New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick has long employed strategies on offense and defense that are outside the norm in the NFL. Associated Press/Adam Hunger

This is what it took to rebuild the New England Patriots.

A record-setting $163 million guaranteed in free agency.

Mac Jones free-falling into their lap during the draft.

Excellent health through 11 games.

And poo-pooing all of the major schematic trends in modern football.

The least surprising of those developments should be the last. It’s well established Bill Belichick is the NFL’s most famous non-conformist, and going against the grain holds age-old wisdom in competitive settings. The football field is no exception.

Twenty years ago, Belichick founded the Patriots dynasty on 3-4 defenses that dominated in a four-down era. His answer for choosing a 3-4 system was economics. It was cheaper to pursue giant nose tackles than Warren Sapp knockoffs and undersized defensive ends who could stand up instead of high-priced, one-track-minded pass rushers.

In 2021, the strongest evidence of a Belichick’s contrarianism lies with the offense.

This season, the Patriots have run the third-most snaps of 21 personnel, groupings with two backs – usually a halfback and a fullback – and one tight end. Their application of run-first bully ball is not a function of protecting a rookie quarterback.

According to Sharp Football Stats, the Pats offense has ranked in the top five of highest 21 personnel usage every season dating back to 2016, a span that includes prime Tom Brady years.

More recently, the Patriots have doubled their 21 personnel usage over the five-game win streak. They’re employing a fullback on 30% of all offensive plays and almost 40% of their early down snaps. Starting fullback Jakob Johnson saw a season-high 41% of snaps last Thursday in Atlanta.

For reference, through Week 10, more than half the league used two-back personnel on 5% of their offensive plays or fewer. Every team’s most common personnel grouping features one back, and while the Patriots are included in that group, they’ve run the fifth-lowest percentage of one-back offense in the league.

Belichick explained the Pats’ commitment to executing one-back and two-back offense by echoing a Sun Tzu quote that hangs inside the team facility: “Every battle is won before it is fought.”

“I think there’s an advantage, if you can do both, to doing both and forcing your opponent to work on everything. All that takes time,” he said Monday. “It consumes meeting time, practice time, game-planning time. And if you can do it better than they can, you can gain an advantage.”

The Patriots are so committed to upending the spread era through a fullback that two years ago, after losing Pro Bowl starter James Develin and Johnson, his backup, they converted inside linebacker Elandon Roberts to play offense midseason. Roberts played 21 snaps in a must-win prime time game against Buffalo, and then scored a touchdown in the season finale.

Days after beating Buffalo, Belichick explained the team’s devotion to 21 personnel by saying: “We have invested a lot into it.”

On Monday, Pats inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo detailed the stress that facing increasingly rare two-back offenses can put on a modern defenses.

“All these offenses that go to smaller people, and now you face an offense that has bigger, they start to build their defense to face smaller, faster offenses,” he said. “And then they run into a powerhouse that can just run the ball and average four or five yards a carry, it’s always difficult.”

Mayo later added: “Whether the fullback’s lined up in a straight line or if he’s offset to one side or the other, he can create an extra gap. And so that’s what makes it hard. Anytime you have a second guy back there, anywhere he inserts, now the space is different.”

Defensively, the Patriots have excused themselves from the two-high coverage movement sweeping across the league. According to Sports Info. Solutions, the Pats have played the highest percentage of single-high coverage this season at 56%. Their top calls – Cover 1 and Cover 3 – allow for a safety to rotate late into the box and help stifle the run.

These defenses are as old as football itself, though the Patriots have struck a rare balance between defending the run with numbers – using the NFL’s second-highest rate of stacked boxes – and protecting themselves against deep passes. Despite losing starting nickel back Jonathan Jones, the Pats own one of the 10 lowest rates of explosive pass plays allowed, per Sharp Football Stats.

By committing to Cover 1 and Cover 3, the Patriots have prioritized defending the middle of the field, the same area the best offenses – especially spread attacks – have dominated in the modern era. So beating the Pats means preparing for a less common looks, generally dusting off your Plan B and/or attacking outside. Yet trouble lies there, too. The Patriots have limited opposing No. 1 wideouts better than any other defense in the league, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA.

Asked Monday about the difficulty of confronting defenses that camp out between the numbers, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels pivoted to discussing the Titans and how the greatest challenge they pose is deciphering what coverage they’re actually playing.

“At the end of the day, our job really is going to be to try to find a weakness in the coverage or the profit in every play and see if we can take advantage of those this week. This will be a big challenge because they do both. They play a lot of post. They play a lot of split and they’ll mix it in there, and they’ll make it look like the opposite,” McDaniels said. “They’ll disguise really well.”

Sound familiar? It should.

While the Patriots run more single-high coverage than the rest of the NFL, their ratio is more accurately described as 50/50; as close to unpredictable as it gets. And while the Pats have also one of the league’s highest rates of man-to-man, they’ve called zone on more than 70% of opponents’ dropbacks during their win streak; a midseason change exacerbated by regular pre-snap disguise.

All of this trickery and contrarian coverage has helped reap a league-leading 18 interceptions from opposing quarterbacks who should ultimately know better by now.

Because after all, the best bet for what the Patriots will do next has always been whatever they didn’t do last.


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