Breaking Down the New England Patriots Defense


For week ten of the NFL season, our Detroit Lions will be facing off against an 8-2 New England Patriots team for the traditional Thanksgiving Day game. Of course, the Patriots don’t need any introductions, having won three Super Bowls in the last decade, but their revamped defense may. The Patriots defense is coordinated for the most part by their head coach Bill Belichick. They don’t have a defensive coordinator (nor do they have an offensive coordinator), but defensive lines coach Pepper Johnson plays a key role in defensive preparation and play calls.

Like any defense, we first need to understand the defensive coordinator and his background in order to fully understand the defensive scheme they are trying to run. In this case, we need to understand Bill Belichick’s background.  Belichick started coaching in the NFL in 1975 with a $25 per week job with the Baltimore Colts as a special assistant, then moved on to the Detroit Lions, coaching the wide receivers, tight ends and was an assistant special teams coach. After spending the 1978 season with the Broncos in a similar role as he had with the Lions, Belichick landed in New York as their special teams coach and defensive assistant in 1979. For the next elven years, he would remain with the Giants and become their defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. While there, he would have the opportunity to learn from legendary head coach Bill Parcells and coach the first modern hybrid linebacker, Lawrence Taylor.

It is really Lawrence Taylor and the New York Giants defense of the late 80’s that got the ball rolling for the 3-4 defenses of the late 90’s in Pittsburgh and today’s blitz happy 3-4 defenses. There were teams that played the 34 before the Giants, but none had a greater impact on the game like them.  The ironic thing is that, while many other teams have used Lawrence Taylor as their blueprint of what a 3-4 hybrid linebacker should be, Bill Belichick’s linebackers aren’t anything close to resembling him. Schematically, the Patriots play what is called a Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4 defense, which is one of the three major branches of the 3-4 defense (LeBeau’s Zone Blitz and Philips 3-4 are the other two).

Under the Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4 defense (which is named after former Oklahoma head coach Chuck Fairbanks and Patriots defensive coordinator Hank Bullough), each defensive lineman is responsible for covering two gaps (see diagram below), so the linebackers can move freely and get to the ball, but that really is the tip of the iceberg.

Many defenses in the past have run the two-gap 3-4 defense before, but none have utilized the linebackers like the Patriots have. KC Joyner, an ESPN Insider, does a great job of explaining in depth of what I’m going to talk about, so if you want more details, feel free to read his article too.

If you’re a regular reader of my posts, you know what a zone blitz scheme is. The most basic zone blitz scheme is where you blitz a linebacker and drop a defensive lineman into coverage. Most people credit Dick LeBeau for coming up with this concept. Bill Belichick really invented the reverse of that concept. When LeBeau came up with his scheme, his logic was that the middle zones of the field weren’t tough to cover, so he could get away with dropping a defensive lineman to cover one or two of those zones. Belichick’s logic is that what really is the difference between a defensive end and a linebacker?  If you can get 260+ pound linebackers/ defensive ends that can cover those zones and rush the passer, then the 3-4 scheme is no longer reliant on having a heavy (in terms of weight) front line like most of the other 3-4 defenses.

In fact, you will notice that many of the Patriots current linebackers are actually former defensive ends, including starters Rob Ninkovich, Daunte Cunningham and backup Tully Banta-Cain.  Still, in general, the Patriots play the standard 3-4 defense with heavier lineman occupying the front three, but at times the Patriots will show 2-5 (2 defensive lineman, five linebackers) and, 1-6 (one defensive lineman, six linebackers). Those type of front, combined with an effective secondary makes the Patriots defense  tough one to play against most years. This year’s version (really the last few years) of the Patriots defense is a little different.

The last few years, the New England Patriots have been starting a really young secondary, which is completely opposite of their philosophy in their super bowl years. This year, the starters in the secondary are: rookie corner Devin McCourtey, second year man Kyle Arrington and Patrick Chung and third year pro Brandon Merriweather, so it might not be too much of a surprise to find out that the Patriots defense is giving up 289 passing yards a game, which ranks them 31st in the NFL. Against the rush, the Patriots are pretty decent, giving up 108 yards per game, ranked 16th in the NFL. Of course, teams do tend to pass the ball much more against the Patriots than rush because of how weak the secondary, which explain why they have only been rushed at 260 times.

Overall, the New England Patriots defense isn’t as strong as they have been in years past. They are ranked 30th overall, so this defense, at least on paper, seems to be the easiest defense the Lions will face all season. Moreover, the Lions strength, the passing attack, seems to be biggest weakness of the Patriots defense, but that is not to say that the Patriots defense is not capable of putting together a solid game. The secondary, though young, is very talented and the defense overall has a lot of young playmakers that are simply figuring out how to play in the NFL.