Unpredictability part of Patriots' game plan
If Dom Capers learned anything during his one season coaching alongside Bill Belichick, it's that few coaches in the NFL mix up their pitches as well as the New England Patriots' longtime head coach.
The Green Bay Packers' defensive coordinator was the Patriots' secondary coach in 2008, when he witnessed how far Belichick will go in order to keep opposing coaches off his team's scent.
There was no better example this season than when the Patriots, riding a five-game winning streak, packed in their offense against the Indianapolis Colts two weeks ago and rushed the ball 44 times in a 42-20 victory.
Instead of gluing the football to franchise quarterback Tom Brady, Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels put the game in the hands of rookie running back Jonas Gray, who was playing in his fourth NFL game after starting the year on the practice squad.
Gray didn't even get a carry last week against Detroit after reportedly missing a team meeting. Instead, Brady threw 53 passes as the Patriots rolled the Lions 34-9. The leading running back, LeGarrette Blount, had been released by Pittsburgh the week before.
Capers could only smile watching from Green Bay. In his only year with Belichick, the Patriots lost Brady for the season with a torn ACL but still won 11 games with Matt Cassel at quarterback.
On Sunday, the Packers will get a chance to crack the Patriots' code when two of the league's hottest teams collide at Lambeau Field.
"You see they kind of have a theme of the week," Capers said. "You saw them against the Colts, they ran the ball 44 times. They played an extra offensive tackle or tight end. They played smash-mouth football. A week prior to that, they hadn't done that. Last week against the Lions, they had a totally different game plan.
"If they think you're working on a certain thing, they're going to try to give you something different you haven't worked on."
So how do you prepare for everything without overdoing it? Capers believes it comes down to preparation that covers possibilities. Like any team, you watch the film and try to pick out trends.
That part is nothing new. Capers has made a living off spontaneity with a zone-blitz defense that feeds off creating confusion through pressure. Early this season, the Packers seemed to be following Belichick's lead in creating a 4-3 defense to complement their traditional 3-4, but scrapped those plans after the first month of the season.
Instead, Capers has devoted more energy to expanding the Packers' nickel subpackage, which has helped turn around the defense. Since Clay Matthews' move to inside linebacker after the bye, the Packers' defense has been one step ahead with unscouted looks.
Belichick went into great detail outlining the intricacies of Capers' system during his Friday news conference. In its simplest form, it comes down to forcing opponents into long drives. The more plays the offense runs, the better chance there is of a turnover or negative play.
"You could give a couple little 6-yard gains, but then you get a negative 2 and maybe that's enough to stop the drive," Belichick said. "I think that's kind of the challenge of playing that type of a system is avoiding negative plays, avoiding long yardage. Even though you could get two or three first downs, if you get one of those bad plays in there, now they have you in second-and-long or third-and-long and then you're in trouble. So, I think that's kind of the overall philosophy."
The chess match never ends for NFL coaches trying to figure out what's going on in Belichick's mind. Capers laughed when admitting his mind was still on football when he went home for Thanksgiving dinner.
It all comes down to moves and countermoves. If something isn't working, Belichick has no problem changing course midstream. That could be why the running game continues to earn respect despite the loss of Steven Ridley to a season-ending knee injury.
A running back goes down. Just throw in another. When teams blanket Rob Gronkowski in coverage, Brady targets Tim Wright for two touchdowns. Feel like defenses are preparing for the pass? Run it down their throats.
"That's typical of a Bill Belichick-coached team," Packers defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. "They have certain things that they do. They're very good fundamentally. They don't vary from certain things too much, but they give you a little window dressing similar to other teams in the league. But then you have to prepare for different personnel groups."
Belichick can play mind games with the best of them, too. The ambiguity of his team's injury reports have come under fire in recent years with two former players, linebacker Brandon Spikes and cornerback Aqib Talib, saying that New England files false reports.
The Patriots listed eight players as questionable for Sunday's game, including defensive end Chandler Jones (hip) who hasn't played since Week 7.
There's also a certain genius to how Belichick runs his ship. In a league in which everyone seems to have seen everything, Belichick always unearths an edge. That's how you win 208 regular-season games and three Super Bowls in 15 years.
On paper, it would make sense for the Patriots to target Green Bay's 30th-ranked rushing defense. Then again, they could green light Brady to air it out against a defense that struggled to contain New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees before the bye.
"This is a well-balanced football team and they pretty much do whatever they want to when they want to do it," said linebacker Julius Peppers, who lost to Belichick's Patriots as a member of the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII. "So whether they want to run the ball or whether they want to pass it, it's up to them. We just have to be prepared to get ready to stop which part of their offense they want to feature."
So what will be on the menu when the Packers play the Patriots? That's classified until the chess match begins Sunday.
The Packers hope to counter whatever they see with one of the league's most efficient offenses led by the pre-snap wizardry of Aaron Rodgers and a defense that feels it has a few tricks up its sleeve.
You can bet Belichick will have plenty of his own.
"You know he's going to throw something different," Packers running backs coach Sam Gash said. "You just know there's a different package coming because he's really good at scouting and forming a game plan against them. It's going to be something we'll have to adjust to."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.