NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
Nearly 40 years have passed since Bill Belichick received his economics degree from Wesleyan University. But what he learned in Middletown is still being put to use two hours northeast in Foxborough.
That was even evidenced in Indianapolis on Sunday, when the New England Patriots’ defense set foot on the Lucas Oil Stadium field to face quarterback Andrew Luck and the Colts’ high-volume passing attack.
Belichick, along with defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer and safeties coach Brian Flores identified the production awaiting them. The ground game, as well as Luck’s league-leading 393 pass attempts could remain. So could the 64 catches for 799 yards combined by tight end Coby Fleener and wideout Reggie Wayne.
The 56 catches for a top-five 937 yards from T.Y. Hilton could not.
The Patriots understood that the 5’9”, 178-pound slot receiver’s speed and consequent production loomed as the Colts’ greatest threat. They understood that cornering the receiving corps’ primary option would force Luck to other parts of the field. They understood that when the former No. 1 overall pick did, he would find openings there.
But those openings wouldn’t beat New England’s secondary in the same explosive way Hilton could down the seams. And by the time the Week 11 matchup culminated in a 42-20 final score, it was clear that those openings could not beat New England.
Fleener finished with seven catches for a career-high 144 yards, and Wayne finished with five catches for 91 yards over the course of the Nov. 16 tilt. Hilton, however, finished with a season-low three catches for 24 yards.
The performance of nickelback Kyle Arrington and Co. proved essential to the reason why.
For Arrington, who was called upon to play a mere 15 snaps between Week 7 and Week 8, the match was molded for him. It was a match that kept on the field for 48 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, marking his second-highest snap count of the campaign.
There was a nondescript method to it.
“I don’t know if it’s so much that one guy is the perfect guy to cover somebody,” Belichick said during his conference call on Monday. “But when you look at your team and look at their team, you have to figure out what’s the best for us to play this team particularly in man-to-man situations. You try to do it in a way that gives you the best chance.”
Arrington gave the Patriots a chance over his 31 pass plays as the primary coverage on Hilton. He registered a key disruption in the end zone on a 3rd-and-8, and he allowed Hilton to register only one reception for 13 yards on four targets by the time the clock expired.
There isn’t one right answer to explain how he did so. It was a little bit of everything.
The 2008 undrafted free agent’s success against the Colts was partly due to his ability to cover the middle of the field and maintain leverage to the anticipated side. It was partly due to his ability to stay with Hilton through breaks and straights as the Patriots’ quickest corner.
It was also due to the approach he took to doing so.
Arrington stood some seven yards off the line, five yards off the line, and one yard off the line against Hilton. He mixed coverage between press-man, off-man, as well as a short spell of zone. He jammed off the snap, off the top of the receiver’s route and off the catch point, using physicality as an accent to an otherwise clean game.
Yet Arrington didn’t always rely on contact to recover. He didn’t need to.
Regardless of where he positioned, what and how he played, there was a sense of continuity within the fluctuation.
That remained true when Logan Ryan rotated over to Hilton on one untargeted pass play. And it remained true when Darrelle Revis took the assignment for another two pass plays and had the one throw in his direction hit the turf out of bounds.
It even remained true for another five pass plays with Brandon Browner, who had two throws result in two completions for 11 yards, but also had the FIU standout rerouted to the turf with the reinforcement of linebacker Dont’a Hightower.
Between the diverse assortment, there was no reprieve.
Not from Arrington, Ryan, Revis or Browner. Not from the zone of safety Patrick Chung, second-year linebacker Jamie Collins or Hightower transitioning to Hilton’s patterns. Not from Devin McCourty ranging in centerfield as the single-high safety valve out of frame.
If Hilton separated over the top, it was because the back end of the defense was in place. If he cut over the middle out of his release, it was because the grain of the front seven was waiting. There was no vertical element to be unveiled when Hilton was. And there wasn’t much semblance of a horizontal one, either.
The Patriots calibrated the pass defense for him.
That was illustrated on the field and in the numbers. After having collected 15 receptions of at least 20 yards through his first nine games of the year, No. 13 was unable to collect a reception of more than 13 yards versus New England.
Hilton’s three targets deeper down the field were to no avail, while a handful more were not attempted as more than six Patriots crossed paths with him. An 11-yard flat route, a 13-yard dig route and a zero-yard screen resonated as Hilton’s only moments in possession of the football.
With that, it was over.
While Hilton was running at full speed in Week 11, the third-year burner was forced to play a game other than his own. And in turn, the Patriots forced the Colts to play a game other than their own.
It may not have been a matter of economics. But it was about having a stake in a resource that could not be replaced.
Editor’s Note: On March 20, 2013, my first article on NEPatriotsDraft.com was published. I never thought I’d get the chance to write nearly 200 more since then, but I’m glad I did. And for the immediate future, this one will be the last. It has been a privilege to write for this site. I want to thank James Christensen for giving me the opportunity to do so, and I want to thank all of the readers for taking the time to make NEPD the place that it is. Until next time.
– Oliver Thomas