Football is a violent, physical game, but under its surface is a complicated chess match. And Bill Belichick is its Grandmaster.
The legendary head coach has the New England Patriots in their ninth Super Bowl, in large part thanks to his meticulous preparation and expert game-planning. But what exactly makes Belichick so good at his job? Former NFL executive Michael Lombardi, who spent five seasons with Belichick on the Cleveland Browns and two more in New England in 2014 and 2015, gave us a revealing answer Wednesday.
In a special to The Ringer, Lombardi provided a firsthand account of how Belichick thoroughly prepares for every opponent, recalling how his former boss once treated a lowly Jacksonville Jaguars team “as if it was the reigning two-time Super Bowl winner.”
Lombardi also revealed what he considers the crux of all Belichick defensive game plans.
“Belichick doesn’t take away what the opponent does best, but what their individual players do best,” he wrote. “It’s a subtle but crucial difference. He personally breaks down every offensive player to understand their strengths within their team’s scheme. Then, he matches the talents of New England’s defensive players to whatever system he’s created for that week.”
Like when Belichick lined up his nose tackle, Vince Wilfork, over the opposing team’s right tackle.
“For years, Wilfork was Belichick’s best run stopper,” Lombardi wrote. “Whenever New England’s opponent loved running the ball to its right, guess where it made the most sense to stick Wilfork? Fairly simple, yet not often done.”
So, how will Belichick apply that blueprint to stop a potent Atlanta Falcons offense in Super Bowl LI? Lombardi emphasized two key points: getting pressure on quarterback Matt Ryan to disrupt the timing of the passing game, and containing star wide receiver Julio Jones.
Ryan, as Lombardi noted, thrives with time and a clean pocket. The Patriots weren’t known for their pass rush this season — they finished with 34 sacks, tied for 16th in the NFL — but Lombardi believes New England’s defensive line can adopt a physical approach to put the heat on Atlanta’s offense.
“Expect defensive tackles Alan Branch and Malcom Brown to line up over either Falcons guard and follow this specific Belichick instruction: Push the line of scrimmage back — run or pass,” Lombardi wrote. “No swim moves, no spins. Just pure power straight on, the same way the (New York) Giants disrupted Tom Brady’s line of scrimmage nine years ago in (Super Bowl XLII).”
To limit Jones, Lombardi believes Belichick will emphasize keeping the star wideout in front of the defense, perhaps allowing more catches but taking away the home run plays that have made the Falcons so dangerous this season. (They led the league with 84 plays of 20-plus yards.)
“All week, Belichick will likely preach these two things: ‘No big plays!’ and ‘Don’t let the (expletive) ball be thrown over our heads!'” Lombardi wrote.
Lombardi’s full article is worth a read, as he offers more fascinating insight into Belichick’s game-planning. But one thing is clear: If the Patriots lose Super Bowl LI, it won’t be for a lack of preparation.
Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images
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