The many faces of Bill Belichick - Part 1
When the NFL zigs, the Patriots zag, but there will always be a premium on hybrids in the defensive system built in Foxboro.
It is undeniable that Bill Belichick is one of, if not the greatest, football coach of all time. He has an uncanny ability to be ahead of trends and, at least on defense, understand positional value better than anyone. Don Shula has the most wins ever for an NFL Head Coach at 328, but Belichick is slowly chipping away at that number and currently sits at 298 wins.
His win percentage of .607 sits third behind Shula and George Hallas, and he leads all coaches in all-time postseason wins with 31. Belichick’s six Super Bowl wins and nine appearances are the most all-time. The numbers speak for themselves. The man can coach football.
In the past five years, the Patriots’ defense has been outside of Football Outsiders DVOA metric’s top five twice, in ‘20 (Covid year) and ‘18. The past two years have seen the Patriots’ defense flourish, even without an All-Pro defender on the roster (rookie Marcus Jones received the honor as a Punt Returner). Last year, EDGE Mathew Judon and Safeties Devin McCourty and Kyle Dugger received votes but were not selected. Outside of CB Stephon Gilmore in ‘18 and ‘19, Belichick has not had an All-Pro player on his defense in the past five years.
Belichick has created a “fluid” defense that maximizes the players' talents. He focuses more on technique than an actual scheme. In one game, the defense can base in a 4-2-5 and completely flip to a five-man front the next. The Patriots’ defensive staff curates what they feel is the best look for that opponent and develops a game plan around that look.
There is no concrete system in New England. Belichick can flip from one scheme to another efficiently because of his vast knowledge. He needs hybrid players with multiple tools in the toolbox to do that. These jacks of all trades are often overlooked in the college draft process or misused on other teams. Belichick has a talent for seeing the bigger picture regarding a player’s skills.
At higher levels of football, coaches often want “packaged” players, meaning they want the player to do XYZ right now. Because there is such a win-now model in the NFL, long-period development (three to four years) is a novel concept. In New England, where Belichick has an established culture, he can take chances on hybrid players and surround them with intense technical pedagogy while they play on special teams.
When you focus more on technique and fundaments than broad schematics, your players function more as interchangeable parts, relieving attrition and free agency issues. In Belichick’s system, the techniques can be used across the board so every player understands their role when the schematics change weekly.
Flip on tape of the Patriots, and from week to week, the defense can look drastically different, even regarding coverage. It is well known Belichick has an affinity for Cover 1, but that doesn’t mean he runs it against everyone. For example, against the Bills’ Josh Allen, the Patriots ran Cover 1 on ~30% of their passing snaps. Against the Bengals’ Joe Burrow, New England ran the coverage a total of three times! In his matchup with Cincinnati, Belichick opted to play Cover 2 over 51% of the snaps (PFF).
Belichick will even change it up against certain QBs. In his matchups with the Dolphins, Belichick saw three different QBs: Tua Tagovailoa (x37 dropbacks), Skylar Thompson (x25), and Teddy Bridgwater. Against Tua, the Patriots heavily favored middle-of-the-field-closed (MOFC) coverages, constituting ~78% of their calls. The split was more even when playing Thompson, with 56% MOFC and 40% Cover 2. Lastly, when taking on Bridgewater, the Patriots ran a diverse mix of middle-of-the-field-open (MOFO) coverages on ~55% of the snaps and MOFC (primarily Cover 3) on ~40%. Molding a defense to counter the QB is what Belichick is a master at. (PFF).
The Patriots’ Head Coach creates a unique game plan for each opponent’s offense and their QB. From pressures to coverage, the look can be different. Cover 1 and 3 are still dominant within the Patriots’ scheme, but Cover 2 and Quarters saw a boost in usage this year. Looking at Belichick’s historical coverage usage, Cover 2 moved from a baseline of 14% to 16.8% in ‘22. Quarters, in particular, which has been around 2.5% usage the past two years, they jumped to 9% in ‘22. The jump in MOFO usage is on trend with the rest of the NFL.
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