You can set your clock — and your fantasy lineup — by the New England Patriots’ defense right now.
The Patriots’ defense has been one of the most dependable units in NFL history through seven games, allowing just 27 total points all season. That number stayed put Monday night when the Patriots shut out the New York Jets 33-0 on the road. And Patriots head coach Bill Belichick made it clear he trusts all three levels of his Patriots defense to rush, cover and make their own decisions.
The Patriots blitzed the Jets on 16 of 33 passing plays. That 48.5 percent blitz rate was the Patriots’ highest this season. New England ran a zero-blitz, meaning they didn’t deploy a safety to protect the deep half of the field, on six of those plays. A zero-blitz shows faith in the Patriots’ pass rush to put pressure on a quarterback and their defensive backs to maintain tight coverage without any help. The defense outnumbers the offense’s protection on a zero-blitz, so getting the ball out quickly is paramount.
The Patriots picked off Jets quarterback Sam Darnold twice with their zero-blitz look.
The Patriots also made good use of deception against Darnold.
They showed a zero-blitz look presnap but only rushed four players on another three plays. The results: Darnold was strip-sacked, threw an incompletion and was picked off by safety Terrence Brooks.
You can see safety Duron Harmon and linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower initially rush then drop back in coverage before John Simon got home with the strip-sack. Consider Harmon, Collins and Hightower as “ghosts” on this play.
You can see “ghosts” Harmon, Collins and Devin McCourty retreated into coverage at the very last moment.
The Patriots actually had more success on the disguises than they did when they actually blitzed. A bluff zero-blitz can be just as effective because it still forces offensive linemen to make decisions at the line of scrimmage. And if they guess wrong, then it still leaves a free pass rusher.
“Yeah, well I thought the players really did a great job of that,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said Tuesday in a conference call. “They disguised the different looks we were in, and they controlled some of the things we did out there and made a lot of good decisions. That’s a smart group of players that communicates well and can do things to take advantage of offensive formations and alignments and so forth, and they did an excellent job of that. So, yeah, it’s really a credit to the cohesiveness and communication and understanding of each individual play during the game of how to maximize our tools and things that we can do with certain calls. They did a great job of it, both on the rush, the coverage, the disguise. On multiple levels, the players were really outstanding.”
So, not only is Belichick trusting his players to get to the quarterback and cover their receivers, but he’s also trusting his veteran unit to make decisions at the line of scrimmage.
“Once we see how the formation is deployed and where certain players are located, and how close they are together and so forth and so on, there are a number of different things that we can do,” Belichick said about the Patriots’ secondary. “Same thing with the pass rush. Depending on where certain players are located – where the tight end is, where the back is, where the quarterback is and so forth — there are options there, too. So, it would just depend on the individual call and what we see, but the most important thing is the players do a great job of communicating those adjustments, getting on the same page. We function well as an entire defensive unit, not just a bunch of guys doing their own thing — that they’ve done a good job of having everyone on the same communication, so we have good team execution.”
That’s one of the many benefits of assembling a veteran unit with as much continuity as the Patriots have maintained in their second dynasty.