Fat Camp: Scoffing at the “blueprint” and those who tout it

Happy Friday, friends.  Today, I’m going to respond to an excellent question posed by longtime reader DCJ1 in the comments from yesterday's article:

Any time a football team has a good day against another football team, media types always seem to like to proclaim that a “blueprint” was found for beating the losing team.  This is primarily a product of the media guys not understanding football very well, and arrogantly thinking that because they saw something that they hadn’t thought of, the coaches must not have realized that an up-tempo running game may be successful.  They also wrongly assume that what the Patriots did would be easily replicated.

Let’s start with trying to understand why the Patriots’ tactics worked against the Broncos.  Teams can typically run the ball well when they get their running plays blocked.  The Patriots have an offensive line that is more on the athletic side than on the powerful side, and by playing at a fast tempo, they’re maximizing the positive effects of the athleticism and endurance of their players.

The Broncos switch their fronts, based on open and closed looks, as I mentioned the other day.  When Derek Wolfe and Kevin Vickerson are standing on the right side, and they see the tight end align on the opposite side, they have to switch spots with Elvis Dumervil and Justin Bannan, right now.  When the Patriots see the Broncos switching, they can be ready to snap the ball while it’s happening.  Even if Wolfe gets to the opposite side, it’s going to be hard for him to get into a good football stance, and to ensure the proper alignment that he’s supposed to take.

By messing with the Broncos’ tendency to switch their fronts, the Patriots made it more likely that their linemen would get the run plays blocked.  They also forced the Broncos to keep the same players on the field for more snaps than they’re used to playing.  Defensive linemen work best when they can rotate and stay fresh, and any no-huddle series challenges a defense on endurance; playing way up-tempo like the Patriots did is even more of a challenge.

The last thing the Patriots can do (and did) is force opposing defenses into unfavorable personnel groupings.  They were without Aaron Hernandez last week, but when he’s healthy, the Patriots can play 12 personnel with two excellent TEs, and force defenses to choose between playing base and nickel defense.  Either choice is wrong, because if you show base, the Patriots will throw the ball, and if you show nickel, they’re going to exploit the reduced tackling capability of the defense, and run it.

On Sunday, the Patriots played 02 personnel once, 12 personnel thirty-eight times, and 11 personnel fifty-eight times.  The Broncos countered with nickel on 63 of 97 snaps, and base defense on the other 34 of them.  No matter what they did, the Patriots could make them wrong.

Finally, the Broncos like to mix up their front play and coverages with play calls from the sideline, and as Phil Simms said, they usually “do a lot of stuff.”  By snapping the ball quickly, the Patriots prevented the Broncos from being able to call plays, and do anything beyond base calls much of the time.

So let’s recap:

  1. The Patriots exploited the Broncos’ tendency to switch their front based on the offensive alignment.
  2. The Patriots forced the Broncos to keep the same defensive linemen on the field, and wore them down.
  3. The Patriots forced the Broncos into disadvantageous personnel groupings, and took advantage of whatever they did by attacking its inherent weakness.
  4. The Patriots prevented the Broncos from using a lot of their defensive scheme by not giving them enough time to communicate plays or adjust to looks.

Of that list, only one item is specific to the Broncos, which is their tendency/preference to switch their defensive front based on the offensive look.  Each of the other three problems is something that any defense would also struggle with.  It’s not a blueprint for beating the Broncos; it’s a blueprint for beating anybody.

That’s one side of it, but the other side is that the Patriots are the best offense in the NFL.  Other teams could adopt some of their tactics, and try to cause the same problems for the Broncos defense, but they don’t have the same weapons on offense, so it will be less effective.

You have to really trust your players to have them come to the line, have the QB shout out one word, which conveys the formation, play, and snap count, and then snap the ball immediately after that.  They have to be highly proficient at doing their jobs. 

For those who are wondering if the Chargers will try to follow the “blueprint” this week, I highly doubt they’ll try.  They play very little no-huddle, and as an Air Coryell team, they’re more scheme dependent, while the Patriots (playing in an Erhardt-Perkins framework) are more execution and adjustment dependent.  The Chargers feel like they’re going to get their big plays by lining up and running their concepts, and stressing the defense through good time-honored play design, regardless of what the defense wants to do.  The Patriots are looking to attack specific weaknesses in what the defense wants to do, and they count on the QB to constantly adjust their tactics based on what the defense shows them snap-to-snap.

New England and San Diego have completely different offensive mindsets.

The Chargers are going to try to do what they always do, which is run the ball, run receivers vertical, attack the intermediate area with Antonio Gates, and work the screen and swing game to the RBs.  Even if they tried to become the Patriots West, and quick-snap the ball to run it, they’d be unlikely to have success at it, because it takes many reps to get that stuff right.

As for the question of what a defense can do to counter what the Patriots showed last Sunday, there are a few things:

  1. Don’t switch your defensive front.  Line up in an even alignment, and just be ready to hit and battle, whenever the snap comes.
  2. Identify the best personnel group you have to play both run and pass, and assume that you won’t be able to substitute in mid-series.  Use that group, and rotate where appropriate, from series to series.
  3. Work out some one-word codes for your own defense, and see if the MLB can’t identify the offense’s plan, and adjust accordingly.
  4. Be ready to play eight-man contain schemes, and a lot of zone defense, and four-man rushes.  What the Patriots are doing is fundamentally pretty basic, and the defense needs to keep it just as basic.
  5. Call stunts on the field with one-word calls, and stay away from overly exotic ones.
  6. Prepare the defensive group to have the mentality to just man up and try to win their battles on each snap.
  7. Realize that the Patriots offense is awesome, both in terms of talent and tactics, and that you’re probably playing for a few small successes.  Be happy when you hold them to a field goal, and be really happy if you force a punt or get a turnover.
  8. Hope your offense is having a good day, because you’re going to need 30+ points to beat New England most of the time.

That’s what I have for today, friends.  Have a good weekend, and let’s get fired up for Monday Night.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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