Bill Belichick knows a thing or two about gameplans. He’s responsible for some of best the NFL has ever seen, so you couldn’t blame him if he was to recycle one every now and then. It’s a habit that’s worked frequently.
Against the Denver Broncos in Week 12 (his team’s AFC title game opponent), there were shades of the 1991 Super Bowl gameplan that he used to thwart the Buffalo Bills’ high-powered, fast-paced offense. If he used a similar approach again this weekend it wouldn’t surprise anyone, including former New York Giants area scout Greg Gabriel, who worked with Belichick for six seasons.
“Well, I think that number one: Belichick is such a student of the game and he is just so intelligent, that, yeah, he’s going to go back and see what worked against what,” Gabriel said when I spoke with him and asked if recycling gameplans was in the coach’s DNA. “And it’s not necessarily the team – I mean, in this case it’s the team – but it’s the coach he’s coaching against because a lot of times it’s that, and/or the players that he’s playing against.”
Faced with the Bills’ K-Gun offense in Super Bowl XXV, Belichick didn’t blink. He reverted to what he knew best, adapting his flexible defense to put a lid on the offense and force it into doing things they didn’t necessarily want to do. That included running the ball more than they’d hoped, and forcing the impatient Jim Kelly into throwing more short passes.
“Oh yeah, yeah,” Gabriel said when remembering the gameplan. “Well, number one, it was like a – and I don’t know what the exact terminology that they used between Parcells and Belichick – it was like, I call, it an umbrella defense, but we only played two defensive linemen.”
An “umbrella” like structure meant the Giants played two deep safeties and kept the receivers from getting past them. Sometimes they’d roll one of their safeties down to match up with a slot receiver, but otherwise it was two deep with a concentration on forcing short passes, which meant the Giants had to rely on less defensive linemen, and more defensive backs and linebackers.
“We played extra linebackers and DB’s [defensive backs]. Played two defensive linemen daring them to run… and they didn’t run!” Gabriel added with a laugh. “We were better for three quarters of the game, you know, and we were giving up the short pass and the whole emphasis was let ‘em catch the short pass, drill ‘em; I mean really nail the receivers. And play a very physical game on defense and take away the long ball. They completed one long ball to, I think, James Lofton, if I recall. But other than that, most of the stuff was small stuff.”
Playing with two defensive linemen meant that there were less defenders in the box, inviting — no, daring as Gabriel put it — the offense to run the ball. It forced the Bills’ hand, giving them two poisonous options: run the ball and risk not developing a pace or rhythm when the offense was built on precisely that, or throw short routes and test your own patience. Either way the Bills seemed destined to lose, and that they did after Scott Norwood missed his final shot at glory wide right.
More than 20 years later, Belichick is faced with another high-scoring offense, this time the Peyton Manning-led Broncos. He’s been through this before with Manning, having his number in the playoffs by beating up on him and his offenses with brute physicality and sometimes disguise.
When the two met in the regular season, the Broncos squandered a 24-0 lead before losing 34-31. The Patriots didn’t shy away from physicality or concealing their intentions defensively. They put a cork on the deep ball with two deep safeties giving hints of a variety of even shelled coverages while cornerbacks beat up the threats underneath. They largely played with a six-man box, sometimes a soft seven when a safety rotated down late (which happened more in the second half), daring the Broncos to run the ball, in turn slowing the game down and keeping the ball out of Manning’s hands. And when it was in Manning’s hands, he did little, posting for 4.2 yards per attempt and a meager 70 quarterback rating.
One play that stood out in the meeting came very early in the first quarter. The Broncos were on their own 34-yard line facing 3rd-and-7. Manning was in the shotgun set with 11 personnel (one back, one tight end). Two receivers were evenly spaced out on the wide side of the field to the left, while a tight end and a receiver aligned to Manning’s right. Nearby to his left in the backfield was the lone running back.
Defensively, the Patriots had two deep safeties lined up at differing widths from the hashes to accommodate the position of the ball on the right hash and the No. 2 threats from the sideline-in. The weak safety lined up just outside the left hash, and the strong safety lined up well outside of the right.
When Manning took his quick three-step drop, he faced interior pressure from a T-E stunt (tackle-end) and was flushed from the pocket to his right. His receivers, meanwhile, dealt with bump-and-run press coverage from the Patriots’ defensive backs.They struggled to get open, with the exception of Wes Welker, who ran a shallow crossing route underneath and away from coverage. Eventually, Manning found him while under duress, but only for a gain of six after two defenders sandwiched him shy of the 41-yard line.
Two plays into the fourth quarter, the Broncos found it even more difficult to move the ball. Manning was in a shotgun set with 11 personnel at his own 26. In addition, two receivers lined up to Manning’s far left into the wide side of the field while two — a receiver and the aforementioned tight end — lined up to the right against the Patriots’ two-deep set.
Once Manning took a quick dropback and turned to his left, the Patriots’ defensive backs beat up on the receivers, especially Eric Decker, who faced rookie corner Logan Ryan. Decker struggled to beat the press at the line, getting jammed on his vertical stem before failing to separate on his square-in route. He rounded his route too far upfield, leaving an opening for Ryan to undercut the route and jump in front of the throw, forcing an interception.
The Broncos took what the Patriots gave them without a choice, and that’s why they lost. They ran up 48 carries with Knowshon Moreno, a running back that’s not to be confused with a game breaker like Adrian Peterson. Although Moreno averaged more than six yards a carry and amassed chunks of yardage, he did it with a small dent in the defense. The same holds for Manning, who threw short pass after short pass. Eventually, they ran out of room and out of time.
Could they have the same issue again this weekend? What if Manning were to force more passes vertically and overall than the 36 he threw in the last meeting? Either way, he could play right into Belichick’s gameplan like the Bills famously did, even though they have more talent than the Bills did.
“Right, the Bills, they had Andre Reed, and they had James Lofton in that Super Bowl, and they had a hell of a running back in Thurman Thomas,” Gabriel answered when asked about potentially a similar gameplan to the Super Bowl one used by Belichick. “But you look at the personnel, the Bills, as good as they were, didn’t have a big talented wideout [Demaryius Thomas] like Denver has. But now if anyone knows Wes Welker, it’s Belichick. That is an advantage to Belichick because he knows better than anyone what Welker can do and I’m sure he knows how to take it away.”
Belichick has proven in the past that he can eliminate potential threats to his defense, such as last week when he took away T.Y. Hilton. When the coverage of Hilton was mentioned, Gabriel didn’t hesitate in sharing his thoughts on Belichick.
“The guy’s a genius.”