When you’re trying to defend Aaron Rodgers, you have to live with the certainty that no matter what you do as a defense, he will make some great throws into tiny windows. That can’t deter you from continuing to play your game in coverage. You have to force him to make great throw after great throw. No quarterback is perfect, and the more you make life difficult with tight coverage, the better your chances are of having success. On Sunday night, despite a few of those great throws from Rodgers, Bill Belichick didn’t give in. He forced him to be perfect to succeed, and this led to an underwhelming 17-point performance by Green Bay.
Similar to their offense, the Patriots win in many different ways on defense. They combine scheme, game-plan, and great individual play to challenge opposing quarterbacks. On Sunday night, they were able to thwart Packer drives in each of those ways.
On Green Bay’s first drive, it took a great individual play by Stephon Gilmore on 2nd-and-Goal from the 14. Below you can see Gilmore in the slot over wide receiver Davante Adams.
Gilmore initially played to his help in the middle of the field before finding himself caught in traffic when Adams took his route to the outside. Gilmore did a great job of fighting through the traffic and recovering quickly.
That’s a great individual effort on a difficult play for any corner to make. The Packers had to settle for a field goal on this drive.
On the Packers’ next drive, the Patriots brought a blitz out of “0” man coverage on 3rd-and-6. “0” coverage means there is no deep safety in the middle of the field, something most teams really don’t do unless they are in the red zone. The Patriots called it with the Packers on New England’s 44-yard line, though.
New England was able to get a free rusher in on Rodgers, who had to deliver the ball way earlier than he wanted to. He and his rookie receiver, Marques Valdes-Scantling were not on the same page. Maybe it was because they didn’t actually expect the Patriots to follow through with the “0” man coverage look in the middle of the field. Either way, the Packers were caught off guard and forced to punt.
The next drive-ender came on a 3rd-and-4 in the 2nd quarter. The Patriots got a great pass rush inside from defensive tackle Adam Butler (#70), which created pressure up the middle in Aaron Rodgers’ face.
Rodgers was forced to vacate the pocket and throw the ball away.
Our favorite play of the night, however, came in the 3rd quarter. The Patriots were showing “0” man coverage again, this time with Green Bay facing a 3rd-and-7 from their own 4-yard line.
Although the “0” coverage was unlikely, Rodgers did seem to believe that he had his best receiver, Davante Adams, singled up to the left on cornerback J.C. Jackson. Jackson normally comes in when the Patriots are using quarters personnel. That means he’s the 7th defensive back. Rodgers liked the matchup and looked that way initially.
At the snap, though, the Patriots rotated. Safety Duron Harmon ran over top of Adams. This meant Adams was, in fact, not facing single coverage.
Adams was not an option.
Rodgers quickly moved off of Adams and came back to the middle of the field to tight end Jimmy Graham. Graham was not open for a couple of reasons. First, he was jammed at the line by linebacker John Simon and safety Patrick Chung.
Safety Devin McCourty came down into the middle of the field to take away Graham for sure.
This left Rodgers with his third and fourth options. He had Vantes-Scantling covered by New England’s best cover corner, Stephone Gilmore.
Rodgers may have had Valdes-Scantling open early, but by the time he looked in his direction, he likely saw Gilmore closing. Rodgers ended up choosing his matchup of Randall Cobb, who has not looked great this season, on Jason McCourty.
The result was a low percentage pass on 3rd-and-7.
This play is why we love Belichick. Bait the quarterback into thinking he has an advantageous matchup pre-snap, and take it away post snap. Then jam the great pass-catching tight end at the line with two different defenders and take him away completely with a third help-defender. Then leave your best corner on their second-best wide receiver, eliminating any mismatch opportunities the offense has. Belichick took away Rodgers’ three best options and forced him to win with his fourth best on a critical play.
The game may have taken an initial turn on Aaron Jones’ fourth-quarter fumble, but it moved solidly in New England’s favor after they forced another Packers punt while leading 24-17. This time, the punt came after a 3rd-down sack where Rodgers did not even get an opportunity to find an open receiver. Watch Trey Flowers (#98) and Adrian Clayborn (#94) on the left side of the screen as they run a game up front.
Blocking Flowers and Clayborn individually isn’t easy. They are arguably New England’s two best pass rushers. But dealing with their pass rush and a stunt at the same time makes things that much more difficult. Both Flowers and Clayborn beat their man on this play. The scheme and talent/effort combined to not give Rodgers a chance.
The Patriots won this game because they can succeed in more ways than any other team in the NFL. With all of the talk about GOATs leading up to this matchup, there was surprisingly little mention of Bill Belichick, who is undisputedly the GOAT. Game-plans like the one he had against Green Bay are perfect examples why.
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