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Bill Belichick is no nutty professor

12.09.11 at 6:22 pm ET
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FOXBORO — Fridays with Bill Belichick are almost always the most relaxed time of the week for the Patriots coach. The week of preparation is winding down. The hay is almost in the barn, as he likes to remind us and now, it’s just time to focus on the game itself.

There’s been so much talk this season about players like Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater going from offense to defense. So, do defensive players ever get jealous and say, ‘What about us?’

“Whether that’€™s at high school, college or wherever it is, and I tell the defensive players all the time, ‘€˜Don’€™t kid yourself. If you were a big enough playmaker, you would have stayed on offense,’” Belichick joked. “Either at the high school or the college level they would have put you out there and you’€™d be out there having 100 yard receiving game or 150 yard rushing games. You’€™d be doing that. Don’€™t kid yourself.’€™ It’€™s like the defensive specialist in basketball, if you were that good of a shooter, you’€™d be the point guard but you’€™re not so start covering these guys or we’€™ll get somebody else in there.”

Maybe you could make the point that Belichick feels he and his staff have made good progress in prepping the team or he feels strongly they’ll be able to attack the 4-8 Redskins. Whatever the reason, this particular Friday was one of the most insightful and disarming looks inside the way Belichick sees the game.

“I think going back to when I first came into the league, you just didn’€™t have as many personnel groups as you have now,” Belichick said. “A lot of times, those 11 guys never left the field. Like the Hail Marys from [Roger] Staubach back in the ‘€˜70s, it’€™s just their regular offense, a guy running a go route. It wasn’€™t all those guys together jumping it and tipping it and that type of thing. When I came into the league, you rarely saw ‘€“ you saw a tight end, you saw two receivers, you saw two backs. Whatever, you had four backs, those four replaced those two, those two replaced the other two. If you had two tight ends, then your tight end replaced the other tight end. There were no two tight end sets. Even in goal line, short yardage on the one yard line, you still usually had two spread receivers, there were no third receiver. There were a few teams that played some nickel defense, like the Redskins when George Allen was there but it wasn’€™t really nickel, it was just the defensive back came in for a linebacker.

“They played the exact same thing but it was just a DB instead of a linebacker having those coverage responsibilities so he was maybe a little more athletic and had a little more coverage skill. If something happened to him, they would just put their linebacker back in and just run the same thing. It really wasn’€™t until like in the late ‘€˜70s to early ‘€˜80s when you had teams running two tight ends and one back and even starting to get into three receivers. I remember being with the Giants in ‘€™81 and we didn’€™t even have a nickel defense. That was a big step. I can’€™t remember what year it was, maybe it was ‘€™82 or ‘€™83, we were like ‘€˜Okay, we’€™re going to put in the nickel this year.’€™ It was like ‘€˜Oh my God, this is going to be a big step, how are we going to do this?’€™ and terminology and all that. We didn’€™t even have that. You had maybe if it was third and ten, you had a third and ten call that was different than your first and ten call, I’€™m not saying that but as far as substituting guys in. Therefore, what we have now in terms of depth is more of an issue.”

Belichick makes a pretty significant admission and announcement: His Giants defenses of the early 80s didn’t even have nickel sub packages. Imagine that.

“There were fewer players than but honestly there were fewer positions,” he adds. “Now there are more players but you have three receivers, you have two tight end sets, you have all your five DBs, maybe your six DBs, you’€™ve got your pass rush guys, which is the whole, it’€™s like college football where it’€™s expanding rosters to go on and on. You’€™ve got your backup punter, you’€™ve got your plus-50 punter, you’€™ve got your short field goal kicker, you’€™ve got your field goal snapper, you’€™ve got a punt snapper, you’€™ve got an onside kick guy, you’€™ve got four tight ends on this formation, you’€™ve got five wide receivers on this formation ‘€“ it’€™s just more and more substitutional groups if you have more and more players. It gets further away from just the 11 guys that you had out there. You can take it all the way back to the ‘€˜50s in college football when you didn’€™t have free substitution, guys went both ways. You look at some of the old defenses there, why were teams playing a 5-3 and a 6-2?

“Because it was the same guys that had to play offense. You had to take your offensive players and put them on defense or more importantly, you had to take your defensive players and then fit them onto offense. If a lot of fullbacks looked like guards it’€™s because they were linebackers on defense. The game, in terms of substitution and all that has expanded tremendously. Your depth now, you have to have, if you’€™re a three receiver team, you don’€™t go to the game necessarily with six receivers or if you’€™re a two tight end team, you don’€™t necessarily go to the game with four tight ends, so you can’€™t have a backup for each guy like it used to be. You have to have either different personnel groups or one guy backing up multiple spots, stuff like that.”

Why does he bring all this up today? It’s all about history to Belichick. This weekend, of course, they’re playing the Redskins, once coached by Allen, the man who in 1971 replaced Bill Austin and Vince Lombardi of all people in Washington.

“I’€™d say they were ahead of the curve on that,” Belichick said when asked if the Redskins were the ones to introduce sub-packages in the NFL. “George Allen was ahead of the curve on that. I think he also was one of the guys that started to take the middle linebacker out. They would take their outside linebacker, [Chris] Hamburger and slide him into the middle. You had a Sam, Mike and Will and your inside guy a lot of times was the least of those three coverage players. If you took your Will and bumped him into Mike and then put a DB in, which a lot of teams do now, similar thing, you’€™d just have a more athletic, better pass coverage on the field. Allen was, I would say, ahead of the curve on that. Once the multiple receiver sets came in then defensively you have to match those. Really defensively you have to match what the offense does. If you can just put one group out there and defend everything, great.

“But it’€™s hard to do, it’€™s hard to do. They bring in bigger people, well somewhere along the line, you’€™re probably going to need to match it with bigger people. They keep bringing in smaller people, like in the ‘€˜80s when Mouse Davis and June Jones and those guys ran the run and shoot offense where you’€™re in four wide receivers on every single down, the 3-4 defense just wasn’€™t built for that. The 3-4 defense is built for I-formation. Now you match that with another DB or maybe two more DBs, depending on how you want to play it. But the more of those guys they put out, then you have to have somebody to put out there and match them. Defensively, you don’€™t control that. Offensively, you control who is on the field, you control what formation they’€™re in and to some degree you control who gets the ball. Defensively, you don’€™t have control of any of that so you have to defend whatever it is they do.”

Belichick also touched on exactly why he is so fond of taking an offensive player and playing him on D. So, a natural follow-up would be how difficult is it to go from defense to offense?

“Let’€™s put it this way, at whatever point a coach takes a player from offense and puts him on defense, there is usually a reason for that. I would say the reason usually is that he’€™s not enough of a playmaker on the offensive side of the ball. What coach is going to take your best playmaker and put him on defense? You just wouldn’€™t do that, all the things being equal. If the guy can’€™t catch but he’€™s a good athlete or he’€™s everything but he doesn’€™t have great hands, at some point you get a receiver who is a better pass catcher and you put this guy over on defense. You get a guy who is big and strong and tough, but he’€™s just not elusive enough runner, he just can’€™t run over everybody, you can run over guys that are smaller than you but at some point when everybody is the same size, you just can’€™t run over those guys and he doesn’€™t have the elusiveness then you put him over on defense and you get a more elusive running back.”

Read More: Bill Austin, Bill Belichick, George Allen, Julian Edelman
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