Breaking Down Bill Belichick’s Super Bowl Defense
Bill Belichick is famous for his ability to simplify things for his defensive players, figuring out the tendencies of his opponents, and presenting the scouting report in a way that allows his best players to play fast. The key is that Belichick doesn’t take away everything you do, in fact, he doesn’t even try. It would be impossible to try to predict and prepare for every little wrinkle that an opponent offensive coordinator will put into his game plan, so instead Belichick just focuses on the four or five things his opponent does best, and tries to take those away.
This is one of the reasons why I wanted to go as in-depth as I did into Bill Belichick’s game plan in my latest book Every Play Revealed Volume II: New England vs Seattle. I draw up and break down every single play of the Super Bowl, and I also write about specific adjustments made by both teams over the course of the game. (Click here to get it)
After watching the Seattle offense on tape for any length of time, the question becomes how do you stop Marshawn Lynch from running wild on the defense? That’s exactly what we’re going to talk about in this post.
Covering the Interior Offensive Linemen
A careful examination of the different defensive fronts that New England played over the course of the game reveals a pattern.
Belichick has the goal of covering the three interior linemen, and especially controlling the path of the center as he climbs to the second level in the run game. This may seem counter-intuitive, especially with the wide alignment of the two defensive tackles, leaving the two A-gap unoccupied, but if you watch the actions of the inside linebackers closely, you’ll notice the way they attack the center and keep him off of the opposite inside linebacker, especially #91 Jamie Collins.
Bill Belichick’s game plan centers around stopping Marshawn Lynch, even at the expense of keeping more people back in the secondary for the pass defense. New England dedicates six men staying inside the tackle box against a one-back formation, and plays intense, press-man coverage across the board. Using giant defensive tackles like Vince Wilfork to control the guards and play a 2-gap technique frees up additional men to attack the ball carrier and lets the defense win the numbers game in the tackle box.
Alignments and Formation Games
It’s important to remember the importance of formations to both the offensive and defensive game plans.
The alignment of the inside linebackers is determined by the location of the tight end. When there is no tight end on the field, the defense sets the strength to the pass strength of the formation.
As you watch the Seattle offense come out with different formations, you’ll note that the Seahawks flex out their starter Luke Wilson all alone as the single receiver in a 3×1 formation. This is in order to test New England’s commitment to setting their strength to tight end. Will New England still set the strength to the lone tight end side where there are more bodies to the other side of the formation? Seattle begins to understand that the answer is yes.
Identifying the Backfield Set
When breaking down an offense, analyzing the different backfield sets play a huge part in developing the game plan. Obviously when you’re playing a team like Seattle, stopping the run game is a big part of your preparation, but even just speaking in general without any specific reference to this offense, the location of the back in the gun in relation to the QB is a big indicator of what the defense to anticipate.
Most defensive coordinators coach up their linebackers to recognize the backfield sets and classify them in relation to where the tight end is lined up. There are plenty of different terms used depending on what coach you’re working for, but for our sake, we’ll use the terms “gun near” and “gun far.”
It’s also worth noting that this is a big motivation for a lot of coaches to move to a pistol offense, because the alignment of the back doesn’t give anything away about the intentions of the offense, and it’s also one less thing the coaches have to worry about when putting together an offensive game plan.
Now that we’ve gone over the basics of how a coach will break down the offensive backfield, we can now talk about the specific defensive assignments as it pertains to each alignment, and more importantly, why.
Gun Near Alignment
Here’s the play drawn up from the offense’s perspective. You can see that the tight end’s wide release with the defensive end lined up across from him is designed to influence the defensive end and open up a large space in case of the cutback run. The play is intended to hit inside of the A gap, but since it’s a zone play, Lynch obviously has the ability to go where he fits best. A run up the middle in the A gap allows Lynch to pick up a lot of speed and momentum in a hurry, and that’s the last thing New England wants.
Here’s the overhead view of the formation, and we can see that Luke Wilson the tight end is lined up to the right on his own side, and the three receivers on the field are lined up opposite on the left.
As a result, Hightower lines up to the defensive left side, while Collins lines up to the right. Patrick Chung #23 lines up with outside leverage on the tight end, which you can see from the wide view. While Chung isn’t heavily involved in run support in the interior of the tackle box, he is responsible for staying outside of the tight end Luke Wilson to play the edge support and force the play back inside in the run game.
Wilson releases outward to the strong safety Patrick Chung (not pictured) which forces Ninkovich to release even wider than usual. By this point, Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell knows that Ninkovich will be playing up the field to box in Russell Wilson, but he’s using the tight end’s wide release to influence Ninkovich to release wide enough to open up space for Lynch to cutback inside of him. Ninkovich stays disciplined and keeps close enough to the backside edge of the play so he has the ability to collapse on any play coming back to him.
Hightower reads the play and flies downhill right away.
As the play develops and Hightower comes downhill, Collins delays for a count so that he can wait until the path to the opposite side of the formation is clear. The center doesn’t get to Collins in time, and he watches as Collins moves to play the cutback. Speaking of the cutback, Lynch sees that the front side of the play is clogged up, so he begins to move side-to-side, cutting back to the offensive right side of the play- right into the paths of Collins and Ninkovich.
Not only has the defense forced Lynch to cut the play back to an unblocked defender, moving side-to-side means that he’s not able to build up the kind of downhill momentum that makes him even more dangerous. So when Collins and Ninkovich get to him and wrap him up, he’s not bringing as much force with him as he would’ve been if he had been able to hit the frontside A gap downhill right away.
As we can see, the defense is designed to not only force the cutback, but get two guys to the ball carrier once he changes direction and moves side-to-side before he can pick up momentum. New England accomplishes this by using their strong side inside linebacker to attack the center, acting almost like a nose tackle who is supposed to control the center, only coming from the second level. In this case, big Vince Wilfork controls the right guard and right tackle, and Collins is left unblocked as he plays the ball bouncing back to the opposite side.
Gun Far Alignment
Now we come to the opposite alignment, where the back lines up away from the strength of the formation. With the change up in the alignment comes a change up in the defensive assignments, as now the unblocked defensive end Chandler Jones closes down the line to chase the “give” and take out the back Robert Turbin on his path of the zone read, and the Will linebacker Jamie Collins scrapes to the QB (Wilson) and exchanges responsibilities in defending the run game.
This is another situation that we talk about in the book, because Seattle has under a minute left in the 1st half, and they want to create a big play, but don’t want to throw a long incomplete pass and leave the clock stopped. If they stop the clock but aren’t picking up yards, they run the risk of having to punt and give the ball back to New England. So Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell has to manufacture a big play on the ground, and he’s got a pretty good idea of how to do it.
Keep in mind that the objective behind most of New England’s adjustments in the run game is to keep Jamie Collins free to chase the ball carrier, and Belichick wants to keep him away from the clutches of those guys playing in the middle of the offensive line as much as possible. As a result, you’ve got to switch up the responsibilities when the back is lined up to Collins’ side, because if you play the responsibilities the same way to both sides, what you’ll end up having is your speedy guy (Collins) attacking the A gap, and the slower of the two inside linebackers (Hightower) having to get over to the opposite side to play the cutback lane.
On the plus side, you’d keep things extremely simple for your defenders when you’re coaching them up during the two weeks of preparation leading up to the game. Unfortunately, you’d also put Hightower in a very bad position when the back is lined up away from him, and you’re asking him to do something that he doesn’t do very well.
There’s no tight end on the field, so the defense will line set their strength to the pass strength of the formation, meaning Hightower lines up to the defensive left and Collins to the defensive right.
We’ll get even more in-depth in a moment, but just look at all that space in the alley at the bottom of the picture that is available to Russell Wilson if he can get free on the edge.
Here’s the back (Turbin) aligned to the four receiver side of the formation, to the defense’s left, and Hightower calls out and sets New England’s strength to the left. As you can see, neither the offense or defense is set at this point, so it’s very early in the pre-snap process.
As the back #22 Robert Turbin flips sides, you can see the right defensive end #95 Chandler Jones and #91 Jamie Collins communicating now the back is lined up to their side, so now their assignments will change.
Now Turbin is aligned to the weak side, and Seattle knows exactly what’s coming, which is why they flipped the back and called this play, in order to get Russell Wilson out on the edge.
Just like he’s been coached up to do, and just like Seattle expects, Chandler Jones closes down the line to chase Turbin whether he has the football or not, and Collins comes downhill on a wide angle in an attempt to box in Wilson and keep him from getting to the edge. This scheme allows Collins, the faster of the two inside linebackers, to still play out in space, instead of wasting his speed by coaching him up to stick his nose in the interior of the offensive line and letting Hightower try to come from the other side and run to take away the cutback.
Now it’s nothing but a one-on-one matchup out on the edge, athlete vs athlete, and Russell Wilson is a quicker player than Collins. All he has to do is make Collins hesitate for a half-second in order to get the edge, and that’s exactly what he does.
Now, the advantage that Collins originally had at the start of the play by coming at a proper angle is gone. Russell Wilson gets the edge on him, and after that it’s no contest. Collins dives at him but he’s not touching him after that.
Now Wilson has all that green grass in front of him that you can see in the photo below, and he has the ability to get out of bounds to stop the clock before any defender can put a good hit on him.
He’s able to pick up the first down by using his legs before finally being forced out by the free safety Devin McCourty. It goes without saying, but anytime your free safety is making tackles, it’s never a good thing.
One of the great things about the way Belichick approaches defense is that his scheme doesn’t require, and doesn’t set out to, shut everything down completely. He’s betting that your offense isn’t good enough to beat him with your 4th or 5th option.
Sometimes, that’s gotten him into trouble. There are a couple of memorable (some in Boston would call them lucky) catches in the pair of Super Bowl losses to the Giants that ultimately ended up costing the Patriots the game, but Belichick’s win percentage speaks for itself. More often than not, his well-coached defense is going to take away the things you do best, and leave you with a few things that you’re either not very good at, or just haven’t practiced that much. Now you have to go out on the field and beat him.
This is what the Super Bowl ultimately came down to. Belichick played an aggressive defensive front that focused on stopping the run first, and locked up Seattle’s receivers in man-to-man coverage that forced Russell Wilson into some uncomfortable throws. Some of those throws connect, like the incredible catch Jermaine Kearse made on Seattle’s final drive. Most of the others however, like the final pass intended for Ricardo Lockette that found its way into Malcolm Butler’s hands, don’t.
This is exactly the kind of in-depth analysis you can expect from my latest book Every Play Revealed Volume II: New England vs Seattle.
With over 200 pages of diagrams and analysis on not only the plays themselves, but the adjustments in between drives and at halftime, it’s the closest you can possibly get to sitting in coaches meetings and putting on the headset to listen in on the conversations Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll have with their assistants during the game.
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