FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Patriots' defense has found its groove after hitting a rocky road through Indianapolis and New Orleans in November, and there are several reasons why.
The collective confidence of the unit has risen as coaches have simplified game plans. The reinsertion of safety James Sanders has helped the communication in the secondary. And the productive run defense on early downs has set up favorable third-down situations.
Yet perhaps nothing has aided the defensive U-turn more than the "organized chaos" package, because it has been the medicine to cure one of the team's biggest issues.
"One of the big things that it's helped us with is pressure, which had been an area we wanted to get better," said linebacker Jerod Mayo, who calls the defensive signals. "It's sort like a baseball pitcher. We know what pitch we're going to throw, and they have to react to it."
The rare combination of five linebackers and six defensive backs, with the linebackers standing and "floating" at the line of scrimmage, has given the revived defense a spark just in time for the playoffs. Coordinator Dean Pees said earlier in the week that the defense has regained its confidence after a midseason dip and the success of the "organized chaos" package -- which can lead to confusion for opposing offensive lines because it doesn't know which player is rushing -- seems to reflect that, as faster, more athletic defenders are cutting it loose.
The Patriots have used the defense 36 times over the last two games, and it has produced 13 stops on third down, as well as three sacks and two interceptions.
The package, used 19 times against the Bills and 17 against the Jaguars, has a bit of a backyard-football feel to it.
"It's fun to get up and move around and not just be stationary," said outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, who leads the team with 9.5 sacks. "It does give you a chance to kind of change up your look and gets the offense guessing. So in that aspect, it does have an element of freestyle to it."
Whether it was stopping the Bills' 14-play opening drive; sacks by Derrick Burgess, Banta-Cain and Gary Guyton; interceptions by Jonathan Wilhite and Shawn Springs; or sure tackling on several other third-down plays, the package has helped the defense generate momentum at a crucial time on the NFL calendar.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Friday that he first started experimenting with a similar package in the 1980s when he was defensive coordinator of the New York Giants. The idea was to get more speed and athleticism on the field and create confusion because all the linebackers could be rushers or potentially drop into coverage.
At the time, he was reminded how the game was evolving.
When Belichick experienced his first taste of the NFL in 1975, he remembered a drill in which Baltimore Colts head coach Ted Marchibroda had him working with the backup secondary to help quarterback Bert Jones recognize coverages. Belichick's responsibility was to call the coverages, the secondary would rotate, and Jones had to diagnose it based on the strength of the formation.
In those days, Belichick said, the quarterback's reads were more straightforward -- he mostly had to key on only the secondary and linebackers in pass coverage because the four linemen were always rushing.
With the Giants in the '80s, Belichick started using packages with just a few linemen, which meant that quarterbacks had to start worrying about more defenders in pass coverage.
When looking closer at the Patriots' two-game usage of the "organized chaos" package -- which is what Adalius Thomas dubbed it after the Bills game -- the statistics don't look overwhelming: Opponents are 19 of 26 passing for 198 yards, and they have six runs for 41 yards. But those are a bit deceiving because most of the passing and rushing yards -- outside of a dreadful drive in the fourth quarter against the Jaguars -- came in front of the first-down sticks.
On average, the Bills had 11.2 yards to gain a first down when the Patriots were in the package, and the Jaguars had 9.1 yards to gain. That's an important consideration because going to the package leaves the defense a bit more vulnerable against the run.
"Because it's a new look and we haven't been showing it during the season, I think that's why we've been able to catch some teams off guard," Banta-Cain said. "But in the end, it really comes down to beating the guy in front of you."
The Patriots have done more of that in recent weeks as the confidence of the defense has risen. The timing couldn't be better.