New England Patriots: Rise of sub defense

When sub defense is the new 'base' defense

January, 3, 2014
Jan 3
2:50
PM ET
One of the areas that was charted throughout the season is the New England Patriots' defensive breakdown between their sub and base packages. This can highlight player value and take us deeper into the X's and O's of each game.

In Sunday's win against the Bills, the Patriots played a base defense more than they had in recent weeks against the Dolphins and Ravens. This seemed to reflect the emphasis on limiting the Bills' running game, led by Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, so they devoted more resources to the box as the Bills ran plenty of two-back and two-TE groupings.

The Patriots played 24 of the first 43 snaps in base before it became a "passing game" for the Bills in the final quarter and all but one snap on the final four drives came in sub for the Patriots' defense. Overall, the Patriots were in their sub defense on 67 percent of the snaps this season.

This is a topic that came up in Bill O'Brien's introductory news conference as head coach of the Houston Texans today. When O'Brien was asked what type of offense and defense he plans to run, he cited the trend in the NFL in which more teams are playing sub defense the majority of the time.

"About 70 percent of the games are played in nickel and dime defense because of the way the type of league that it is.” O’Brien said. “We’ll evaluate the personnel on this team and we’ll do a really good job of putting together a good football team and then we’ll adapt the systems to the players that we bring into this program.”

Overall, here are the numbers for the Patriots this season (small margin for error, includes penalties):

Sub defense: 774 of 1,155 snaps (67.0 percent)
Base defense: 358 of 1,155 snaps (30.9 percent)
Short-yardage: 23 of 1,155 snaps (1.9 percent)

Defensive groupings: Arrington's value

December, 26, 2013
12/26/13
10:00
AM ET
One of the areas that will be charted throughout the season is the New England Patriots' defensive breakdown between their sub and base packages. This can highlight player value and take us deeper into the X's and O's of each game.

Arrington
Arrington
In Sunday's win against the Ravens, the Patriots were in their sub defense (5 or 6 defensive backs) on all but six snaps. It was similar the week before against the Dolphins, as the season total has risen to about 67 percent of the overall snaps in sub.

Cornerback Kyle Arrington is usually the Patriots' nickel back, and he played a strong game in the slot Sunday in Baltimore, both in coverage and run support. His value to the team is starter-like when considering the sub vs. base numbers and he is paid accordingly. When Arrington struggles, it is often when he is asked to play on the outside because of injuries to others.

Arrington's toughness also shouldn't be overlooked. He's been playing through a groin injury this season, and it wouldn't be surprising if it's an injury that requires offseason surgery.

Overall, here are the numbers for the season (small margin for error, includes penalties):

Sub defense: 730 of 1,086 snaps (67.2 percent)
Base defense: 334 of 1,086 snaps (30.7 percent)
Short-yardage: 22 of 1,086 snaps (2 percent)

Defensive groupings: Sub packages rise

December, 19, 2013
12/19/13
8:00
AM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- One of the areas that will be charted throughout the season is the New England Patriots' defensive breakdown between their sub and base packages. This can highlight player value and take us deeper into the X's and O's of each game.

Last week against the Miami Dolphins, the Patriots played all but five snaps in their sub packages (five or six defensive backs). This was a result of treating tight end Charles Clay as more of a wide receiver.

Overall, here are the numbers for the season (includes penalties):

Sub defense: 663 of 1,013 snaps (65.4 percent)
Base defense: 330 of 1,013 snaps (32.6 percent)
Short-yardage: 20 of 1,013 snaps (2 percent)

When looking ahead to Sunday's game against the Baltimore Ravens, it could be more of the same if the Ravens play the way they did against Detroit on Monday night, favoring the three-receiver package. The Ravens used a lead-blocking fullback on just three snaps in the game.

The Patriots' season totals reflect that a fifth defensive back has starter-like value when a team is in sub 65.4 percent of the time.

Defensive groupings: 63 percent in sub

December, 13, 2013
12/13/13
8:00
AM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- One of the areas that will be charted throughout the season is the New England Patriots' defensive breakdown between their sub and base packages. This can highlight player value and take us deeper into the X's and O's of each game.

Last week against the Browns, the Patriots were in their base package for 39 of 76 snaps. There were five snaps in the short-yardage package and 32 in sub packages.

That put the game in the minority in terms of the Patriots playing more snaps in the base defense than sub packages.

Overall, here are the numbers for the season (includes penalties):

Sub defense: 605 of 950 snaps (63.7 percent)
Base defense: 325 of 950 snaps (34.2 percent)
Short-yardage: 20 of 950 snaps (2.1 percent)

When looking ahead to Sunday's game against the Dolphins, it helps to revisit the Oct. 27 meeting between the teams.

The Patriots played it almost evenly between base (33) and sub (28) until the final two drives, when the Dolphins were in pass-first mode and the Patriots went exclusively to sub for the final 17 snaps. It makes sense to think we'll see more of the same Sunday.

Defensive groupings: 3 CB base package

December, 6, 2013
12/06/13
2:30
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- One of the areas that will be charted throughout the season is the New England Patriots' defensive breakdown between their sub and base packages. This can highlight player value and take us deeper into the X's and O's of each game.

What stood out from last Sunday's win against the Texans was that the team didn't go to its regular sub defense often (14 of 59 snaps).

Instead of adding a fifth defensive back against all three-receiver packages, the Patriots sometimes subbed out a safety (Duron Harmon/Steve Gregory) in favor of a third cornerback (Kyle Arrington). So while they technically remained in a base defense with four players in the secondary, it had a sub-package element to it.

We previously saw the Patriots use that package against the Buccaneers on Sept. 22 and it highlights some coaching creativity as they tailor a plan to each specific matchup.

That plan contributed to one of the highest percentages of "base" defense the Patriots have played this season (76.2 percent). The season average, entering the game, was 29.6 percent in base.

Overall, here are the numbers for the season (includes penalties):

Sub defense: 573 of 874 snaps (65.5 percent)
Base defense: 286 of 874 snaps (32.7 percent)
Short-yardage: 15 of 874 snaps (1.7 percent)

Defensive groupings: Sub total rises

November, 28, 2013
11/28/13
4:00
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- One of the areas that will be charted throughout the season is the New England Patriots' defensive breakdown between their sub and base packages. This can highlight player value and take us deeper into the X's and O's of each game.

In Sunday's 34-31 overtime win over the Denver Broncos, the Patriots played a sub defense (mostly a nickel) for all 90 snaps. This was a contrast from the prior week against the Carolina Panthers, when the team played a high total of snaps in base defense (42 of 58 snaps, including penalties, 72.4 percent). The reason is obvious: The Patriots were most concerned with the Broncos' passing attack.

Looking ahead to Sunday night against the Houston Texans, we'd anticipate more of a return to a base defense with a focus on the running game.

Overall, here are the numbers for the season (includes penalties):

Sub defense: 559 of 815 snaps (68.6 percent)
Base defense: 241 of 815 snaps (29.6 percent)
Short-yardage: 15 of 815 snaps (1.8 percent)

Defensive groupings: No carryover for Pats

November, 21, 2013
11/21/13
9:30
AM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- One of the areas that will be charted throughout the season is the New England Patriots' defensive breakdown between their sub and base packages. This can highlight player value and take us deeper into the X's and O's of each game.

On Monday against the Carolina Panthers, what stood out was the high total of base defense (42 of 58 snaps, including penalties, 72.4 percent). This reflected how the Patriots were most concerned with the Panthers' rushing attack and so they devoted more resources to the front seven. There hasn't been another game this season where the Patriots trended as heavily to their base defense.

Looking ahead to Sunday night against the Denver Broncos, we'd anticipate an approach at the opposite end of the spectrum. The Patriots will likely be in sub packages (5 and 6 defensive backs) for most of the game against the Broncos' three-receiver offense that also has a tight end (Julius Thomas) who seems to be more of a receiver himself.

Thus, it is a big week for the secondary and the general health of the unit with four key players on the injury report (Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, Steve Gregory) has to be a primary concern to coach Bill Belichick. Because of this, it wouldn't be surprising if we see a practice squad promotion by the end of the week (cornerback Justin Green or safety Kanorris Davis).

Overall, here are the numbers for the season (includes penalties):

Sub defense: 469 of 725 snaps (64.6 percent)
Base defense: 241 of 725 snaps (33.2 percent)
Short-yardage: 15 of 725 snaps (0.2 percent)

Defensive groupings: Early change to sub

November, 9, 2013
11/09/13
11:00
AM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- One of the areas that will be charted throughout the season is the New England Patriots' defensive breakdown between their sub and base packages. This can highlight player value and take us deeper into the X's and O's of each game.

Last Sunday against the Steelers, what stood out was how the defensive groupings changed after the fourth series, when the Patriots were up 14-0. At that point, the Steelers went with a more receiver-heavy approach, which in turn put the Patriots in their sub packages for the remainder of the game.

That was a big change because through four series, the Patriots had been in their base defense for 12 snaps, their sub packages for nine snaps and the short-yardage package for two snaps. The Steelers had bigger groupings early in the game, sometimes using a sixth offensive lineman, so the Patriots countered in their base.

But after the fourth series, it was zero snaps in base, 52 snaps in sub and zero snaps in short yardage.

Overall, here are the numbers for the season (includes penalties):

Sub defense: 454 of 667 snaps
Base defense: 199 of 667 snaps
Short-yardage: 14 of 667 snaps

With the Patriots spending 68 percent of their snaps in sub this season, it highlights the value of No. 5 and No. 6 defensive back such as Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan, as compared to a third linebacker.

Isaac Sopoaga & base defense stats

November, 1, 2013
11/01/13
8:00
AM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- One of the areas that will be charted throughout the season is the New England Patriots' defensive breakdown between their sub and base packages. This can highlight player value and take us deeper into the X's and O's of each game.

Last Sunday against the Dolphins, the Patriots played more base defense than the norm. Up until the final two series, the D called on its base (33) more than the sub (28). But the final numbers were skewed a bit by the Patriots playing sub on the final two series.

Overall, here are the numbers for the season (includes penalties):

Sub defense: 393 of 592 snaps
Base defense: 187 of 592 snaps
Short-yardage: 12 of 592 snaps

One thought on why the Patriots played more base defense against the Dolphins was to keep some of their bigger players on the field to account for run defense, which has been a bit shaky since Vince Wilfork was lost to a season-ending injury on Sept. 29. This is where the acquisition of veteran nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga could potentially help the Patriots as that's the package he projects to be part of; he was in Philadelphia, where he played 39 percent of the snaps.

As the numbers above show, if Sopoaga only plays in the base defense (and short-yardage), he'd be a 33-percent playtime option if the current numbers hold.

Pats in sub defense 69 percent of time

October, 18, 2013
10/18/13
7:30
AM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- One of the areas that will be charted throughout the season is the New England Patriots' defensive breakdown between their sub and base packages. This can highlight player value and take us deeper into the X's and O's of each game.

As one would expect against a pass-first Saints offense, the Patriots were mostly in their sub packages in last Sunday's win (47 of 66 snaps).

Overall, here are the numbers for the season (includes penalties):

Sub defense: 290 of 420 snaps
Base defense: 120 of 420 snaps
Short-yardage: 10 of 420 snaps

While the sub defense has been called upon 69 percent of the time, we can look back on the Week 2 meeting between the Patriots and Jets as a possible indication that we'll see more base defense on Sunday in the rematch between the teams. The Patriots spent 31 snaps in their base defense against the run-based Jets on Sept. 12.

When considering how the Patriots might fill the void created by linebacker Jerod Mayo's season-ending injury, it helps to view it through the lenses of base and sub defense.

In the base 4-3 defense, rookie Jamie Collins and four-year veteran Dane Fletcher are the top candidates to step in at weakside linebacker.

In the most-often-used 4-2-5 sub defense, the projection is that Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower would be the two linebackers on the field. If the Patriots go with a 3-3-5 sub defense, Collins or Fletcher would once again be the likely options as the third linebacker.

Patriots travel most by 'sub' way

October, 13, 2013
10/13/13
2:40
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- One of the areas that will be charted throughout the season is the New England Patriots' defensive breakdown between their sub and base packages. This can highlight player value and take us deeper into the X's and O's of each game.

It was almost an even split last Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals -- 31 snaps in base, 34 snaps in sub, and the first four snaps of the season in the short-yardage package.

Overall, here are the numbers for the season (includes penalties):

Sub defense: 243 of 354 snaps
Base defense: 107 of 354 snaps
Short-yardage: 4 of 354

The overall numbers reflect how the Patriots' fifth defensive back (most recently Kyle Arrington) is considered more of a "starter" than the team's third linebacker (usually Brandon Spikes).

Looking ahead, the projection today is that the Patriots spend a majority of their snaps in their sub defense against a diverse Saints offense in which dangerous Jimmy Graham is viewed as more of a receiver than a pure tight end.

Fifth DB trumps third LB for Patriots

October, 4, 2013
10/04/13
8:00
AM ET
One of the areas that will be charted throughout the season is the New England Patriots' defensive breakdown between their sub and base packages. This can highlight player value and take us deeper into the X's and O's of each game.

One of the themes from the first quarter of the season is that the Patriots' fifth defensive back (Kyle Arrington or Alfonzo Dennard) has been more of a "starter" than a third linebacker (Brandon Spikes).

Spikes, who is viewed as more of a run-stuffing linebacker and a potential liability in coverage, has played just 90 of 285 snaps this season.

This particularly showed up last Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons when the Patriots were in either a nickel (five defensive backs) or dime (six defensive backs) package for all but six of their snaps. Spikes played just six snaps in the game.

The reason the Patriots leaned toward the sub defense was because the Falcons most often had three receivers on the field, and the Patriots also viewed their tight ends more as receivers.

That has heavily skewed the numbers for the season:

Sub defense: 209 of 285 snaps
Base defense: 76 of 285 snaps

Spinning it forward, the Bengals mostly run a two-tight end offense with one running back and two receivers.

How the Patriots view tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert will determine whether they stay in a pure base defense, or if they lean toward a sub package. Losing top run-stuffing defensive tackle Vince Wilfork also will be a factor in the coaching staff's thinking.

Base D tops sub for 1st time

September, 27, 2013
9/27/13
2:00
PM ET
One of the areas that will be charted throughout the season is the Patriots' defensive breakdown between their sub and base packages. This can highlight player value and take us deeper into the X's and O's of each game.

Through two games, the Patriots leaned heavily toward the sub (5 or more defensive backs), playing it 105 of 138 snaps.

But after Sunday's unique plan that featured a three-cornerback/one-safety secondary against the Buccaneers' three-receiver approach, which kept a sturdy front-seven to defend against the run, the base numbers (37 snaps vs. Tampa Bay, compared to 34 in sub) have increased:

Sub defense: 139 of 209 snaps
Base defense: 70 of 209 snaps

Spinning it forward, the feeling here is that the Falcons' most effective approach is with three receivers.

But unlike last week against the Buccaneers, the projection is that the Patriots will play more pure sub defense against that package, in part because of the feeling they can handle the running game with a lighter box against a Falcons offensive line that probably isn't as strong as Tampa Bay's.

Sub vs. base defensive breakdown

September, 20, 2013
9/20/13
8:00
AM ET
One of the areas that will be charted throughout the season is the Patriots' defensive breakdown between their sub and base packages. This can highlight player value and take us deeper into the X's and O's of each game.

Through two games, here is the breakdown for the New England Patriots (including penalties):

Sub defense: 105 of 138 snaps
Base defense: 33 of 138 snaps

Here are some of the big takeaways:

Not seeing as much Spikes. Middle linebacker Brandon Spikes' playing time has been impacted, in part, by the Patriots being in so much sub defense. He had missed most of the first half of the season opener because of dehydration, but in the Week 2 win over the New York Jets, Dont'a Hightower was the second linebacker in the 4-2-5 nickel. Spikes has played 47 of 138 snaps this season, while Hightower has played 117 of 138 snaps.

Bills' plan skews numbers. In the season opener, the Bills stayed in their three-receiver package for almost every snap. The Patriots countered mostly with their 4-2-5 nickel defense, as cornerback Alfonzo Dennard came on as the fifth defensive back. The Patriots were only in their base defense for two snaps against the Bills, and this is a good example of how the fifth defensive back is essentially a starter some weeks (over a third linebacker).

Projecting the Buccaneers' approach. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have run the majority of their snaps with three receivers, and that looks like their most explosive grouping from this perspective. They do use fullback Erik Lorig (15 snaps last Sunday), as well as some multiple tight-end packages (26 of 62 snaps in opener), so the Patriots will probably be in their base defense at times Sunday. But this projects as more of a sub defense game, again highlighting the importance of a third cornerback like Dennard.

Final numbers in with sub defense

January, 9, 2013
1/09/13
5:00
AM ET
One statistic that was charted over the course of the Patriots' season was the number of times the defense was in a sub package (five or more defensive backs) versus their base defense.

The reason for charting this is to highlight the importance of depth at defensive back (a fifth DB is essentially a starter), as well as the importance of pass rushers who fit in the sub.

The final numbers: The Patriots were in sub 57.4 percent of the time this season (644 of 1,121, including penalties). They were in base on 39.4 percent of the snaps.

As it relates to Sunday's playoff game against the Texans, the Dec. 10 meeting marked one of just five games this season in which the Patriots were in their base defense more than sub packages. That is a result of the Texans running multiple tight-end packages.

The season breakdown:

vs. Dolphins
Sub: 51 of 59
Base: 7 of 59
Short-yardage: 1 of 59

at Jaguars
Sub: 63 of 80
Base: 15 of 80
Short-yardage: 2 of 80

vs. 49ers
Base: 51 of 67
Sub: 11 of 67
Short-yardage: 5 of 67

vs. Texans
Base:
47 of 70
Sub: 20 of 70
Short-yardage: 3 of 70

at Dolphins
Sub: 36 of 63
Base: 27 of 63
Short-yardage: 0 of 63

at Jets
Sub:
49 of 72
Base: 22 of 72
Short-yardage: 1 of 72

vs. Colts
Sub: 54 of 78
Base: 22 of 78
Short-yardage: 2 of 78

vs. Bills
Sub: 62 of 81
Base: 17 of 81
Short-yardage: 2 of 81

at Rams
Base: 39 of 63
Sub: 24 of 63
Short-yardage: 0 of 63

vs. Jets
Base: 50 of 84
Sub: 32 of 84
Short-yardage: 2 of 84

at Seahawks
Base: 40 of 56
Sub: 16 of 56
Short-yardage: 0 of 56

vs. Broncos
Sub: 60 of 66
Base: 5 of 66
Short-yardage: 1 of 66

at Bills
Sub: 58 of 71
Base: 13 of 71
Short-yardage: 0 of 71

at Ravens
Base: 37 of 73
Sub: 36 of 73
Short-yardage: 0 of 73

vs. Cardinals
Sub: 30 of 64
Base: 29 of 64
Short-yardage: 5 of 64

at Titans
Sub: 42 of 65
Base: 21 of 65
Short-yardage: 2 of 65

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