Matt Ryan. Jared Goff. Derek Carr. Ryan Tannehill. Deshaun Watson. Patrick Mahomes. All $100 million quarterbacks who couldn’t solve the figurative Rubik’s Cube that is the New England Patriots’ defense.
Daniel Jones. Sam Darnold. Josh Allen. Baker Mayfield. All recent top-10 draft picks, but they couldn’t do it, either.
“It” was beat the Patriots in general and coach Bill Belichick’s defensive scheme in particular as young players.
Broncos quarterback Brett Rypien, assuming he starts for Drew Lock (right shoulder), is up next for the Patriots, who have won 22 of their last 23 games against first- or second-year quarterbacks.
Good luck, Brett.
“They do a great job disguising and they use a lot of (defensive backs), which makes it tough to identify in the run game and certain stuff in the passing game like where your 1-on-1s are,” Rypien said.
Two of the many bedrocks for a Belichick-coached defense: Disguising and changing the pressure plan.
Disguising is making man coverage look like zone coverage and vice versa in an effort to force the quarterback to wish the football had a string attached so he could pull back his throw.
“I’m sure he’ll have something,” Broncos backup quarterback Blake Bortles said of Belichick. “He’s one of the best to ever do that exact thing and taking away what you do well. He’ll have something dialed up and something creative that is different than what they have showed on tape so we’ll have to figure it out and make the adjustments.”
So how does a defense disguise coverage?
Last year against the Giants, whose coach/play-caller was current Broncos offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, the Patriots showed single-high safety and sideline-to-sideline man coverage. As Jones took the snap, Jonathan Jones, the Patriots’ slot corner, retreated back and the lone safety slid over to play two-deep. At the same time, cornerback Stephon Gilmore released his man responsibility and dropped into zone coverage.
Gilmore intercepted a Jones pass. Another young quarterback had been fooled.
Broncos defensive coordinator Ed Donatell was asked in a phone interview how he and coach Vic Fangio try to confuse quarterbacks.
“If you look at us, it’s no secret, our safeties show more of a ‘shell’ look,” Donatell said. “And because we have a stout run system internally, we’re able to hold (the safeties) after the snap a little bit because they already have depth (downfield).
“We want the quarterback to not know the coverage (until) a second or two after the snap whereas many times, people may be running somewhere and the quarterback sees that and is able to put the puzzle together. We want him to see ‘gray’ (uncertainty) for an instant and holding our safeties makes it harder for him to define.”
Easy to define has been the Patriots’ track record against young quarterbacks. Among the league’s current starters, 14 faced the Patriots as a rookie or second-year player.
Beat the Patriots (four): Drew Brees (Chargers), Russell Wilson (Seattle), Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh) and Lamar Jackson (Baltimore).
Wilson had the best game, throwing three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 24-23 win in 2012.
Lost to the Patriots (10): Ryan (Atlanta), Goff (Rams), Jones (Giants), Mayfield (Cleveland), Carr (Las Vegas), Mahomes (Kansas City), Allen (Buffalo), Darnold (Jets), Tannehill (then with Miami) and Watson (Houston).
Throwing multiple interceptions in their first game against the Patriots were Mahomes, Allen, Watson, Jones and Goff.
Combine the variety of coverages with the varied pressure plans and it’s a handful for any quarterback.
“(Belichick) does kind of change things week to week and he’s been able to do that really well when those guys buy into what the game plan is every single week,” Rypien said.
Last year against the Giants, the Patriots rushed five or more on nine of Jones’ 34 drop-backs and had only five three-man rushes. Last week against Kansas City’s Mahomes, the Patriots rushed three players and four players on 15 drop-backs apiece. They rushed at least five players only twice.
The Patriots get a quarterback to overthink by showing pressure with their inside linebackers lined up in the gaps between the center and guards. Just the hint of that pressure forces the offensive line to declare the protection, which can then be muddled at the snap when the Patriots drop their linebackers and rush only three or four.
“(The) challenge all the time when playing against Bill, their fronts tend to be multiple like most teams, but they do it in a way that makes the most sense for their players,” Shurmur said. “They’ll play a scheme at times, but there will be different players playing within that scheme so you have to make sure you’re doing a good job of blocking (all of the) spots. One week that spot may be filled with a defensive back, one week it might be filled with a linebacker.”
Seven defensive backs on the field. Three-man pressures. Pre-snap coverage changes. A full plate for Rypien in what would be only his second start.
“We have to make sure that when we get into the game, we understand what the plan is going to be and how we can attack,” he said. “Obviously, it’s going to be a challenge.”