Do not look now, but Bill Belichick and the resurgent New England Patriots are the object in the rear-view mirror, tracking down some of the best teams in the AFC as the calendar pushes into the later-half of the season.
That was on full display at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, as the Patriots took on the visiting Cleveland Browns, a team considered by many to be among the favorites in the AFC heading into the season. If anything, it looked like New England should be considered among the best in the conference, as the Patriots handled the Browns with ease.
Yet again, Bill Belichick has a team starting to play its best football as the holiday season approaches. The long-time head coach has stressed over the years about the need for football teams to come into form as the playoffs approach, and this season might be his best example yet.
Back during the 2017, Belichick talked about how teams can build to that kind of late-season improvement:
So, we try to do it that way the first week, the 10th week and however many weeks there are after that. Always trying to do things as well as we can, give our players the best plan: instruct them, teach them and prepare them the best that we can. I know that they expect to play the best, put their best performance out there every week. You get fewer games, each one becomes more important and bigger and you want to do your best in them.
So I think everyone has the same goals there. I don’t think that’s a lot different than what it was in September. There are fewer games. We’ve had more practices. We have more opportunities. Hopefully our execution and play is better.
Belichick has also talked about how over the course of a season, you start to identify the players that can help you the most, and those are the players you start to rely on when the games matter the most:
We always make changes. It’s a process you go through. You put players in certain situations and certain groupings together and some work better than others, or maybe you see more potential in a certain player or group of players or combination of players than others, and you decide to move forward more with that or maybe you do it less because you don’t feel as good about it or players develop or improve or whatever it is and it’s just an ongoing process. It doesn’t happen overnight.
There’s no switch that you can flip. It comes through a lot of hard work, a lot of meetings, a lot of communication on how we’re going to do things and then a lot of on-the-field execution at actually doing them at a good competitive level so that we can gain confidence in each other as a unit as to how that’s going to happen in a live game situation. Working hard, continuing to improve and guys taking whatever opportunities they get and either moving forward with it or possibly somebody else getting an opportunity and moving ahead of a player at a point in the season. That’s just a competitive situation. We’re going to play the best players and basically everybody will get a chance to do it somewhere along the line, and the players that play the best will play more and the players that don’t do it as well need to improve and need to change their playing time status or they’ll continue to not get the playing time behind somebody else who is performing better.
Perhaps the best example of this in recent years comes from the 2018 season. New England struggled a bit early in the season, and even in December, and many wondered if that version of the Patriots would be good enough to make a deep run in the post-season. But into the playoffs they found their offensive identity, and indeed made a run, all the way to a Super Bowl title, Belichick’s sixth with the Patriots.
So what has the Patriots playing well right now? It starts with their defense, but also involves the improvement from their young quarterback.
An improving defensive identity
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Entering training camp, the Patriots faced a big question at the quarterback position. The organization looked to counter questions about the offense with improvement on the defensive side of the ball, adding a number of new faces and also getting a critical core member of their defensive front back in Dont’a Hightower, who opted out last season.
The revamped defensive front in New England has been critical to what this defense has done in recent weeks. After giving up 35 points to the Dallas Cowboys in an overtime loss back in Week 6 (albeit with seven of those points coming on a Pick-Six of Mac Jones) the defense has settled in during this four-game winning streak. They gave up just 13 in a win over the New York Jets, 24 in a win over Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers, six to the Carolina Panthers (including a Pick-Six of their own) and now today’s result.
It begins up front. The Patriots are getting contributions all along the defensive line from some new faces, and some old ones. Deatrich Wise Jr. and Lawrence Guy are certainly making some contributions, but rookie Christian Barmore is a huge part of this defensive line. His ability against the run, and providing pressure on the interior, has been key for New England in recent weeks. Take this sack of Herbert from a few weeks ago:
Belichick, who rarely doles out praise for rookies, has made an exception for Barmore this season: “I gotta give that kid a lot of credit. He comes in early. Stays late. Works on his flexibility. His strength. His technique. He’s really applied himself. He’s done better and better every week.
Behind Barmore, Belichick has a group of linebackers that is coming together as one of the more well-rounded units in the NFL. The return of Hightower, the heart and soul of the Patriots’ defensive front for years, has played a big role, along with Judon’s presence on the edge. But another player providing a huge boost to this team’s defense is linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley. He was considered more of a two-down “thumper” coming out of Purdue, but he plays that role to near-perfection with the Patriots.
His instincts and quick trigger against the run make him a critical component of how the Patriots stop the run. Take this play against the Jets:
The Dolphins try to run to the edge, but Bentley diagnoses the play and then evades multiple blockers, getting to the back for another tackle behind the line of scrimmage.
Then there is Hightower, who is playing great football despite opting out last season due to COVID-19. For the bulk of his time in New England, Hightower has both been the heart and soul of the defensive front, as well as the glue that held that team together. You could make a strong case that Hightower could have been the MVP of each of New England’s last three Super Bowl victories. It was his critical tackle of Marshawn Lynch short of the goal line — done with a torn labrum in his shoulder — that set the stage for Malcolm Butler’s interception.
Against the Atlanta Falcons, Hightower delivered a critical sack late of Matt Ryan that gave the Patriots a chance to tie the game late. Then against the Los Angeles Rams, Hightower had a pair of crucial sacks of Jared Goff, including one late in the third quarter that forced Sean McVay to settle for a field goal, a kick that would provide the Rams with their only points on the day.
Hightower shows up in a number of ways, both against the run and in the passing game. Like Bentley, his feel for the run game and his physical style of play allows the Patriots to snuff out run plays before they begin. This stop of Chuba Hubbard from Week 9 is an example of Hightower at his best:
Here against the New York Jets in Week 2, Hightower explodes through the interior and pressures Zach Wilson, and the rookie quarterback makes a throw under pressure that falls incomplete.
The piece that ties it all together up front is Judon. The pass rusher was one of a number of key free agent signings from the Patriots last season, and his play to date can lead one to believe that he has been the best defensive signing of the Belichick Era in New England. Judon entered play on Sunday with nine sacks already on the season, and he added to that with a takedown of Case Keenum in the third quarter.
Judon has a combination of athleticism off the edge, as well as a vast array of pass-rushing moves, that he brings to bear on every passing play. On this sack of Sam Darnold from Week 9, you can see his short-area quickness and athleticism, as he beats the left tackle to the inside and gets to the QB:
The main benefit of the talent and execution that Bill and Steve Belichick are getting from this defensive front? A renewed emphasis on zone coverage in the secondary. Bill Belichick has been known to favor man coverage during his tenure in New England, often relying on Cover 1 and variations of that man coverage scheme. But in recent weeks, thanks to the players he has up front — and the ability to pressure with just four — the Patriots have used much more zone coverage.
Against the Panthers in Week 9, the Patriots ran just eight coverage snaps in Cover 1, relying much more on Cover 3 and Cover 2. And on an early interception of Baker Mayfield Sunday, they dropped into zone coverage once more, with Kyle Dugger reading Mayfield perfectly for the pick:
The defense this season is playing a huge role for the Patriots, and it begins up front. With the players at their disposal, Bill and Steve Belichick can get pressure with four and play zone coverage in the secondary. Of course, they will still blitz and bring pressure schemes when they want to, and with players like Judon and Hightower they can find success with those schemes. And in perfect Belichick fashion, you know he will not tip his hand through the media:
And the same goes for his son, the defensive play-caller:
Still, with the ability to play both man and zone at a high level, this is going to be a tough defense to face down the stretch.
But there is obviously another part to this story.
The rookie quarterback.
The growth of Mac Jones
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Bill Belichick has made some bold decisions throughout his coaching career, and not just in New England. During his tenure in Cleveland with the Browns, Belichick made the decision to release Bernie Kosar, a living Browns legend.
While that decision did not pan out for Belichick’s time in Cleveland, another quarterback decision a few years later, riding with Tom Brady over Drew Bledsoe, worked out a little better.
Belichick made another quarterback decision this summer, naming rookie Mac Jones the starting quarterback over Cam Newton. Furthermore, Belichick made the decision to release Newton, sending a clear message: Jones is our guy, and there is no looking back.
Early, the returns were mixed. The Patriots offense was a bit shaky, even in a Week 2 win over the Jets, and many wondered if Jones would start hitting on throws downfield and into tighter coverage.
But during this recent stretch of play, you are seeing more and more moments where the rookie passer is willing to attack downfield, with positive results. Perhaps the moment this was most apparent was on this deep completion to Nelson Agholor early in the Week 8 victory over the Chargers:
That level of appropriate aggression, and the willingness to challenge tighter windows downfield, was on display Sunday against the Browns. Take this touchdown pass from Jones to Kendrick Bourne:
Again, earlier in the season Jones might have checked this down to his tight end in the left flat. But now? Now the rookie trusts both his eyes with the read of the play, and his arm. The Browns are in single-high coverage, as you can see in a second, and Jones needs to put enough velocity on this throw to beat the free safety, as well as the need to put this throw in the right spot.
He does both:
Jones finished the day Sunday completing 19 of 23 passes for 198 yards and three touchdowns. It was his first three-touchdown passing game as a professional, and it gives him 13 on the season.
Jones, like the rest of his team, is getting better. Following the script of his head coach.
Are they for real?
(Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports)
Just how far can this team go?
If you are a Patriots fan, you might feel you have seen this story before.
A team, following a decision to play a young quarterback over an established veteran, suffers a tough loss on a big stage against an incredibly talented opponent by one score. But that loss propelled the team to greater heights in the second half of the season, culminating in a Super Bowl victory.
That team? The Tom Brady/Belichick Patriots that started their initial dynasty back in the 2001 season. On a Sunday night game in Week 10, the 5-4 Patriots hosted the defending Super Bowl Champion St. Louis Rams. They lost by a final score of 24-17, but felt after that game they could compete with anyone.
They would not lose again.
A few weeks ago the Patriots hosted the Dallas Cowboys, another explosive offensive team. But New England went toe-to-toe with them, only to lose in overtime by a touchdown.
Could history repeat itself?
Who knows. There is a lot of football left to be played, and some tough games that loom on New England’s schedule. They face Atlanta and Tennessee over the next two weeks before a Monday night affair at Buffalo in Week 13, a game that might go a long way towards deciding the AFC East.
But with how this team seems to be rounding into form on both sides of the football, and given how strange this season has been, are you willing to bet against Bill Belichick at this moment?
Even if you are, it might not be the most confident bet you will ever make. Because Belichick and the Patriots might truly be that object in the rear-view mirror, a lot closer than it appears…