For a head coach who loves versatility, Bill Belichick doesn’t demand much of it out of the New England Patriots’ defensive tackles, compared to the rest of the NFL.
The Patriots run 17.2 percent of their defensive snaps — and 24.1 percent of their defensive passing snaps — without one of their traditional 300-pound interior defensive lineman on the field, leading the NFL. They replace their defensive tackles on obvious passing snaps with either two extra edge defenders or an edge defender and a linebacker. This is popularly dubbed the “NASCAR” package in the NFL.
It hasn’t been overly effective for most of the season, as the Patriots rank 20th in sack percentage. But it was effective in Week 11, when they recorded a season-high five sacks with the addition of Kyle Van Noy.
The Patriots fare better against the pass without a defensive tackle on the field. They average 6.1 yards per pass in the NASCAR package and 6.4 with at least one defensive tackle on the field.
The Patriots don’t have much of a choice but to defend the pass without a typical 300-pound defensive tackle on the field. Alan Branch (3.4 pressure percentage), Malcom Brown (5.4 percent), Vincent Valentine (8.2 percent) and Woodrow Hamilton (no pressures in 19 pass-rush snaps) don’t provide pressure at a high rate, and defensive tackles who can do it all are hard to find.
“Richard Seymour, he was the sixth pick in the draft,” Belichick said, mentioning the Patriots’ former defensive lineman. “Yeah, they’re definitely hard to find. That’s why they go so fast.”
Edge defenders and linebackers such as Chris Long (15.5 percent), Jabaal Sheard (12.6 percent), Trey Flowers (10.9 percent), Dont’a Hightower (26.7 percent), Rob Ninkovich (8.7 percent), Shea McClellin (11.7 percent) and Kyle Van Noy (50 percent) all provide more consistent pressure than the Patriots’ defensive tackles.
The Patriots ran just 6.8 percent of their snaps and 9.5 percent of their passing snaps without a defensive tackle in 2015. The reason for the rise in 2016? They let Akiem Hicks (14.3 pressure percentage in 2015) walk in free agency and released Dominique Easley (12.6 percent). The team had reason to use defensive tackles on passing snaps last season.
Belichick doesn’t necessarily subscribe to those snap figures, since he doesn’t put players in a one-position box.
“Your definition of those players depends on what you want to call them,” Belichick said. “What do you want to call Easley? Do you call Easley a defensive tackle? I mean, he was, whatever he was, 270-some pounds. Is he a tackle, is Sheard an end? It’s just a matter of semantics in some cases.
“I would say there has been — that we have had a similar group of players on the field in a lot of those situations for the last three or four years. That’s the way I look at it.”
Easley was listed at 285 pounds with the Patriots and primarily played defensive tackle, while Sheard is a defensive end who will move into the middle of the field in passing situations. As Belichick said, sometimes it’s a matter of semantics.
“Hightower, what do you want to call him? Is he an end? Is he a linebacker? Is he a tackle? He’s 260-some pounds,” Belichick said. “I mean, he’s played all of them. … I think you’re looking at a lot of a similar type of athlete in some of those spots.”
The Patriots’ number of plays without a defensive tackle on the field has been rising since 2011, when they didn’t run a single snap in such a formation. They ran four plays in that formation in 2013 and five in 2012, compared to 112 so far this season. The Patriots once had more versatile defensive tackles — such as Hicks, Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and even Chris Jones — on their roster. They now have more depth than ever on the edge.
The New York Giants popularized this formation and dubbed it “NASCAR” for speed in 2011. The Seattle Seahawks ran it in 2013. Both teams won the Super Bowl in those seasons.
Another team heavily using the formation this season is the Atlanta Falcons, whose head coach, Dan Quinn, was the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator in 2013 and 2014. The Falcons run a NASCAR set more than the Patriots if you consider Courtney Upshaw a linebacker. He has played defensive tackle with the Falcons, however. Semantics.
The Patriots aren’t replicating the success of the 2011 Giants and 2013 Seahawks, both of whom finished their respective seasons with a 7.51 sack percentage while the Patriots’ rate stands at just 5.21 percent. Perhaps the addition of Van Noy is what the Patriots have been missing. It also would help if Sheard wakes up after he was a healthy scratch in Week 11. But without a versatile pass-rushing defensive tackle, the Patriots have little choice but to keep riding the NASCAR.
Thumbnail photo via Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY Sports Images