Film Notes: The good, the bad, and the intriguing from the Patriots through three weeks

Given that I’m not writing NFL columns at Cox anymore, but that I’m watching the same amount of tape (it’s truly a sickness), I’m going to use this as an outlet to splurge some film study notes — well, at least until I get a regular column or I’m told to stop.

I‘m going to start with some Patriot centric thoughts.

Positional designations mean nothing

We all know that with the rise of the pace-and-space offense, mismatch polar bears playing at tight ends, and skill talent flexing all over the formation, defensive positional destinations have been rendered largely meaningless.

Edge guys play inside, inside guys lineup on the edge, while safeties play as linebackers, in the slot, and as bump-and-run boundary corners. And it goes on and on.

Nowhere is this truer than in New England: Safeties will play deep, in the slot, as a middle linebacker, as a late rotater, and even on the line of scrimmage. They’re just DBs, or defenders, with a bunch of different skill-sets and body types.

Against the Chiefs in week one we saw Belichick and Patricia throw out a few looks that would classically be deemed as four safety sets: Sliding Jordan Richards down from the safety spot to play as a linebacker — alongside Patrick Chung who will play in the slot or as an on-ball or off-ball linebacker.

Versatility is the name of the game. And on both examples the defense was able to stick with two-deep safeties — the best in split-field situations (either staying high or rotating) Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon

Kyle Van Noy and Stephon Gilmore

Van Noy and Gilmore were the only defenders to have played 100% of the Pats defensive snaps through two weeks — Van Noy played every snap against the Texans, and Gilmore only missed snaps due to dehydration.

Belichick seems to like Van Noy a lot (seemingly confirmed by Van Noy inking him to a multi-year extension prior to week one).

He fits the position-less mold. Mostly, he plays as an off-ball linebacker. But he will also slide down in the Pats “strike” front — lining up as an edge in a five-man front. I’ve been impressed by his blitzing from the middle of the field through three weeks. He’s not quite as twitchy as Jamie Collins was from the same spot — and that’s cost him big-plays — but he certainly represents value, and he’s played well within the defensive construct.

Gilmore struggled in week-one, being at fault for multiple coverage busts (though there seemed to be a communication issue). He was much better against the Saints in week two and I was impressed re-watching the TV copy of his performance on Sunday against the Texans.

It will be interesting to on the All-22 copy whether or not the Pats utilized cone coverages to help out Gilmore whenever he was lined up against DeAndre Hopkins (something you cannot see on the TV copy).

Cone coverages are morphing double-teams that shift depending on the targeted receivers release. Here’s an example from last year’s game against Hopkins: This is an example of their Cover-1 cone bracket. The corner plays with outside leverage with the safety walking down plays inside.

If the receiver releases inside, the safety picks him up and the corner defends against a double move. If the receiver releases outside, the corner plays a trail technique, taking away a throwing lane, while the safety gives help over the top. The coverage is the Patriots’ best way to take the game out of hands of an offense’s best receiver. It puts the emphasis on every other receiver to win 1-on-1 matchups, thereby forcing the defense to move the safety elsewhere

Let’s see if Belichick and Patrica had more faith in Gilmore 1-on-1 than they did Butler a year ago (it’s no shame struggling to stop Hopkins, btw).

Team Defense

Team defense is one of the hallmarks of the Patriots defense. Whether it’s everyone spilling a runner outside, or setting a hard edge and squeezing down to bottle up a runner inside, everyone is on the same page and works together within the defensive construct.

There have been some mishaps through three weeks, but also plenty of examples of some of the teams stalwarts executing at a high-level.

This play may look innocuous at first glance, but it’s an excellent job by Van Noy and Chiung working together within the construct.

Van Noy reads the play immediately and fires to the outside shoulder to help set the edge. Chung does the same from a deeper position, beating the tight end to the corner and sealing off the edge. The runner is forced back inside where he is greeted by a ton of white jerseys eager to bottle him up.

Van Noy has had his ups and downs to start the season, but it’s play like this why Belichick and Patrica trust him and have him on every snap.

Basic Coverage Principles

Defensively, its been a big bowl of bland — on the back-end — through three weeks. It’s been the base coverage principles: press-and-trailing, bump-and-run, and pattern-matching — reverting back to more single-high safety sets (there were more two-deep looks last season).

I expect to see the complex stuff (combo coverages, the aforementioned cone coverages etc.) work its way in over the coming weeks as the newcomers like Gilmore get up to speed.

Nate Solder has been bad

I’m going to refrain from using the word “washed” at all costs. But Solder has been bad. Like, really bad.

He was worked over by the Chiefs slew of athletic pass-rushers. He was consistently beat to his pass-set, leaving him unbalanced and ineffective. That happens to a lot of guys against the likes of Justin Houston, Dee Ford et al. It was discouraging but not disastrous.

Weeks two and three were disastrous.

Solder isn’t an overly explosive player. He gets by on nouse and mechanics. Those are beginning to fail him, and his lack of athleticism is becoming a real problem — he didn’t set deep enough against the freaky athletes he saw against the Texans and Chiefs.

The larger concern, though, is his hand usage. Solder’s performances have always served as teaching tape. But now he’s a beat slow on everything.

On the play above: Whitney Mercilus sets him up with the jab step. Solder is late to get his hands up. And, when he does, Merciuls swats them away effortlessly and with contempt.

I could put seven-to-eight different clips here: Let’s go with this one — where Solder gets whipped by Saints edge-rusher Hau’oli Kikaha, a technician who isn’t blessed with great agility.

Solder failed to set with adequate depth, freeing up a straight-line lane for Kikaha to drive into Brady’s lap.

Kicking out has been concerning, but what’s more worrisome is his knee flexion — he just isn’t bending the way he used to. Edge players who used to get sucked into his grip are now running over him.

In a contract year, Solder is making what could have been a difficult decision very easy. Someone is going to have to shoot some Mexican supplements into him or get him on the TB12 diet, or else he’s done.

Outside-Zone teaching tape

Any chance I can get to write about a beautifully executed outside-zone run I’m going to take it. Dante Scarnecchia is the best in the business, and he coaches up the outside-zone and stretch concepts as well as anyone in the league — Bill Callahan, peak Alex Gibbs, anyone.

This, on the playside at least, is teaching tape:

Outside-zone runs are about trust: Trust the guy on your inside shoulder to do his job. If you try to help, and do his job for him, you’re not doing yours, and the play breaks down.

The next step: Step with playside foot, run off the ball, fit (backside arm to near side ear), straight line block, and accelerate on contact.

Solder, Thuney and Andrews all execute.

Solder drives the edge defender to the boundary on a straight line. Thuney — who gets a nick from the Chiefs’ best interior defender Chris Jones (a scary player off the ball — let’s the defender go, trusting his team mate inside. Andrew does an excellent job of driving through Jones to seal the block, then flipping his hips to create a better crease for the back. Thuney fits the play well, but doesn’t deliver the best blow.

Regardless, the line distorted the levels of the defense. Of the three options — Bend, band, bounce — James White was presented with two. He tried to bang it in behind Thuney, he may have been best served bending it back in-behind the guard.

Young linemen finding work

Say it with me: Pass protection is not passive.

It doesn’t matter if you’re sinking into a pass set, you still need to be aggressive. Go and find some work and hit someone in the mouth.

The three youngsters along the interior have all bought into Scarnecchia’s wizardry. Naturally, they’re all better getting on the front foot and rolling downhill as run-blockers, but they’ve worked hard to improve in pass protection. It’s showing.

This touchdown against the Saints in Week Two is a great example: Both guards initially help to the edges as the Saints’ DE’s feign an inside rush to free up the head up tackle to play 1-on-1 against David Andrews. Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney are having none of it. They find work, taking the battle to the tackle, and arriving at the same time to help their team mate out.

Playing on the line is obviously about athleticism and technique, but it’s also about attitude. The Pats interior has it.

Deatrich Wise has been the best pass-rusher — by far

The numbers have been fairly self explanatory, but the tape tells the same story.

Wise has been a surprisingly slippery pass-rusher to go with the multi-gap run-defense capabilities we knew he had coming in. Trey Flowers remains the most talented defensive lineman, but Wise is a good’un.

Chris Hogan has struggled against press

As always, the Patriots attack man-coverage through play-design: Using man-beater concepts to spring receivers open. Hogan has been a big beneficiary through three weeks — including two wide-open touchdowns on Sunday in which the Texans hole defender picked up the wrong crisscrossing receivers.

He’s struggled, however, to separate against press coverage without the help of play-designs. That’s always been a knock on Hogan. It’s less of an issue in this Patriots system with all the switch releases and stacked formations, but it’s something to keep an eye — right now there’s no one, aside from Gronkowski, who consistently burns press coverage. There’s lots of intelligent guys who excel against zone, and have been helped by play-designs, but in the playoffs the team will need someone else to step up and beat bump-and-run.

(Aside: Hogan has developed into a wonderful perimeter and crack back blocker)

Cassius Marsh

What a pleasant surprise! Marsh jumped off the screen against the Texans with his energy, effort, and Chris Long-like tattoos. He’s not a twitchy player, and he plays too upright (that’s where he differs from Long), but he’s been effective.

Marsh consistently won the hand fight against a number of different Houston linemen. His sack on Sunday was a pure technique and effort play:

He’s more of a pocket pusher than a dip-and-rip guy or someone who can collapse it from the outside. He’s also effective stunting inside from either a two or three-point stance. Like most on this defense, he brings versatility.

I think he’ll continue to be an impact sub-rusher.

Alan Branch

Nothing jumps out as to why Branch has been ineffective, leading to his benching. There isn’t a noticeable technique defect, and his foot speed seems as solid as ever. He’s just not getting the job — he’s being pushed off the ball too easy.

Elandon Roberts

Roberts has been less than impressive through three weeks. Sure, he makes some flashy plays, but he consistently breaks the defensive construct on running downs.

He concedes his chest too easily when interior linemen climb to the second level, and he’s constantly trying to undercut blocks rather than stacking then shedding — trying to make a big play rather than the proper one.

Declaring early is a cardinal sin for a linebacker flowing down to the line of scrimmage — force the running back to commit and make decisions, don’t make reads easy for him.

This is where Roberts is comfortable: Firing downhill and shooting gaps. (he has to make this play, though)

He’s yet to become a more nuanced run defender. He needs to.

The Deep Ball

Here’s Brady’s passing chart from the Texans game, via NFL Next Gen Stats:

It’s crazy how he’s better throwing the deep ball now than he was a couple of years ago (even five years ago!). He’s going deeper more often, too. That’s, in part, because of the weapons at his disposal, but he also seems to have more trust in himself.

Brandin Cooks’ role

Brandin Cooks’ role in the offense is coming more into focus. I wrote when he was acquired about his off-ball impact stretching defenses vertically and forcing two-deep safeties even when the defense wants to add an extra guy in the box.

It’s happening. Here’s his receiving chart from the Texans game, via NFL Next Gen Stats:

He had only one reception under 15-yards.

His pre-snap movement and the jetsweeps/ghost motions remain a key to helping reveal coverages, but it’s down the field — clearing room for Gronkowski and Amendola — that he’s most effective.

David Harris’ niche role

Speaking of roles, David Harris’ niche role is becoming clear: He’s the red zone man.

Harris played just three snaps coming into Sunday, and four during this weekend’s game — all in the red zone.

Communication issues

The communication issues that plagued the defense in week one seemed to have been cleaned up for the most part. During the Chiefs game the D had trouble simply lining up.

You can see here how Van Noy and Richards are struggling to get the team lined up prior to the snap — leading to them fitting the wrong gaps and Van Noy not having time to get to the outside shoulder of the climbing Chiefs’ center.

Once Dont’a Hightower returns I expect everything to be fine — the team has just been bedding in new players and running many different sub-packages.

Gronkowski helping LaAdrian Waddle

Marcus Gilbert missed Sunday’s game against the Texans and their hellacious pass-rush. Up stepped LaAdrian Waddle. He started rocky, but played decently as the game went along. As anticipated, McDaniels and the coaching staff helped him out through scheme-design. They slid protection to help him, and shifted Gronkowski over to help double on early downs. They even let Gronkowski take JJ Watt 1-on-1 on occasions.

Heavy play-action

Along with slide protections, and getting the ball out quickly, McDaniels used a heavy dose of heavy play-actions to hold the Texans pass-rush at bay for as long as he could.

I’ve always preferred heavy play-actions over soft-actions. It’s a better sell, holds the linebackers and safeties for longer, and allows the receivers enough times to sight adjust their routes — depending on whether it’s an open or closed field.

This was an excellent design on Brandin Cooks’ first touchdown of the day:

It’s a six-man slide protection that masquerades as a split-zone. The line all kick steps in unison to its left (Linda call). Gronkowski reads the backside. If a defender comes flying in — as one does — he cleans it up. If not, he releases to the flat and acts as a safety valve if the downfield receivers do not separate from the coverage.

On the example above, Gronkowski’s block gives Brady enough time to steady himself and climb in the pocket as Cooks separates on the deep over route.

Gronkowski is a freak of the highest order. He looks back to his bast in the passing game, and he remains the best blocking tight end in the league — by some distance.

What to watch for when the All-22 of the Texans is released, and moving forward

  • Defensive coverage principles: Did they cone up on Hopkins, and did the staff expand the coverage repertoire.
  • The use of four safety sets.
  • Where Patrick Chung is aligning on most plays.
  • The use of Cooks on clearout concepts.
  • Deatrich Wise.

Senior Football Analyst at Cox Media’s sports vertical’s: All-22 (NFL) and SEC Country.