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Behind Enemy Lines: Keys to the Patriots’ defensive success

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Why is the Patriots defense one of the best in the NFL? A lot of it comes down trusting each other.

Kansas City Chiefs v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Bengals have a tall task ahead of them with the Patriots coming to Cincinnati.

These two teams are obviously on opposite ends of the spectrum, but it it is a good chance to see how improved the Bengals actually are following their bye week resurgence. This was a good time to catch up with Bernd Buchmasser of the Pats Pulpit to get his perspective on the game.

Patrick Judis: We should probably get the elephant out of the room right away. What do you think about the whole video taping incident that happened during the Bengals game against the Browns last week where video or reportedly eight minutes of Cincinnati’s coaches sending signals to players? We obviously know how Bengals fans feel, but it would be extremely interesting to gain your perspective on it.

Bernd Buchmasser: I wrote about this whole affair over at Pats Pulpit a couple of days ago, and my opinion still hasn’t changed: the Patriots need to be smarter than this. Not when it comes to trying to gain an advantage — because I really don’t think they were trying to do that — but they have to know that they are under a magnifying glass whatever they do, especially when it comes to videotaping games. Yes, it was independent contractors but someone within the organization or maybe even the scout that was portrayed for that documentary series should have told them not to film the field. For an organization that prides itself on always being well prepared, this was just sloppy and easily preventable.

Now of course, there are plenty of people out there who are quick to cry “cheating!” and I cannot blame them. But here’s the thing, in my opinion: when the Patriots were penalized in 2007 for filming the Jets’ sideline from an unauthorized location, a big issue was the somewhat fuzzy language of the league memo that served as the basis for the violation. When it comes to Sunday’s incident, there is no gray area: the Patriots’ film crew did violate the NFL’s policy and the club itself already apologized.

And do you really think the Patriots — and Bill Belichick in particular — would be this bold, filming in plain view of the Bengals’ entire scouting department? After already being busted for a videotaping violation once before? You can call Belichick an evil genius and whatnot, but he certainly is too smart for attempting that.

PJ: The Patriots’ defense has been touted as one of the best in the NFL this season (with very good reason). My first part of this question is what do they do so well that really puts them ahead of the rest of the league, but also can you shed any light on what some offenses have been able to do to exploit them at times?

BB: One of the biggest reasons for the Patriots’ defensive success this season has been their ability to play as a single unit and rarely have any breakdowns. Sure, teams have found success — most prominently the Ravens and Texans — but as a whole the defense has played a disciplined yet aggressive style that is sustainable due to the unit’s chemistry, communication and experience.

Just look at the secondary: Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung are in their ninth season together, Jason McCourty is Devin’s twin brother, Stephon Gilmore and Jonathan Jones have been with the team since 2017 and 2016, respectively, and J.C. Jackson has also fit in well in his second year. This experience in combination with the obvious talent is the foundation for the entire defense. And it is not just the backfield, but the front seven — especially the linebacker position — as well.

Now as you’ve said, teams have been able to exploit them from time to time. As noted above, the Ravens and Texans have found the most success and they did so in different ways: Baltimore took advantage of New England’s aggressive two-gap and run-blitz scheme by not tipping its hand too early and out-manning the defense on stretch and outside zone runs. Houston, meanwhile, simply was able to win its fair share of one-on-one battles with its talented receiving corps against the Patriots’ depth options at cornerback as well as the linebackers.

What also helped them, of course, was the performance a New England offense that was incapable of controlling the rhythm and tempo of the games — thus putting more pressure on the defense against two very capable opponents (the same was, especially in the first half, also the issue against Kansas City last week).

PJ: Tom Brady had been going for awhile now, and it certainly feels like as long as he and Bill Belichick are in New England that nothing else on that roster matters. As someone who has watched him closely over the season, has he shown any signs of slowing down at the ripe age of 42?

BB: While the Patriots offense has struggled recently, Brady’s performance is not the primary issue — even though his numbers are not up to his usual lofty standards and at 42 years of age the D-word (decline) is naturally coming to mind whenever he does not light up the scoreboard. But he is still showing the same skills he displayed in 2018, and 2017, and 2016, and so on: he is making mostly good decisions with the football, still has considerable arm strength and accuracy, and remains one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL when it comes to moving around in the pocket (no, he’s not mobile in a Patrick Mahomes or Lamar Jackson-ish way, but his ability to feel the pocket and maneuver around in it is still [Italian Chef’s kiss]).

So, is he showing signs of slowing down? I’d say it depends on the perspective: statistically, yes, there is no denying that. But putting the circumstances into consideration — the offensive line and skill position groups have seen plenty of personnel turnover going all the way back to the offseason — I would argue that he is still capable of leading this team to a Super Bowl and making the plays necessary to win another title.

PJ: One of the more notable offseason storylines was tight end Rob Gronkowski retiring following the Super Bowl win. Fans obviously know about wide receiver Julian Edelman, but who else has contributed with filling in the huge shoes left by Gronkowski?

BB: I would say they haven’t been able to properly fill the shoes to begin with, simply because of what Gronkowski brought to the table. Not only was he a big-play threat as a pass catcher, he also was the best blocking tight end in all of football — something that helped the Patriots’ running game immensely down the stretch last year. This year, the team lacks such a dual-threat tight end as neither Matt LaCosse nor Benjamin Watson have developed into reliable or above-average contributors in the passing and running game. Just take a look at New England’s target share: only 9.0% of the team’s pass attempts were thrown towards a member of the tight end group, the second lowest number in all of football (the Bengals, for example, are middle-of-the-pack at 17.3%).

This means that the other positions have picked up the slack, right? Well, somewhat. Edelman, of course, has played an enormous role and leads the team in receptions (90), receiving yards (1,010) and receiving touchdowns (6) — he is the most consistent pass catcher on the Patriots’ roster and it’s not particularly close. Behind him, we find running back James White: he has caught 62 passes for 539 yards and three scores and remains one of the best receiving backs in the NFL. Meanwhile, wide receivers Phillip Dorsett, Mohamed Sanu and Jakobi Meyers have also contributed to the offense but struggled a) with inconsistency against press-man coverage, and b) to get on the same page as Tom Brady.

Dorsett (28-347-5) has run mostly hot and cold; he can make some good plays but also had some bad miscommunications with Brady. Sanu (18-135-1) was picked up via trade midway through the season and looked good before hurting his ankle in Week 11; he could make an impact on Sunday but his injury could still limit him like it did the last two weeks. Meyers (23-334-0), meanwhile, has seen increased playing time due to the aforementioned personnel turnover but has looked every bit what you would expect from an undrafted rookie: he has had some good moments, but has also dropped some easy passes.

The wildcard of the group might be N’Keal Harry. The Patriots’ first-round draft pick has missed nine games after being placed on injured reserve, but he brings an intriguing skillset to the table. So far, New England has used him sparingly — he has five catches for 40 yards and a touchdown on his résumé — but he could get a bigger role as the season rolls along. And, to go back to Gronkowski, he also could provide a big-bodied target for Brady in red zone situations.

PJ: The “We’re on to Cincinnati” game still is referenced among Bengals fans, and the fan base may be the strongest supporters of never trying to bury the Patriots because of it. The circumstances are very different entering this game, but coming in on a two-game losing streak, do you think New England has an old fashioned beating left in them?

BB: When looking at the team purely from a talent perspective — both on the roster and the coaching staff — I would say yes. The Patriots have to show that they can really run away with a game, however, and have not done so since Week 2 when they still had Antonio Brown (released) and Josh Gordon (first to IR, then released) as wide receiver options. And that is the main reason why I’m reluctant to say they have a beating in them at this point in time: the offense has shown little over the last few weeks, and while things change fast in the NFL, I have to see it get better before I believe it and make any assumptions about potential blowouts.

Thanks again to Bernd Buchmasser for taking the time to answer our questions. You can find more of his work as well as Patriots’ coverage at Pats Pulpit.