BOSTON (CBS) — For years, Bill Belichick was known as a defensive mastermind. As the defensive coordinator of the Giants, he won two Super Bowls, and as the head coach of the Patriots, it was Belichick’s defensive tactics that beat Kurt Warner’s Rams, Peyton Manning’s Colts and other potent offenses during the dynasty days.
Yet, as NFL rules evolved over the past decade and made it harder and harder for teams to win with defense, Belichick has spent a bit more time focused on offense. And all he’s doing is changing the way the entire league plays the game.
CBSSports.com’s Pat Kirwan detailed the emerging need for the “big nickel” defense, a system that employs an extra safety playing in the place of a linebacker. The defense is becoming a near-necessity, and that’s thanks to the two-headed monster Belichick has created at tight end.
With Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez combining for more than 2,200 receiving yards and 25 touchdowns last season, it became very clear that stopping the Patriots’ offense can occasionally be completely impossible. A defense could choose to put two defenders on each tight end, sure, but that would have left slippery wideout Wes Welker in a one-on-one situation elsewhere. That’s where the Big Nickel comes into play.
“The problem with not having a Big Nickel package is it can reduce the base defense to zone coverage calls, and the quarterback knows right away that there are a limited number of ways a team can play an offense like New England or San Francisco,” one coach told Kirwan.
The bad news for the Patriots is that the Jets are onto them, as Kirwan noted that the Jets signed LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell in addition to drafting a pair of defensive backs who could help fill the extra safety spot in the Big Nickel defense. The good news, though, is that more teams seem to be trying to imitate the Patriots than there are teams trying to stop them. Kirwan noted that the Colts, Chargers, Dolphins and Bengals all added tight ends, despite already having an established player at the position.
But the Patriots have the advantage against all imitators, because they not only have the original duo that’s inspired the trend, but they also have Tom Brady. And in addition to Welker, they also now have Brandon Lloyd (averaged 1,207 yards the past two seasons), Jabar Gaffney (947 yards last season) and Josh McDaniels playing with the controls (look to the 2007 season to see what he can do with elite talent).
Defense, however, remains equally important, even if opponents won’t have a duo comparable to Gronkowski and Hernandez. Last year, the Patriots rode their offense all the way to the Super Bowl, but they ultimately fell just a few plays short of winning it all. But they addressed their defensive needs by using their first six picks of April’s draft on defensive players.
With a few offseason additions on offense, and Belichick’s continuing creativity, there’s sufficient reason to believe they’ll be in the same position to win it all next February.