For much of the 2016 season, the defense seemed to be a major weakness for the Patriots. Over time, however, the defense steadily improved.
On Monday, reporters asked coach Bill Belichick to explain the biggest factor for this development.
“Preparation, practice, execution,” Belichick said. “There’s no magic wand. You’ve just got to go out there and, look, there are five eligible receivers. Usually we get at least four of them out [running pass patterns]. In man-to-man coverage you’ve got to cover them. We’ve got to rush the passer, contain the quarterback, stop the run.
“Zone coverage; it’s a short throw. You’ve got to be on the receivers tight or a good quarterback can get the ball into those windows. Again, good execution of zone coverage, getting to the receivers, filling up those spaces so it’s hard to throw the ball in there. It really just comes down to playing good team defense in both the running game and the passing game and on the goal line, which gets into a whole new set of defensive calls and techniques. We’ve had a couple of big stops down there, too, over the course of the year.”
More specific improvement occurred later in the year, as the stakes of the games increased.
“[A]s the season goes on and you get into games like we’ve had the last few weeks, Miami was a playoff team; that was kind of like a playoff game,” Belichick said. “Baltimore, Denver were those big kind of games at the end of the season. Then the last two we’ve had — I think that’s where teams, players, units, I mean, that’s where those levels really get identified because you’re playing against the very best teams, the very highest level of competition. Some of that really remains to be determined in this year.”
Part of the challenge for the Patriots defense was to adjust to lineup changes, including most notably the in-season trade of linebacker Jamie Collins.
“We made some changes during the year,” Belichick said. “We always make changes. It’s a process you go through. You put players in certain situations and certain groupings together and some work better than others, or maybe you see more potential in a certain player or group of players or combination of players than others, and you decide to move forward more with that or maybe you do it less because you don’t feel as good about it or players develop or improve or whatever it is and it’s just an ongoing process. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
It also doesn’t happen automatically.
“There’s no switch that you can flip,” he said. “It comes through a lot of hard work, a lot of meetings, a lot of communication on how we’re going to do things and then a lot of on-the-field execution at actually doing them at a good competitive level so that we can gain confidence in each other as a unit as to how that’s going to happen in a live game situation. Working hard, continuing to improve and guys taking whatever opportunities they get and either moving forward with it or possibly somebody else getting an opportunity and moving ahead of a player at a point in the season. That’s just a competitive situation. We’re going to play the best players and basically everybody will get a chance to do it somewhere along the line, and the players that play the best will play more and the players that don’t do it as well need to improve and need to change their playing time status or they’ll continue to not get the playing time behind somebody else who is performing better.”
These are simple, obvious concepts, and it’s refreshing to hear one of the most successful coaches in league history underscore the importance of the meat-and-potatoes aspect of playing defense. The specific schemes and the knowledge regarding what an offense may do are critical to the success of a defense, but Belichick has accurately explained some of the key aspects of building the foundation of a great defense.