How does a defense ranked near the bottom of the league in sacks, turn into a pass rushing force in the playoffs? Upon further review, the New England Patriots pass rush was never bad. It was an effective pass rush that never got the respect it deserved, primarily due to their lack of production in the sexiest of pass rushing stats, sacks. As the playoffs are nearing an end and New England prepares for a chance at the franchise’s sixth championship, we take a look at how the Patriots pass rush has become a dominant postseason force.
Do Your Job
The Patriots have famously gone with the mantra of “Do your job” throughout their 20 year run of excellence. It is a simple concept that is rarely ever accomplished in the NFL. The idea is simple. Each player on the unit needs to worry about what they are responsible for on any given play. There’s no need to try to do something special. Instead, beat your guy one on one and win your battle. If enough players can accomplish this task, the odds are in your favor of winning the play. New England takes this approach to another level in the playoffs. The combination of veterans and young players help keep complacency low. The Patriots as a whole know what it takes to get to the Super Bowl and win. As a result, the players enter each game, hyper-focused and ready to play their part.
The pass rush benefits from this as the Patriots utilize a platoon of front line players on defense. Against the Los Angeles Chargers in the divisional round, the Patriots used eight different defensive linemen, none of home played in more than 73% of the defensive snaps. Facing the explosive Kansas City Chiefs offense led to a six defensive lineman rotation. Outside of Trey Flowers, no defensive lineman played more than 60% of the total defensive snaps. Bill Belichick and Brian Flores are comfortable with their rotations because of the trust built up in their players. The trust comes from knowing their players are reliable to do their jobs and limit mistakes. Having a reliable rotation means fresher defenders going up against offensive linemen who have likely not missed an offensive snap all game. When inches matter, the slightest advantage can make the difference.
Great Game Planning
The Patriots have stymied both the Chargers and Chiefs offenses during these playoffs. Kansas City averaged 35.3 points per game, best in the league. Los Angeles averaged 26.8 points per game on offense, sixth most in the NFL in 2018. While both offenses finished near their season averages, the Chargers scored garbage time points to pad the final total, and the Chiefs found themselves stuck in a deficit after the first half. The Patriots defense did their job and was led by the pass rush. Both offenses struggled more than they had throughout the season. The pass rush was the key.
New England took advantage of the weaknesses along the offensive lines for both the Chargers and Chiefs. The Patriots used defensive line stunts and blitzes in combination with those stunts. An offensive line is only as good as their communication. A lack of communication leads to the guard not passing off the defensive tackle and leaving a hole for the defensive end swinging inside toward the quarterback. Even if the pass rush didn’t get home for the sack, the job was done as long as Philip Rivers or Patrick Mahomes was forced to move out of the pocket. Moving a quarterback from his spot typically results in a sack or incompletion. Timing is interrupted and the quarterback and receivers are forced to reset. Against the Chiefs, Mahomes was forced to be perfect while running around the pocket. No one is perfect.
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Players Make Plays
While it is true that the Patriots lack flashy stars on defense, one would be foolish to think the defense is devoid of talented playmakers. The secondary boasts Stephon Gilmore, Devin McCourty, and Jason McCourty. The trio is some of the best at their positions and have shown the ability to take advantage of the mistakes made by opposing quarterbacks. Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy bring versatility to the linebacker position. The defense also found a gem in Trey Flowers during the 2015 NFL Draft. Flowers has averaged seven sacks a season over the last three years. His production has gone largely unnoticed. However, it is the steady production that can be found all over the Patriots defense, specifically the pass rush.
While the pass rush compiled just 30 sacks over the regular season, they registered 100 quarterback hits. The pressure is what causes mistakes. Those mistakes lead to turnover opportunities. The Patriots finished the regular season with 28 takeaway, fifth best in the league. In the playoffs, the Patriots have six sacks and 16 quarterback hits. In big games, big time players make big time plays. New England has seen their pass rush nearly double their sack rate. Throw in averaging an additional two quarterback hits per game and you’re left with a quarterback working hard to keep the play alive and getting desperate. Not something you want to do against any defense, let alone one with as much experience as the Patriots have in big games.
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Super Bowl Frenzy
Belichick and his staff have had an extra week to prepare a pressure package for Jared Goff and the Los Angeles Rams offense. It is another high-powered offense with weapons all over the field. New England expects defensive end Deatrich Wise to return from an ankle injury. Wise has missed the first two games of the playoffs due to the injury. Adding another pass rusher who finished with 4.5 sacks and 16 quarterback hits is a big boost. The Rams have one of the better offensive lines in the NFL, but as seen in Kansas City, the Patriots have the ability to find success against anyone. Time will tell if the pass rush can continue their stellar play and slow down the explosive Rams offense. As has been the case throughout the playoffs, the Patriots pass rush holds the key.
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