FOXBORO, Mass. — The Patriots showed a new wrinkle during Sunday’s game against the Buccaneers.
Bill Belichick pulled a safety in the base defense, choosing instead to keep three cornerbacks and three linebackers on the field. It came out looking like a hybrid base/nickel defense.
New England showed the look multiple times with four down linemen, Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower at linebacker, Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington at cornerback and Devin McCourty as the lone safety.
The look was likely utilized to keep Spikes in the defense to help out in the run game, since Doug Martin is so dangerous. But it also showed that Belichick is confident enough in Talib, Dennard and Arrington’s pass-defense skills that they only need one safety to help out over the top.
That trust is well deserved. The Patriots’ cornerbacks have played fantastically this season. Granted, they’ve gone up against three of the bottom-tier quarterabacks in the league in EJ Manuel, Geno Smith and Josh Freeman, but they haven’t shown many moments of weakness.
Freeman completed less than 50 percent of his passes for 236 yards and one interception. Talib limited Vincent Jackson to 34 yards on three catches before the 6-foot-5, 230-pound receiver left the game with an injury.
Talib, Dennard and Arrington limited Mike Williams, as well. He had a couple impressive grabs early in the game, but caught five passes for 65 yards.
The Patriots essentially have a starting 12 on defense. It’s nearly impossible to keep all three linebackers and all five defensive backs on the field at the same time, so, typically, Spikes and Dennard will rotate in and out. Since both players are so good — Spikes against the run and Dennard against the pass — it’s nice to be able to throw in a third player who can rotate in Gregory.
Late in the game, the Patriots replaced Arrington with rookie Logan Ryan, though it’s unclear why. That switch eliminated the three-linebacker, one-safety base defense.
Belichick was happy with how the Patriots secondary looked defending Jackson, particularly Talib.
“I thought Aqib did a good job competing against him and played him tough at the line of scrimmage,” Belichick said. “Jackson made a couple, but Talib made a couple. It was a good, competitive matchup. He’s definitely a guy, obviously him and [Doug] Martin, are two guys you have to stop on this football team. Being able to keep him out of the end zone and just limit his catches was huge for us. But Aqib did a great job, he worked hard, had a good week of preparation, he had a real good week of practice and it showed up in the game. He made that play in practice — the interception — a couple times, just the way it turned out in the game. It’s just a good example of practicing well leads to the game performance.”
Talib’s inteception was his third of the season. He picked off Geno Smith twice last week against the Jets.
“Yeah, we had a good idea of the concepts they like to run in two-minute before the end of the half,” Talib said on his interception. “Matty P [defensive coordinator Matt Patricia] called the perfect play for what they like to do and we made the play.”
The Patriots forced the Buccaneers to turn the ball over on downs four times. Tampa Bay ran passing plays on the final play in three of those drives when the Buccaneers were unable to convert. The team allowed more passing yards than they have all season, but they also kept the Buccaneers out of the end zone and were able to make key stops when they needed them most.
The defense switched up their defense more than than in the first two games. We saw more 3-4 looks up front, we saw Jamie Collins in on nickel and Duron Harmon taking snaps for Gregory.
With so much continuity on defense, the Patriots are able to keep opposing offenses on their toes with new concepts. The Falcons may no have no idea what to expect next Sunday.