Monday, August 10, 2020

Belichick Will Have To Get Creative To Help Patriots’ Defense Survive Devastating Loss Of Talent

Eight different members of the New England Patriots have opted out of the 2020 NFL season for reasons related to the ongoing pandemic, and while three of them were counted on to be integral components, their loss opens the door for some talented players waiting in the wings…

…but now, thanks to those players opting out, the Patriots also have almost $35 million in cap space that they could potentially use to bring in a seasoned veteran or two to stem the tide of departures from the depth chart.

Under normal Belichickian standards, those aforementioned young and talented players would essentially go through a “Redshirt” season, seeing minimal action while they watch and learn from the veterans ahead of them on the depth chart, but head coach Bill Belichick appears to have lost the luxury of bringing his newbies along slowly.
Both Chung (23) and Hightower (54) have opted-out of 2020 season

Fortunately, of the players on the list of opt-outs, only the loss of linebacker Dont’a Hightower and right tackle Marcus Cannon are considered problematic, as there is no proven talent behind them on the depth chart – but especially Hightower, as his decision robs the Patriots of not only their play-calling defensive captain, it also leaves the linebacking corps looking more like a Senior Bowl lineup…

…going from a “Who’s who” pack of speedy sack masters to a “Who’s that?” group of rookies and journeyman part-timers that, from the outside, looks like a serious degradation of the talent level.

But these are the New England Patriots, and Belichick is the quintessential boy scout who is always prepared – and while some (most) believe that he was unprepared last season to deal with all of the injuries that crippled his team, the simple fact of the matter is that he was preparing his team for life beyond the dynasty in hopes of creating a new one.

Replacing Hightower And Chung

This is likely to be a game-to-game scenario, which is how Belichick operates anyway.

Belichick is the master game-planner who builds his teams with the Patriots’ schedule in mind. It is said that coaches build their teams to match up with teams in their division, which makes sense on the surface, given that they play each team twice – but in reality, that means that each team plays only six of their sixteen regular season games in-division, leaving ten games against non-division foes…

…so their success or failure in making the post-season lies mainly on how they fare against the ten other teams on their schedule, and somehow, someway, Belichick seems to be able to game plan for every single team, every single week – and he uses his entire roster, even if it’s just in one or two plays throughout the season.

Situational football is what Belichick lives for, and the options that he has for covering the “Will” linebacker spot that Hightower has vacated are actually quite plentiful, if not traditional.

For the past two seasons, Belichick has employed strong safety Patrick Chung in the position at times, and though Chung has also opted out, some the players that they have brought in through free agency and the draft to eventually replace the aging box safety are looking more and more fortuitous as time goes on…

…and the draft also produced a couple of off-the-ball linebackers who possesses the skill set to contribute in the multiple-layer infusion to replace the volume of talent the Patriots lost not only when Hightower opted out, but also the loss of Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts in free agency.

It makes sense for Belichick to look at veteran journeyman Brandon Copeland to provide some snaps in Hightower’s stead, but there’s a reason why the Penn product has bounced around the league since entering the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2014.

He is a man without a true position, initially entering the league as a 265 pound defensive end with impressive speed for the position, but with suspect lateral agility in the pass rush and found himself out of the league for a couple of seasons – then reinvented himself as an outside linebacker for the 2015 veteran combine, shedding twenty pounds and, as a result, trimming two-tenths of a second off of his forty…

…and while that improved his straight-line speed, it did little to improve his agility. At his best, Copeland, who’s weight now stands at 255, is a strong-side, edge-setting linebacker who willingly takes on tight ends on the edge, but also gets regularly swallowed up in the maw, leaving an inside track for runners.

As a result, he found himself as a rotational player for both the Lions and Jets, his greatest contribution being on special teams. With his lack of lateral agility, I can’t see him as a regular part of the lineup, especially if the rookies on the roster can make an immediate impact in camp.

Michigan’s Josh Uche is the favorite to take on the “Will” role vacated by Hightower due to his “tweener” skill set. Though he won many battles as an edge rusher in college, his size could work against him against offensive tackles and tight ends in the pros unless he is schemed as an interior linebacker in a 3-4 defensive alignment, where he could roll to the edge in run defense and attack interior gaps as a blitzer in pass defense.

He possess more speed than Hightower and is fluid in underneath coverages, and the fact that he models his game after the late Sean Taylor, those box safety-like instincts and versatility has to have Belichick salivating at the possibilities of deploying Uche in the middle of his “Amoeba” defense.

As anyone who knows football is familiar with, the difference between the aforementioned box safety and a coverage linebacker is in name only, and since Belichick likes to employ his strong safeties as coverage linebackers, Uche fits that bill – but he’s not the only player on the roster who does.

Belichick’s top pick in the 2020 draft, safety Kyle Dugger, possesses the most versatility of any player on the Patriots’ defense and, as such, he could fill a different role in just about any alignment. A violent striker in space with the speed to handle the back end as well.

Dugger’s coaches at the Senior Bowl tried him at the single high safety position and as a hybrid linebacker who fills well in run support and excels at underneath coverages. He has the size to hold his own at the “Will” spot, where, as mentioned, Belichick used Chung at times to handle the better tight ends in the league.

Former Los Angeles Chargers’ safety Adrian Phillips was signed by Belichick in free agency, most likely to make him more comfortable in facilitating a trade with the Detroit Lions that sent Big Nickel safety Duron Harmon packing in a salary cap move. Phillips is also capable of reducing down into the box, but his presence only adds fuel to the speculation that Dugger will play a major role – something we will get into in a later article.

But with both Phillips and Dugger on the roster, Belichick should be able to continue fielding three safeties in both his Big Nickel and Amoeba packages, especially the latter, which is defined by no definition, a “formation” that is constantly shifting shape during the offensive cadence, making it close to impossible for the quarterback to set his protection at the line because he has no idea where the pressure will be coming from.

And that is important to remember about this defense. In the Amoeba, all of the defenders are juking and shifting as if they are rushing the quarterback, then at the snap, some defenders rush while others fall back into coverage so it is imperative that Belichick have as many versatile athletes on the field…

…and while the Amoeba is geared more towards late-down, long-yardage situations, the presence of players like Uche, Dugger and Phillips, along with young breakout candidates in linebackers Ja’Whaun Bentley and Chase Winovich, he could employ the tactic on early downs as well, albeit with a tweak or two.

All of that said, there is no guarantee with the newbies on the roster, but the versatility in their individual skill sets actually gives Belichick more options both in coverages and in run support than he had with more traditionally-skilled defenders in Hightower and Chung – but that doesn’t mean those players won’t be missed, it simply means that Belichick will have to open up his playbook a little wider, which isn’t a bad thing…

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