I am a big fan of the Patriots. Have been since I was a kid, when I had no idea why so many of the grownups in my neighborhood were adjusting the rabbit ears on the television sets to watch the Giants, when you could see our hometown Pats one channel over rather than a team from a city that was a rival of ours in every other sport.
Over the years I think I have developed a pretty decent understanding of the game in comparison to most fans, but I also realize that there are those out there that understand this game on a level that I only wish that I could approach. For today’s column here is one of those people; Patriots fan Jay Shields imparts his wisdom with some incredible insight from an analysis that was originally written three weeks ago.
With the Patriots and Broncos meeting each other once again on Saturday I feel this would be Â extremely relevant – and a welcome respite from discussion about the very minimal effect Josh McDaniels will have and much of the other overly simplistic analysis and opinions that are being thrown out there.
I read quite a few articles about the game this morning and last night. Many of these point to the excellent on-field adjustments of the NE coaching staff, and all seemed very complicated. It didn’t sound right to me, so I had to do my own research. While it is true that adjustments were made, the adjustments were not complicated ones. Indeed, it was a very simple change. I watched the game again this morning, and my takeaway was that the adjustments and subsequent success came down to a very simple concept; gap integrity. Gap integrity boils down to executing your assignments and effectively winning your area. Don’t give up your shoulder, don’t get caught by a pull, stay square and squeeze the gaps. Run defense 101. Shooting gaps, run blitzes, and shifting in response to motion all give up gap integrity in favor of throwing the dice on guessing correctly. Denver uses a lot of pulling, shifting, and misdirection as core offensive principals. Defensively, you don’t want to be in a “come on seven” situation against that type of offense. You want to hold your lanes, play good fundamental football, and shut them down. Starting mid-way through Denver’s 3rd drive New England did this. Let’s look at how it went down.
My first impression watching Denver’s first two offensive series was that NE thought that they had a tell. They went to a shifted 43 under, mixed in some 43 over, and brought Ihedigbo down to make what was essentially a modified 44. They were heavily keyed on the peripherals, and conceding a large hole in the B and C gaps. It seemed that they thought they could win with the two tackles, and that help was needed on the outside. The other key was that NE would react to Denver’s shifts. Spacing and shifting ware major principals of the Denver offense, and moving with it plays into Denver’s hands. It’s such a fundamental concept the only logical explaination was that NE was certain they had a pre snap key. Either way, they didn’t. Denver utilized their spacing and motion to create massive holes and pulled the guards quite frequently. Most of the big plays were derivations of the power-o that took advantage of poor gap integrity and guessing on NE’s part. While the scheme was not ideal, it should have been good enough. Execution, especially on the parts of White and Ninkovich was very poor. They were losing the shoulder on nearly every play which enabled the offense to create an effective seal and hit the gap. The reason behind those big runs was a combination of a poor initial gameplan and even worse execution.
The adjustments that were made, however were extremely effective. Around mid point of Denver’s 3rd drive, NE put in 34 personnel and began to mix in balanced 2-gap looks. It was clear that there was an adjustment made after the 2nd drive, and NE was beginning to get a feel for what Denver was doing. While they were better, they still did cede a few pass plays which was gameplan and fine, as well as a few really nice plays by Denver. There was a timeout on this drive that signified the first major change. NE went back to gap integrity principals. Stay in your rush lanes, ignore the shifting, two gap up front, and enable your linebackers to keep their 34 keys. This fundamental shift was the key to shutting the Denver offense down.
On the fourth drive, this adjustment was clear. They went to a balanced 34, ignored the pre-snap motion, and shut down the Denver gameplan through basic, fundamental NE 34 principals with a safety in the box. The linebackers engaged squarely, the d-linemen squeezed the gaps, the outside backers kept their outside shoulders free, and the run game was shut down. What did this boil down to? Gap integrity. Denver’s fundamental concept was to win with simple math and create large holes. By ignoring the shifting, the Patriots negated this concept, and by keeping good gap integrity, the Denver misdirection couldn’t hurt them. The Kyle Love play is an excellent example of this. They kept gap integrity throughout the line. When the playside was shut down through excellent 2-gapping, Ball tried to cut it back and was met with an emphatic thud as the backside folded under well executed 2-gap principals.
Four sacks? Yes, those too were because of gap integrity. The four sacks were also an illustration of exactly why I said the spy was not needed for Tebow. When the dline staying in their rushing lanes and the ends held contain, gap integrity lead to pocket integrity. Against Tebow, by jamming his primary and keeping the pocket intact the linemen were able to collapse it around the inexperienced QB. It was clear in watching Tebow, that when he read his primary as jammed he would get happy feet. Problem was there was nowhere for him to escape when the d line executed the proper plan. Tebow’s a big, strong guy but he’s not quick enough to escape through the skinny lanes presented by good rush lane integrity. By early 4th quarter it was clear that NE had figured Denver out, knew it, and were getting aggressive.
As the point differential grew, NE shifted into more of a 43 defense. They were willing to concede the run in favor of some negative plays. Even if Denver ran for another 80 yards that quarter, it would play into their hands with the lead. So they went to a more rush-friendly front. While this did show against the run, it shone against the pass. My personal favorite was the Mark Anderson’s second sack of Tebow that many called a coverage sack. There was press, but it was proof that NE had Denver fully figured out and now were just pouring it on. The press removed the primary, and the linebackers fanned out to cover the intermediate seams. The middle of the field was presented to Tebow. Love slanted down, opening the middle of the line, and Tebow already began to pull the ball. What he did not see, however was Mark Anderson coming hard on a delayed loop right into that lane. Sack, and a baited one at that. It was an emphatic statement of schematic superiority by Patricia and BB.
For cliff notes, all of Denver’s big plays on the ground took advantage of seams created by poor gap integrity. As soon as NE played with good gap integrity (facilitated by a shift to the balanced 34) against the run, and stayed within their rushing lanes against the pass, Denver was useless. A simple adjustment for a simple offense. This one came down to simplicity and execution. Not bad for the worst defense in the NFL.