Forty-five seasons into his coaching career, Bill Belichick appears to be having more fun than ever. He's taken charge of a deep, malleable, veteran defense built on the same 3-4 principles that he first taught the New York Giants as a coordinator in the 1980s, complete with veteran linebackers and a diverse secondary. The 65-year-old's top two defensive assistants are his son, Steve, and one of his favorite former players, Jerod Mayo, both of whom are roughly half his age. In Bill Belichick's world, there's nothing more fun than beating the organization that once fired you (even if, you know, technicallythat was a different team) in a driving rainstorm under grey skies. The uglier, the better.
The Gronk era in New England was defined by sustained, nearly unparalleled offensive success. While the 18-1 team from 2007, supercharged by Randy Moss, provided the first hint of what Tom Brady's prime would look like, it took time to acclimate to a Belichick squad led by offense. For nearly this entire decade of nine straight playoff byes, the Patriots' defense just hoped to be good enough.
That dynamic changed in Super Bowl LIII against the Rams, when the Patriots held the second-most-prolific offense of 2018 to 3 points and 260 total yards. It felt like that was Belichick's final masterpiece -- until he brought most of his group back for an eight-week blitzkrieg through some of the NFL's worst offenses, putting a 10th playoff bye firmly in sight.
The schedule is not the point. Of course it's been a factor, and the Patriots' historic numbers will dip in the next five games, with Lamar Jackson, Carson Wentz, Dak Prescott, Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes on the menu. When the defensive numbers decline, it won't alter the ridiculous notion that the Patriots' defense reached the midway point of an NFL season having scored more points (26, on four touchdowns and one safety) than it had given up (24, on four touchdowns). Belichick's veteran secondary has picked off 19 passes and allowed two touchdowns. In the year 2019, with every trend weighted toward offense, this was not supposed to be possible.
This is how Belichick won his first two Super Bowls in New England, with the 2003 team serving as the closest antecedent to the current model. That team finished second in defensive efficiency according to Football Outsiders, with the offense lagging behind in 14th. This year, the defense is first and the offense will enter Week 9 ranked 15th, saddled with a similarly poor running game and a whole lot of punts. The '03 version of Tom Brady wasn't so different from the '19 edition, afforded excellent field position and extra possessions because of his defense, with a knack for making decisive plays in key situations. Belichick broke down one of those plays on a Monday morning conference call, explaining James White's 59-yard screen pass as he watched the film live like a Football Twitter junkie, the obvious fascination helping to explain how he's arrived at 300 wins.
There's reason to believe this Patriots offense will improve by January while the defensive numbers normalize. Second-year left tackle Isaiah Wynn could shore up the team's biggest weak spot if he comes off injured reserve, while the recent addition of wideout Mohamed Sanu and the possible return of first-round wide receiver N'Keal Harry provides Brady with more mismatch opportunities, even as Josh Gordon's New England tenure comes to an end. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is an expert problem-solver, and Brady is doing his part. The 42-year-old quarterback ranks fifth in PFF's grades and tenth in QBR, a reflection of how well he's managed the changing parts around him. He knows better than anyone how to play complementary football, and the Patriots' offense is a complement to Belichick's defense this season.
Week after week, 20 (!) different defenders play significant snaps. Belichick has his new-school Ty Law in cornerback Stephon Gilmore, and there are a pair of Patriots captains/coaches on the field, in linebacker Dont'a Hightower and defensive back Devin McCourty, who fit right in with the legacies of Willie McGinest and Rodney Harrison. But at its heart, this Patriots defense is defined by flexibility and role players. In a matchup league, Belichick can try to solve a different weekly test because players like Kyle Van Noy, Jonathan Jones, Jamie Collins, Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, Danny Shelton, Chase Winovich, Patrick Chung and John Simon all perform different, specific tasks well.
Belichick sticking around long enough to win his 300th game on Sunday is not a surprise. It is a surprise that Belichick stayed on top long enough to build a team, with his son by his side, that looks just like the ones that first built his legend.
The rest of this week's Debrief will be dedicated to one of Belichick's favorite activities: trades. Here's analysis of the deals that were made leading up to Tuesday's 4 p.m. ET trade deadline.
Expect more deals in future years like the Dolphins' acquisition of cornerback Aqib Talib. The Rams sent Talib and a 2020 fifth-round pick to Miami in exchange for a 2022 seventh-round pick, according to NFL Network's Tom Pelissero. This was essentially a salary dump. Talib is on injured reserve with a rib injury and due $4.2 million the rest of the season. While it's possible there are more details forthcoming, the Dolphins presumably agreed to pay that money to get an extra pick in the 2020 draft. That's awfully expensive considering that fifth-round picks rarely become starters, but it's not so different than the Brock Osweiler-to-Cleveland move from a few years ago. It's possible the Dolphins could also pick up a 2021 compensatory pick if Talib, an impending free agent, signs elsewhere next year.
The Giants' Monday acquisition of DT Leonard Williams from the Jets is deliciously weird. The first completed trade between the Jets and Giants in history (a 1983 deal between the teams was nullified when the Jets waived acquisition Chris Foote) initially appeared like a bizarre win-now move by a 2-6 Giants team. As more details came out, it began to make more sense for both sides.
The Jets obtained the Giants' 2020 third-rounder and a 2021 fifth-rounder, which becomes a fourth if the Giants re-sign Williams before the start of the new league year, according to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport. The cost was a little extra because the Jets agreed to pay $4 million of Williams' remaining salary to help the Giants stay under the cap.
The Giants wouldn't make this deal unless they hoped to sign Williams long-term. If he leaves, however, the Giants would likely recoup the third-round pick in the form of a 2021 third-round compensatory pick. The Jets will just get to use their third-round pick a year earlier. So in essence, the Giants gave up a late-round pick for an eight-game tryout with Williams and a jump in contract negotiations.
What Williams is worth long-term is another matter. The No. 6 overall pick in 2015 played better over the last three weeks after a slow start in Jets coordinator Gregg Williams' system, but the former Pro Bowler has always been a good-not-great starter. Rather than addressing the Giants' lack of an edge presence, the addition of Williams builds on a team strength, given that the Giants already had quality space-eating defensive linemen in Dalvin Tomlinson, Dexter Lawrence and B.J. Hill on the roster. It's possible that the Giants unlock the 25-year-old Williams' potential in a way the Jets never could. It's equally possible that Giants general manager Dave Gettleman's team-building vision of running the ball and stopping the run is stale in today's NFL. To acquire a top-five talent with insurance included in the form of a compensatory pick, however, is a worthwhile creative risk for a defense that needs to take some swings at acquiring top-shelf help. I don't see the harm.
I'm surprised RB Kenyan Drake went for so little in a trade to the Arizona Cardinals. Contending teams like the Colts or Lions could have used the offensive firepower Drake brings, but he went from the Dolphins to the Cardinals on Monday for a sixth-round pick that could turn into a fifth-rounder, according to Rapoport. Drake may immediately start on Thursday Night Footballagainst the 49ers, with David Johnson and Chase Edmondsboth hurt, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see Drake put up big numbers, at least in future matchups. Drake runs with a lot of juice, even if he can't be relied on to carry the load on his own. Coach Kliff Kingsbury has done a nice job creating running lanes for his backs, and the fourth-year pro, in the final year of his rookie contract, could eventually be re-signed as a complement to Johnson and/or Edmonds.
Don't discount Michael Bennett's impact on the Dallas Cowboys. While Bennett clearly didn't fit Bill Belichick's vision for this Patriots team, it's not like the three-time Pro Bowler, who was shipped to Dallas on Thursday, is suddenly washed at 33. Bennett had an excellent 2018 season in Philadelphia, and his per-snap production in New England was impressive. (He had six hurries, 2.5 sacks and a quarterback hit despite playing only 130 defensive snaps for the Patriots.) Belichick wanted Bennett to play more soundly as a run-stuffer, and that's not Bennett's specialty. Whispers of him being difficult to manage follow him wherever he goes, and he was suspended by the Pats earlier this month after having what he called "a philosophical disagreement" with his position coach. But the Cowboys' defensive-line depth, which was a weakness to start the year, could turn into a strength with DeMarcus Lawrence, Robert Quinn and Maliek Collins all playing well. Bennett can disrupt from the edge and on the inside, not unlike Tyrone Crawford, who is out for the season. The Cowboys gave up virtually nothing (a 2021 conditional pick) for a significant addition to the mix. He could wind up making as big an impact to the Cowboys as Mohamed Sanu does adding dynamism to a staid Patriots offense, but for a fraction of the price.
The Eagles' acquisition of Browns pass rusher Genard Avery is probably not their last deal. It is typical of the value hunting that general manager Howie Roseman and the Eagles are known for, however. Avery was a productive pass rusher last season who didn't fit in Steve Wilks' new Browns defense. He flashed with 42 pressures as a fifth-round rookie last year, and the Eagles needed help on the edge.
UNSTOPPABLE PERFORMANCE: Aaron Jones, WR, Green Bay Packers
Yes, I know Jones' position is running back. But credit Packers coach Matt LaFleur for recognizing a weakness in the Chiefs' coverage plans by using Jones as a wide receiver in Green Bay's win. And credit Jones for displaying some of the most explosive ability in the NFL among running backs all season. It's not like this was a one-week development for Jones, who caught more than one pass in five of his previous seven games. Don't credit the Chiefs for failing to adjust.
HONORABLE MENTIONS:Aaron Rodgers mentions the Packers' offensive line in every press conference to win points -- and because they deserve it. Bryan Bulaga, David Bakhtiari and center Corey Linsley are at the top of their games, and the guards (Elgton Jenkins and Billy Turner) aren't far behind. While I'm handing out bouquets to big guys, the Raiders' offensive line helped Derek Carr only get hit once Sunday against the Texans. Again: Not a new development.
Unstoppable Performance is presented by Courtyard by Marriott, the Official Hotel of the NFL.