It’s a chance to take on Fangio and a Dolphins defense that has a lot of promise despite allowing 34 points to the Los Angeles Chargers last weekend.
Finally, there are special teams. The NFL implemented new rules this season to decrease the importance and frequency of kickoff returns. Yet, Belichick has emphasized that phase of the game as much as ever. He signed Chris Board in the offseason to play on every special teams unit along with Matthew Slater and Brenden Schooler. The Patriots also became the first team since 2000 to select a kicker and punter in the same draft, choosing kicker Chad Ryland in the fourth round and punter Bryce Baringer in the sixth. They also kept sixth-round pick Ameer Speed on the roster to help with special teams.
Week 1 felt like a step in the right direction for the Patriots. The plan Belichick followed this offseason became clear and the team left that loss to Philadelphia with plenty of positives. Now the question becomes whether Belichick’s zig to the league’s zag can get the Patriots back into the playoffs.
(Photo: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)
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