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Film Room: Belichick's Defense

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Great article at football outsiders describing Billy Boy's defense, how it worked against Pittsburgh but how Atlanta is a whole different animal.  I stripped out the gifs because their site is gaudy, so if you want to see them please give the author a click.  It is well deserved.


It was always unlikely that the Pittsburgh Steelers would upset the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. Entering the game, Mike Tomlin's Steelers had faced Bill Belichick and Tom Bradyon six separate occasions. In those six games, the Steelers gave up an average of 33.3 points per game. Tomlin's Steelers have largely used the same game plan against Brady whenever they have faced off: a passive pass rush with zone coverage in behind. That was the same strategy they employed against the Patriots on Sunday. The Patriots, with their second-ranked offense by DVOA, did exactly what they have always done.

With a deficiency of talent on the defensive side of the ball, the Steelers were never going to win a low-scoring game. Their only chance of upsetting the Patriots was to outscore them in a shootout. With Le'Veon Bell, Ben Roethlisberger, and Antonio Brown in the lineup, the Steelers might have had a chance of scoring 30-plus points. Once Bell was injured early in the first quarter, though, the game ended as a contest.

As recently as 12 months ago, the Steelers had the talent to compete without Bell on the field. This year, though, Heath Miller's retirement and Martavis Bryant's suspension have elevated the importance of Bell, Brown, and Roethlisberger to a point where they had to combine to carry the majority of the offensive responsibility. When Miller and particularly Bryant were in the game, teams couldn't tip their defense in the direction of anyone on the field. When those players were taken out of the offense and replaced with inadequate successors, defenses only had to fear Bell or Brown. They could choose who to focus on, or they could hedge against both, forcing Sammie Coates, Jesse James, Eli Rogers, or Cobi Hamilton to win their one-on-one matchups.

On the Steelers' very first third down of the game, a third-and-1, Belichick laid out his philosophy for the day.

The first thing to note on this play is the positioning of Brown. The Steelers put their star receiver on the narrow side of the field, alone. They are attempting to isolate him against a defensive back or create single coverage on the other side of the field. When Rogers goes in motion before the snap, his cornerback follows him across the field while the deep safety doesn't move. Roethlisberger now knows that he has single coverage to his left and that Brown is going to be double-teamed at the snap.

The next thing to notice is the Patriots' front. They are in a conventional alignment, and they aren't moving defenders around to threaten a blitz. Six defenders are tight to the formation, with a nose tackle covering the center and a defensive end in each gap between the guard and tackle. The Patriots are in position to fill every gap, creating a wall if the ball is handed off to Bell.

Belichick has told Roethlisberger to beat him with someone other than Bell or Brown before the ball has even been snapped. After the snap, he becomes even more aggressive.

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Before the snap, the left outside linebacker was in position to play the run or rush the passer. He initially moves forward at the snap, but then drops out to cover Bell. The inside linebacker also moves towards Bell at the snap. This allows the outside linebacker to aggressively get to Bell's body without worrying about being quickly beaten.

Meanwhile, Brown is facing a similar situation, as the Patriots use their No. 1 cornerback, Malcolm Butler, to press him at the line while the deep safety waits in position in behind. The wide-open space on the other side of the field is there for Roethlisberger to lay the ball into. The quarterback throws a perfect pass, but Coates can't create separation against the defensive back through his route. He still has a chance to catch the ball, but short-arms it.

Teams don't normally take shots downfield on third-and-short. This play was dictated by the defense though. Belichick bet that the Steelers' lesser weapons couldn't beat his defense's lesser cornerbacks. He was right.

It's easy to imagine what Martavis Bryant would have done in that situation. Coates is only similar to Bryant in stature. Bryant is a much better route-runner, a more fluid receiver, and someone who naturally adjusts to the ball in the air. Coates doesn't beat press coverage the way Bryant does, and has a more mechanical approach to catching the ball. That's largely why he drops so many passes.

This situation wouldn't have presented itself to Bryant though. Unlike most coaches, Belichick isn't stubborn. His play calling adapts to its situation like a chameleon. If Bryant had been on the field, Belichick would have been forced to keep his safety on the wider side of the field, isolating Brown, or forced to play a defense that looked closer to a Cover-2, creating either a running opportunity or single coverage for Bell.

Bell was injured on the second play of the third drive. Up to that time Butler had repeatedly been given safety help against Brown. Bell benefited once or twice before Roethlisberger forced a pass into double-coverage that should have been intercepted.

Roethlisberger had a bad game. In the first quarter alone he missed Brown on a quick throw to the flat, forced that ball into double-coverage with Bell open underneath, and then missed Bell open deeper to check down to a covered receiver. When you are forced to throw to inadequate receivers, your inconsistency has a greater impact because your bad plays remain bad, but more of your good plays are turned bad by receiver error.

When Bell went out, Belichick pushed harder onto the wound by erasing Brown. Without Bell on the field, the Patriots primarily played Cover-2 while giving extra attention to Brown. The closer the Steelers got to the Patriots' end zone, the more aggressive the Patriots became with Brown.

Cobi Hamilton failed to take advantage of two touchdown throws in these situations. Jesse James allowed himself to be stopped just short of the end zone on a play where he should have scored. Sammie Coates ran himself out of bounds before coming back in to catch a touchdown, then failed to catch up to a well-thrown ball because of another poor route in the end zone. Roethlisberger may not have played his best game, but he gave his teammates plenty of opportunities to punish Belichick for disrespecting them. As it turned out, that disrespect was deserved.

The conundrum for the Patriots now is what to do with Julio Jones. Belichick famously undertook a similar strategy against the Atlanta Falcons years ago when they had Jones, Roddy White, and Tony Gonzalez. Gonzalez was made to look like he was fighting to get into a club between two bouncers coming off the line of scrimmage. It was a lot easier to execute that strategy against that offense because of the respective talent and coaching situations. That offense had three stars in White, Gonzalez, and Jones, but it didn't have as good of an offensive line, running game or playcaller.

If Belichick attempts to double-team Jones the way he did Brown, it's unlikely to work. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are too dangerous, both as receivers and in the running game, for that to work. Furthermore, with how often Matt Ryan throws off of play-action from under center, it will be very difficult for defensive backs to comfortably bracket Jones as he advances downfield.

Shanahan uses hard play fakes out of passing sets that look exactly like the offense's run designs. It gets his quarterback more time in the pocket, and it also distorts coverages by drawing linebackers forward and creating hesitation in defensive backs. Shanahan has used this scheme to great effect with lesser quarterbacks than Matt Ryan. Ryan's numbers have flattered him this year because he has repeatedly been put in situations where his receivers have been wide-open after play fakes. Shanahan repeatedly attacks the space between the safeties and linebackers that is created by play-action.

This play against the Carolina Panthers from early in the year highlights how open Jones gets when the defense aggressively attempts to stop the run.

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This play came late in the game when the Falcons were looking to run out the clock, but the Falcons have a top-10 rushing unit so it's not exclusively a situational reaction.

Last week, Jones scored a long touchdown after a play fake on another in-breaking route.

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Though Ryan didn't line up under center, he still used an aggressive play fake and moved with his offensive line through the handoff action. Meanwhile, Jones was beating the aggressive coverage from the slot before he broke into the space in front of the deep safety. Ryan had a simple completion before Jones took the ball the rest of the way. The Patriots will expect better play from their defensive backs than the Packers got from theirs. Even if the Patriots don't have stars in their secondary, the difference in individual quality is still vast.

Kyle Shanahan has had a great season. He has repeatedly set his quarterback up for success by diagnosing the defensive coordinator's tendencies and attacking them. If Belichick sits in one specific coverage, Shanahan will adjust and find a way to attack it.

Of course, that assumes his original game plan won't be effective. Even though the Steelers offense boasts a good quarterback and a lot of talent, that unit was built on beating you in specific ways. The Falcons offense is better built to adapt to specific looks because they incorporate packaged plays (plays where the quarterback has an option to throw the ball even if it is a called run) to quickly expose alignments that favor the offense.

The coaching matchup when Atlanta has the ball will be the most fascinating aspect of the Super Bowl. Kyle Shanahan and Bill Belichick share few similar traits. Shanahan is the young offensive mind who is about to get his first opportunity to prove himself as a head coach. Belichick has long since answered any doubts about his genius. Furthermore, Shanahan's offenses have consistently been built on the same principles, whereas Belichick has repeatedly redesigned his defensive unit over the length of his career.

Since the Falcons are in a similar situation to the Steelers where they are unlikely to win a low-scoring game, this matchup is not only fascinating but of the utmost importance.

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Good read.

If they have to come up with some gimmick 2-5-4 defense to try and match our speed? We'll set a record for scoring on them. Their base defense is a bad match-up aginst us. All 3 of their linebacker are between 250-260 and aren't good in space. If they go nickel or dime to try and match speed, we'll run right at them. Oh, and they are pours at rushing the passer. 

My guess is they'll just try to play 'keep-a-way' all game long and pray for a few defensive stops. 

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5 minutes ago, dodge_birds_fan said:

I worry it'll be like the Philly game where they  just run it down our throat to keep Matt on the sideline.

I think that game was an outlier, tbh.  Getting out early is going to be crucial.  If our defense can do what they did against Green Bay and limit points during their first few series, it will allow this offense to jump out to a quick lead and make them one dimensional.  Of course that one dimension is Tom Brady, but there is not a team in the league right now that wants to get into a track meet with the Atlanta Falcons.  It would be like getting into a three point contest with the Golden State Warriors.

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32 minutes ago, athell said:

I think that game was an outlier, tbh.  Getting out early is going to be crucial.  If our defense can do what they did against Green Bay and limit points during their first few series, it will allow this offense to jump out to a quick lead and make them one dimensional.  Of course that one dimension is Tom Brady, but there is not a team in the league right now that wants to get into a track meet with the Atlanta Falcons.  It would be like getting into a three point contest with the Golden State Warriors.

True. I think that we'll have a few jitters in the 1st. If we can limit mistakes in the 1st we have a shot. You can tell early in the GB game the receivers had a few drops early in the game, then settle in nicely. I trust in Quinn, Shanahan, and Ryan. Dang those are some Mick names lol

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