We're doing a season-long NFL roundtable with our friends at Slate. Check back here each week as a rotating cast of football watchers discusses the weekend's key plays, coaching decisions, and traumatic brain injuries.
From: Seth Stevenson
To: Daniel Engber, Barry Petchesky
Those in search of revealing Bill Belichick moments almost never find satisfaction. Provocative press conference questions are met with variations on "Look, we're just focused on preparing for the Dolphins this week." The Hoodie doesn't get expansive. It is what it is.
There are exceptions. Belichick obsessives—I count myself among them—know that B.B. can light up when asked to lecture on football history and technique. The evolution of a certain strain of defense. The importance of leverage in blocking. The manifold talents of Mark Bavaro.
But if you want the best insight into this emotionally opaque being, you have to watch the "Belichick Breakdowns" posted on patriots.com. After each regular-season Patriots win, Belichick chooses a few plays to analyze in depth. If you've never seen the Belestrator in action, you're in for a treat.
There's much football education to be gleaned from these clips, and a wealth of the coveted All-22 footage that fans rarely get to see. When picking plays for further review, Belichick often ignores game-breaking highlights, instead choosing to feature a forgettable eight-yard rush because the tight end executed a textbook crackdown block. He'd rather show you a guard getting in a chip on the nose tackle than a receiver out-leaping a safety—there is something annoyingly yet reassuringly Belichickian in the constant emphasis on technique and team execution over individual feats of athleticism. For representative examples, fire up his breakdowns of Tom Brady working the safety against the Colts and the Pats defense setting the edge against the Eagles. (Or, for a rare glimpse of a lighthearted Belichick, check out the 5:20 mark here, wherein a Rob Gronkowski spike occasions a split second of actual laughter.)
The Belichick Breakdown of the regular-season game between the Patriots and Broncos focuses entirely on the Pats offense. That's a bit disappointing, as I have little fear that the Pats will get their points against the Broncos on Saturday. Barring a breakdown of the Patriots' offensive line (which is not unprecedented in recent Pats playoff performances), it's hard for me to imagine the Broncos defense dominating. Denver made a concerted effort to take away Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski in that first game, but the result was Aaron Hernandez recording career highs in receptions and yards. The Pats were never even slowed down, never mind shut down.
The Pats defense was a different story. In that earlier meeting, the Broncos rushed for 167 yards in the first quarter. They scored on each of their first three possessions, including two rushing touchdowns. But a disastrous second quarter saw 1.) Willis McGahee get knocked out of the game, and 2.) the Broncos fumble the ball away three times in their own half of the field. So when you remember that 41-23 final score, don't forget that the Pats defense swayed perilously on its heels before the Broncos shot off their own feet.
Having just re-watched that first game, I can report that there is good news for anxious Pats fans. For one, there will be none of the Tebow mad bombing that we saw against Pittsburgh last weekend. Tebow didn't launch a single shot deep downfield against the Pats until the fourth quarter, when the Broncos were already far behind. That's because, on most of the plays for which the CBS cameras showed the Pats' pre-snap secondary alignment, the Pats had a strong safety in the box to defend against the run but kept a single free safety waaaaaay deep. That's in line with Belichick's famed bend-don't-break approach—you won't see anything close to the Steelers' cover zero at Gillette Stadium. (As for the Broncos' YAC attack: This site demonstrates that the Broncos ran that same play-action in-cut that won the Steelers game repeatedly against the Pats, but the presence of a deep safety mitigated the damage.)
Also of possible comfort: The safeties the Pats started in that first Broncos game were perhaps the weakest pair fielded by any NFL team this year. Free safety Matthew Slater was a converted wide receiver/special teams gunner who'd never played defense in the pros until well into this season. Strong safety James Ihedigbo was ... not good.
Though we often think of safeties as pass defenders, it was in the run game that this duo made their atrocious presence felt. Ihedigbo and Slater repeatedly missed tackles, turning moderate rushing gains into epic gashes. The return of strong safety Patrick Chung, a very solid tackler, could make a huge difference. And I am tantalized by the possibility that the Pats will play cornerback Devin McCourty as the deep safety in this game. After a spectacular rookie season, McCourty has been torched in his sophomore year by deep throws on which he's failed to turn around and play the ball. (My completely unsubstantiated theory: his shoulder injury has made it tough to turn his head.) Moving McCourty back to safety would let him face the QB more, and he could hardly fare worse than Slater or the Pats' other overmatched free safety, Sergio Brown.
Sadly, we have no Belestrator take on Tebowing. But I like to think that Coach Bill would focus on technique. Elbow angle. Kneeling depth. You know, the important stuff.
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.