Scouts Inc.: Why are Pats always fierce vs. pass?

Posted by Scouts Inc.'s Keith Kidd
The Patriots have been fortunate enough to enjoy the services of some standout defensive backs (safety Rodney Harrison and cornerbacks Ty Law and Asante Samuel come to mind).

They've also had more than their share of success against opposing passing games over the years. But is New England's secondary generally considered one of the league's most talented, now or in the past? Hardly.
So how do the Pats do it? Whether it's dragging a free agent off the street on a Tuesday to start on Sunday or playing someone out of position (an injury forced safety Brandon Meriweather to slide over to cornerback last week), New England routinely does more with less on the back end. As usual, the credit goes to Bill Belichick. The Patriots' versatility and execution on defense are a testament to his coaching.

Three overriding Belichick philosophies I picked up on during my years with the Patriots were:

  1. To focus on denying an opposing offense what it does best.

  2. To force that offense to try things outside its comfort zone

  3. To never put players in positions to do things they aren't capable of doing.

Sounds simple enough, but it's easier said than done.
It starts with identifying the right personnel and coaching them up in practice. The Patriots place a premium on intelligence and versatility, which gives Belichick ultimate flexibility. Because he has the confidence that his players will quickly absorb and execute his schemes, he isn't afraid to use a wide variety of sometimes complex coverages and pressure packages to put stress on opposing offenses.

And each week it's something different, a new game plan for every opponent, never the same thing twice. All NFL teams mix things up, but no one does it as much or as creatively -- both in terms of scheme designs and personnel packages -- as Belichick. He's the best game-day strategist I've ever been around.

The Patriots use a lot of different personnel groupings -- two down linemen, six or seven defensive backs, eight linebackers, whatever you can imagine. They traditionally run a lot of two-deep coverages and try to keep throws in front of them. But they also mix things up, disguise their intentions up front and on the back end, and frequently move around personnel before the snap to confuse blocking schemes and create doubt and hesitation in the mind of a quarterback.

Example: In last week's win over St. Louis, cornerback Deltha O'Neal effectively ended the game when Rams quarterback Marc Bulger made a bad read on a deep corner route, forcing a throw into a loaded zone that New England had cleverly masked. That's what the Patriots do. They bait you, then burn you.

This week's game at Indianapolis looks a lot different than what we've seen from this matchup in the recent past. With the Colts' run game slumping, the Pats should have an easier time creating tough down-and-distance situations for Peyton Manning and should be less vulnerable to play-action.

Expect a lot of different looks from New England (loaded zones, combination coverages, etc.) and physical play on the back end to disrupt the timing of Indy's passing game. The Pats will want to create pressure up the middle, and to keep Manning and center Jeff Saturday from diagnosing and adjusting to pressure they'll move their linemen and linebackers and keep them in standing positions until just before the snap. Belichick has been able to frustrate Manning in the past by using pressures he may have seen before, but disguising them by using different personnel.

It's all part of the ongoing chess match at which Belichick has become a grandmaster. Cornerback Ellis Hobbs has a bad wing. Harrison is out. Law and Samuel are long gone. But test the Pats' secondary at your own risk.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.