For the next five days, bet on hearing dozens of football talking heads declare that Bill Belichick’s defense wants to take away what Atlanta’s offense does best. They will use Antonio Brown’s lackluster AFC title game or Le’Veon Bell’s inability to get started in Foxborough as their evidence. And no one will disagree with them.
Of course, they never explain how Belichick actually accomplishes it.
Whenever Belichick tells the media on Mondays or Tuesdays that he has already moved on to the next game, trust me, he’s not lying. I worked with Bill for five years in Cleveland, and then during the 2014 and 2015 seasons in New England. Belichick treats every game like a Super Bowl; no detail is too small, no possible scenario or situation goes overlooked. I have heard Belichick break down a bumbling Jaguars team as if it was the reigning two-time Super Bowl winner and treat Blake Bortles like he’s the second coming of Aaron Rodgers. Belichick does it with tape to back up his claims, only showing his team the opponent’s greatest strengths. (With Bortles, I swear, he must have used George Lucas to doctor the video.) No Patriots opponent is underestimated or taken lightly — EVER.
When Belichick prepares for his next opponent, he studies their players and the signature plays of those players, not just the design of their offense. On Sunday, Belichick won’t regard Julio Jones solely as a Z receiver, the way Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers curiously treated him. If you were just an average NFL Z receiver, then a cornerback like Green Bay’s LaDarius Gunter could handle you man-to-man in a critical play of the NFC championship game. But attach a meaningful name like Julio Jones to that position and what reasonable person would allow Gunter to cover man-to-man on an island? Looks good on a blackboard, just not on the field. (Sorry, Dom, that call is still bothering me.)
Belichick doesn’t take away what the opponent does best, but what their individual players do best. It’s a subtle but crucial difference. He personally breaks down every offensive player to understand their strengths within their team’s scheme. Then, he matches the talents of New England’s defensive players to whatever system he’s created for that week. Did you ever wonder why former nose tackle Vince Wilfork lined up over the right tackle in certain Patriots games? For years, Wilfork was Belichick’s best run stopper. Whenever New England’s opponent loved running the ball to its right, guess where it made the most sense to stick Wilfork? Fairly simple, yet not often done.
When I studied the Falcons on tape, one possible weakness jumped out: The right opponent could disrupt the timing of their passing game by getting consistent pressure inside. Knocking Matt Ryan’s offense off its timing, even slightly, will be paramount for the Patriots. If the Patriots don’t get “in the paint” — the area where most quarterbacks want to step up and throw the ball — or apply steady pressure on Ryan, then their coverages won’t matter.
Atlanta’s offense operates best when Ryan has time and the pocket is clean. (Ask Green Bay.) Yet Ryan has been pressured 170 times this year — the eighth-highest total of any 2016 team — and Belichick knows pushing the Falcons guards backward into the pocket will slow down Ryan’s passing game more than any defensive call. The Eagles had real success pressuring the pocket against Atlanta, as did Seattle and Kansas City, and guess what? The Falcons lost all three of those games. The Patriots will prioritize making the Super Bowl a physical affair, not a seven-on-seven contest. Expect defensive tackles Alan Branch and Malcom Brown to line up over either Falcons guard and follow this specific Belichick instruction: Push the line of scrimmage back — run or pass. No swim moves, no spins. Just pure power straight on, the same way the Giants disrupted Tom Brady’s line of scrimmage nine years ago in Arizona.
As for Atlanta’s most dangerous player, Belichick knows that Jones’s number of total catches pales in significance to his number of big plays (anything over 20 yards). When Atlanta lost to Philadelphia in November, Jones finished with 10 catches (his second-highest total all season), 16 targets, and 13.5 yards per catch. Big numbers, right? The Falcons scored a season-low 15 points. You don’t mind 10 for 135; you mind seven for 165. And it’s not just Jones. The Falcons lead the NFL in big plays with 84 (15 runs, 69 passes). If they keep getting them against New England, there will be no fifth ring for Belichick. He knows it. All week, Belichick will likely preach these two things: “No big plays!” and “Don’t let the fucking ball be thrown over our heads!” (He loves adding a little color for emphasis.)
Whenever Atlanta runs the football, Belichick will once again concentrate on controlling the defensive front. After playing 18 games across five months, he knows even the best offenses develop a few tendencies. If the Pats line up in their “Bear” front (covering every inside offensive lineman), then that means they know (or think they know) the types of runs Atlanta favors against that particular front. Quarterbacks usually call two runs in the huddle, which allows them to check into the best one depending on the front. Playing at home with crowd noise, New England loves shifting its front as the 25-second clock winds down, killing the opponent’s ability to check (and inevitably causing a bad play). A Super Bowl crowd won’t generate the same pro-Patriots noise. So Belichick will emphasize being physical, controlling the line of scrimmage and funneling the run back inside. That works only when you have a clear understanding of the plays Atlanta will run corresponding to those defensive fronts.
Don’t underestimate history on Sunday. I suspect Belichick watched every game that his defense has played against anyone named “Shanahan,” whether it’s Atlanta’s offensive coordinator Kyle or his father (and an old Belichick rival) Mike. Those games will become his compass. Any Shanahan team loves getting its running backs outside in space, whether it’s with a run or a screen. I can imagine Belichick in team meetings barking “We’re not gonna let them pitch the ball around the fucking corner like some of those other teams did!” The Pats will set a hard edge and force the ball back inside.
Any Shanahan offense centers around the run game, including a few potentially devastating play-action passes designed to appear as runs. Play-action succeeds if you create separation between the defense’s second and third levels, creating an easier throw. When the Falcons run game stumbles, which rarely happened in 2016, their play-action passes are basically incapacitated. Belichick’s first point will center on setting the edge; the second will be about New England grabbing the lead first, so Atlanta never gets going. New England led the NFL in scoring differential in the first half (plus-133); the Falcons finished second (plus-101). The Patriots also ranked first in first-quarter point differential (plus-98); Atlanta came in second (plus-71). On Sunday, there will be a mad dash for both teams to establish the lead to make it easier on their defenses. Belichick’s mandate all week: “Start fast.”
Of course, adjusting quickly during any football game is just as important. Belichick operates like General George S. Patton, who spent weeks studying the writing of his German adversary, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, then used that found knowledge to crush him in their epic tank battle in Tunisia. On Sunday, imagine Belichick growling his version of “Rommel, you magnificent bastard. I read your book!”
Belichick’s first quarter will be all about building a lead and learning Atlanta’s plan. Taking away Julio Jones, eliminating the big play, setting the edge, creating the lead early, stopping the run — those are not independent thoughts. Belichick ties them together and makes them work together. If football were as simple as “taking away what the opponent does best,” then we wouldn’t be constantly bemoaning the lack of quality NFL coaching. Bill Belichick has lasted this long because he knows football is more complicated than that.