Make the game plan specific to the opponent.
Belichick’s play-calling is the epitome of the Tony Dungy saying that I have been so fond of quoting over the years, “70% of NFL games are lost rather than won.” Belichick takes this mind-set to heart by always going after the weakness of an opponent. If it is a schematic weakness such as an offense always blocking a certain type of blitz the same way, he’ll exploit it. If it is a personnel weakness, he’ll target that. This is by far and bar none the centerpiece of the Belichick philosophy of winning games.
Build your team so that it can go after any of these weaknesses.
The Patriots lost the best quarterback in the NFL not even one quarter into the 2008 season, yet they were still able to adjust their offense to attack defenses in any manner needed. Need proof? Try this. The Pats rushed for 257 yards against Denver in Week 7, the most by a New England team in 23 years. They also had a backup quarterback become only the fifth player in NFL history to throw for over 400 passing yards in back-to-back games. They found a way to run or pass with extraordinary effectiveness whenever they needed to.
Combine athletic ability with intelligence as often as possible.
This has two rewards. First, intelligent players are going to be able to adjust to new game plans. Second, because the game plan is based on the opponent, the plan each week is always going to be a fresh one. This approach will appeal to intelligent players and keep their interest levels higher than it would unintelligent ones. Mental stimulation is an extremely effective tool in helping an organization stay focused late in the year.
A team doesn’t need a great running back to win.
A good one will do if you have quality blocking up front (and New England had that in 2008, ranking 2nd in the team POA win percentage run blocking metric). And if all you have are a collection of solid backs, always use the healthiest one. This is why the Patriots drive fantasy football coaches up a wall -– they’ll always go with the healthy back and will never let anyone know who that is until the game starts.
If you can’t go after a specific weakness in your opponent, use every tool in the playbook to put your players into the highest percentage position possible. The Patriots provided a textbook case of this in the Week 7 game against Denver last year. They repeatedly called plays with pre-snap motion that had the receiver get up to full speed right as he was reaching the tackle or tight end at the edge of the offensive front wall. What this did was prevent the defender from getting a clear view of the receiver. Because of this, he would not know that the man he was due to cover suddenly went from a slow trot to a full sprint and would thus be at a speed disadvantage at the snap. This happened time and again that night and caught Denver defenders slow on multiple occasions.
Don’t ask players to do things they aren’t capable of.
I spoke in the Kansas City section how Matt Cassel had more than a bit of trouble throwing vertical passes. The downfield passing attack was the focal point of the 2007 Patriots, but Cassel wasn’t capable of it, so Belichick altered the game plan to ameliorate his weakness as much as possible.
The team’s psychological state cannot be ignored.
Before the Week 8 game against St. Louis, Belichick showed his team a video of them being solemn and grim and told them no more, he wanted them to loosen up. He expects his players to be professionals who don’t need the constant prodding that a personnel-based coach would give them, but he also knows his role in keeping them on an even keel when they get too serious or too laid back.
Teach players how to do the high percentage things.
The Week 11 game versus the Jets on NFL Network had a stat that illustrates this team’s aptitude in this area. Coming into that contest, the Patriots were the least-penalized team in the league, with 26 penalties in the first nine games. According to the broadcast crew, that was the fewest penalties a team had in the first nine games of the season since the 1962 Steelers.
Teach players that if the defense is giving you anything, take as much of it as you can.
Wes Welker is a master at this when he runs crossing routes. Most receivers will run that route at the same depth no matter how deep the linebackers drop. Welker will base his route depth on where the linebackers are. If they go seven yards off the line of scrimmage, he’ll run it four to five yards downfield. If they drop to ten yards back, he’ll run that same route at a seven to eight yard depth. It is one of the reasons that Randy Moss and Welker ranked #1 and #3 in short pass YPA last year.
Know how to work the clock in very creative ways.
The most famous instance of this was the intentional safety New England took in that Monday Night game against the Broncos a few years ago that helped them to a win, but they did something just as creative against the Bills in Week 10.
The Pats had a first-and-goal at the Buffalo one-yard line up 13-3 with 3:18 left in the 4th quarter. Most teams would have just tried to punch the ball in, but Belichick wanted to run some clock while at the same time not losing yardage. What he ended up doing was having Cassel try a couple of half-hearted quarterback sneaks. Cassel didn’t make an effort to score but he also made sure the ball stayed at the one-yard line. Those two plays took the clock down to the two-minute warning and on the next play Belichick called for a run by BenJarvus Green-Ellis that resulted in a touchdown. They could have picked up those seven points earlier but Belichick knew the value of keeping the two-minute clock stoppage out of the Bills’ hands.
Don’t let superstition get in the way of things.
Early in the 2008 season, New England had back-to-back games at San Francisco and San Diego. Instead of flying back to the East Coast and then returning back a few days later, the Patriots just stayed out west the entire time. That trip ended with a disheartening 30-10 loss against the Chargers.
New England then had another western double dip with games at Seattle and Oakland in Weeks 14 and 15. Many coaches would have changed their travel plans and gone back east out of a superstitious mind-set to avoid a repeat of the SD loss, but Belichick knew that staying out west was still the best thing to do. New England won both games and thus validated his approach.
Don’t let a macho attitude get in the way of things.
Ty Warren missed a few games late last year with a torn groin. By Week 15, the injury had healed some but not fully. He told the coaches that he could play on run downs but not on passing downs.
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