Bill (still) knows defense

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Nov 10, 2011



By Kevin Braig
Cold, Hard Football Facts Quant Coach


To paraphrase Forrest Gump, the QuantCoach may not be a smart man, but he knows what knowledge is.
 
And he knows what knowledge is not. 
 
Knowledge is not genius, which is something completely different and far, far, far less valuable.
 
Genius is a marketer’s brand that is as superficial as an iron-on alligator on a golf shirt.  Genius also is—as David Harris recognized in his biography of Bill Walsh entitled The Genius—a brand that inevitably will turn on the article—the coach’s knowledge—to which it is attached.
 
“Perhaps worst of all,” Harris wrote, “the [genius] label created a host of expectations that [Walsh] would have to meet or exceed simply to avoid being considered less than himself.”
 
On the other hand, knowledge is power and power is control.  So, pursuant to some elementary school math property or another, knowledge is control.  And control is what every NFL coach seeks in every NFL game. 
 
If you are having a hard time keeping up, simply stated, knowledge is the genuine article.
 
Recently, some (including Chief Troll Kerry Byrne) have begun to suggest that perhaps the genius label should be turned on New England head coach Bill Belichick.  They point to the Patriots’ poor pass defense statistics as their main evidence that Belichick is perhaps not the defensive designer they thought him to be.
 
Several columnists have ripped Belichick for the players that he has used in the secondary and have dredged up losses from the past—mostly to Indianapolis and Peyton Manning—to support their charge that Belichick is no longer a “genius” and is being carried by All-Pro quarterback Tom Brady.
 
“When Brady’s having a rare ‘off’ game, the pressure is on the New England defense to step up, “ Jim Donaldson of the Providence Journal wrote.  “All too often, … Belichick’s ‘D’ gets an ‘F’ grade.”
 
“One of the great defensive minds of all time, and a guy who coached such rock solid defense with the Giants and then with his Super Bowl-winning teams in New England, has gone soft on that side of the ball,” wrote Mike Lupica in the New York Daily News.
 
Of course, as Lupica noted, there was a time, particularly when he was the Giants defensive coordinator, when Belichick preferred to control a game with defense.
 
But those days actually began to recede into history as early as Super Bowl XXV when New York met Buffalo.
 
The Bills came into that Super Bowl on a roll of infinite productivity.  Their quarterback, Jim Kelly, had not been sacked once in the AFC playoffs.  In a 44-34 win over Miami, Kelly had averaged over 12.7 yards per pass attempt as measured by QCYPA.  In a 51-3 demolition of Oakland in the AFC Championship, Kelly averaged 13.9 yards per pass attempt.  Kelly hadn't needed a second down in those games, much less a third or fourth down.
 
From a personnel perspective, Belichick’s New York defense was ill-suited to defend Buffalo even though the Giants featured linebackers Lawrence Taylor and Carl Banks.  Belichick’s defense had been designed to stop Walsh’s offense, the timing of which ran through tight end Brent Jones.
 
Walsh’s offense operated like a marine chronometer, which is designed to keep accurate time on the pitching and tossing deck of a ship.  In Walsh’s chronometer, quarterback Joe Montana was the escapement, the part that ticked.
 
Tight end Jones was the resonator, the part of the chronometer that enabled the escapement to remain unaffected by changing seas and temperatures.
 
Belichick figured out that if he put Banks over Jones and disrupted Walsh’s resonator, he could buy just enough precious time to disrupt Montana’s timing. 
 
In the Giants 15-13 win over San Francisco in the NFC Championship, “Banks pounded Jones all game long” according to David Halberstam’s masterpiece, The Education of a Coach.  New York limited the 49ers to a pedestrian 5.4 yards per pass attempt on all their attempts except a 61-yard touchdown pass from Montana to John Taylor.
 
Buffalo presented a very different problem in the ensuing Super Bowl.
 
“Buffalo was probably, Belichick thought, a better team than the Giants, with more weapons, because they were so good on offense,” Halberstam wrote.
 
In addition to Kelly, the Bills featured blazing speed on the wings in wide receivers James Lofton and Don Beebe, but they frequently played without a tight end.  Instead, Buffalo lined up another wide receiver, Andre Reed, in the slot and used Reed to work the middle of the field.  It is a formation that Belichick later would see a lot from Manning’s Colts, and it caused real problems for his defensive play design.

To compensate, Belichick essentially conceded control of the game to Kelly and designed a trap.

Rather than chase Reed like a fool chasing a mouse in his kitchen, Belichick wisely put out bait and tempted Kelly to take it.
 
“The Bills were less dangerous,” Belichick thought according to Halberstam, “if they went to their running game, which also had the advantage of taking more time off the clock.  What Belichick really hoped was, in effect, to tease Kelly, to offer him the running game in the second half and then at critical moments take it away from him.”
 
Belichick's bait was a defensive design that frequently featured six defensive backs.  The design invited Buffalo to run the football and running back Thurman Thomas had a big day.
 
“You guys have to believe me,” Belichick said according to Halberstam.  “If Thomas runs for 100 yards, we win this game.”
 
“The defensive players were appalled,” Halberstam wrote.  “Preventing Thomas from running was virtually built into their manhood.”
 
But Belichick’s knowledge was a better defense in Super Bowl XXV than his defenders’ manhood.
 
In New York’s 20-19 win, the Giants were just a whisker—less than one percent—better designed than the Bills and just a fraction more productive.  In other words, Belichick’s knowledge reduced Buffalo’s infinite productivity to a level that New York’s less potent, run-oriented offense could match and enabled the game to be decided on one play, kicker Scott Norwood’s last-second missed field goal.
 
Of course, if New York’s offense had not surrendered a second quarter safety—not Belichick’s department at the time—the game merely would have gone into overtime even if Norwood had made the field goal. 
 
But that’s not really the point today.
 
The point today is that almost every NFL team frequently plays like Buffalo did in Super Bowl XXV, except instead of using Andre Reed to work the middle of the field from the slot, they now use blazing fast power forwards like Green Bay’s Jermichael Finley or New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham to do so.
 
So Belichick’s teams play defense somewhat like the Giants did in Super Bowl XXV.  Dom Capers defense in Green Bay and Dick LeBeau’s defense in Pittsburgh do too. 
 
Those coaches know a defensive coordinator usually cannot control the game.  Against the really good quarterbacks—Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, etc.—all of these men know that they will give up yards.  They choose to do so and try to get in position where the game turns on a turnover or two by the opposition.  They try  to bait and trap opposing quarterbacks like mice in the kitchen.

When those traps work, the Patriots, Packers, and Steelers win.

For example, Aaron Nagler of CheeseheadTV.com described how Capers set a trap for San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers in Green Bay's 45-38 win over the Chargers.  When Rivers took the bait, Packers' defensive back Tramon Williams intercepted a first quarter pass and returned it for a touchdown.

Occassionally, the trap can be to eschew a trap.  Pittsburgh's LeBeau is as skilled at trap design as any defensive coordinator in history.  But until a couple weeks ago, Brady owned the Steelers because he is almost impossible to trap.  In Pittsburgh's 25-16 win, LeBeau abandoned his efforts to trap Brady and put his defenders in good old fashion man-to-man coverage and the Patriots wide receivers simply could not get open.
 
Notwithstanding LeBeau's success with straightforward man coverage, the days when it was reasonable to think a defensive coordinator might consistently stop a top-shelf quarterback like Brady from completing passes and accumulating passing yards have been gone for a long, long time.  It’s just not how the game is played today.
 
Belichick knows this.  Now you know it too. 
 
So take your knowledge and compare the 2011 Patriots to the 2010 version that ultimately finished 14-2.  At this point in the season, the 2010 Patriots were 6-2, just one game better than this year’s 5-3 version.  At this point in the season, the 2010 Patriots were 1.8 percent worse designed than their opponents.  The 2011 Patriots are 1.6 percent better designed than their opponents. 
 
Why do the 2010 Patriots seem to be so much better than this year’s team even though the current version actually is slightly better designed? 

The answer is elementary: Turnovers.  The 2010 Patriots were plus-5 in turnovers at this point in the season.  Moreover, New England closed with a truly incredible run of plus-23 turnovers in their final eight games by committing but a single, solitary turnover over that span.
 
In comparison, the 2011 Patriots are even in turnovers.  Against Buffalo and the Giants, they turned it over four times.  Overall, New England’s opponents have provided 14 turnovers to the Patriots, the exact same number as last year.  But so far Brady and his teammates have subsidized their opponents a little bit more this year and, as a result, they have lost one more game so far.
 
It happens.
 
Belichick has not lost any knowledge or failed to keep up with his colleagues in his department.  Rather, the football sometimes simply does not bounce his way.
 
Belichick and defense still go together like peas and carrots. 
 
And the chef still knows how to cook the vegetables and trap the mice that try to take the bait that he sets out in his kitchen.

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