When the Patriots come to town to face the Cowboys this week, head coach Bill Belichick won’t be the one calling the plays - that will be his son, Steve - but it will be his defense through and through. Belichick has earned a reputation for paying close attention to the defensive side of the ball as a head coach and being heavily involved in the weekly game planning, even if he’s not the one actually running the show.
To that extent, the schemes the Patriots run in a given year are based on the core philosophies that Belichick has always carried. On a fundamental level, Belichick’s defenses are all about adaptability. They want to be able to run one gameplan one week and then a completely different one the next week, depending on the opponent they play. The Patriots defense is less so about scheming for their own players as it is about scheming to take away the other team’s best players.
That’s one of the reasons why Belichick has so few assistant coaches who go on to be successful head coaches of their own, as it is very hard to run a defense without any true scheme. That the Patriots continue to do so at such a high level this many years in is a testament to Belichick’s coaching skills.
New England is once again having a great year on defense. They’re currently ranked 11th in both defensive DVOA and EPA/play allowed. Thus far, they’re the only team to hold the Dolphins under 30 points and the Eagles under 20 points. They have a pretty straightforward formula for getting this done: deploy a wide variety of defensive fronts, blitz a lot, and run tight Cover 1 or Cover 3 behind it all.
In a way, it’s very similar to what the Cowboys run on defense, although the intricate details are quite different. But the Patriots currently boast the fourth-highest blitz rate in the league and are actually tied with Dallas for the fifth-best pressure rate. They’ve struggled to convert pressures to sacks, but this defense is making life hard on quarterbacks.
They have two edge rushers in Matt Judon and Josh Uche who are playing great football right now. Their 13 pressures apiece are tied for 10th-most among EDGEs; Judon has been in the top 10 in pressures each of the last two years as well, while Uche is just starting to come into his own. Also coming into his own is defensive tackle Christian Barmore, who was having a breakout season last year before an injury cut it short. Now in his third year, Barmore is eighth among interior defenders in pressures.
Against the Cowboys, Belichick will seek to use these three to create chaos against an offensive line that has yet to be fully healthy this season. It remains to be seen if Tyron Smith, Tyler Biadasz, or Zack Martin will return to the field for this one. If any of them miss time again, expect much of the pass rush plan to be focused on isolating their replacements.
The Patriots secondary is a little banged up right now, but the headliner is rookie corner Christian Gonzalez. He’s currently 12th among all cornerbacks with at least 10 targets in passer rating allowed, a great start to the year for him. In Week 1, he limited A.J. Brown to just four catches for 47 yards; in Week 2, Tyreek Hill didn’t record a single catch against him; and last week, Garrett Wilson was held to just three receptions for 18 yards when Gonzalez covered him.
That said, Gonzalez has almost exclusively lined up on the outside, with just under 9% of his snaps coming in the slot. If the Patriots want Gonzalez to go up against CeeDee Lamb, who is lining up in the slot on over 70% of his snaps, they’ll have to put the rookie into a role he’s yet to play for them.
New England’s usual slot defender is Myles Bryant, whose 5’9” frame isn’t exactly the best matchup for the 6’2” Lamb. Bryant is also allowing a 78.6% completion rate and a 101.5 passer rating so far this year. If he draws Lamb in this one, expect the ball to be thrown his way quite often.
Of course, this is Belichick we’re talking about, and he often comes up with unusual ways of taking star players away. Belichick has even gone the extra mile by signing former Cowboys quarterback Will Grier to the roster, and is sure to be picking his brain on how this offense works under Mike McCarthy. Don’t expect anything to come easy against this defense, and it’s very likely that New England will try to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage to throw off the rhythm of this quick passing attack that Dak Prescott (fifth fastest release in the NFL) has settled into.
This could be a game where Deuce Vaughn and KaVontae Turpin see expanded roles, as opposed to the combined zero touches they got last week, in an attempt to set up the explosive playmakers in the open field. Either way, McCarthy will need to have a bag of tricks ready to move the ball against a very stingy defense.