New England Patriots

Dec 11, 2017; Miami Gardens, FL: New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick looks on in the game against the Miami Dolphins during the first half at Hard Rock Stadium. (Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)

Dec 11, 2017; Miami Gardens, FL: New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick looks on in the game against the Miami Dolphins during the first half at Hard Rock Stadium. (Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)

By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com

Bill Belichick may not have a choice. Defensive coordinator duties just plopped in his lap.

It’s really incredible how the Patriots can’t navigate the offseason without turbulence. Not that the plane won’t eventually land in the AFC Championship Game. But it’s never a boring flight in Foxborough. Greg Schiano’s abrupt departure as Patriots defensive coordinator, a hiring the team never officially announced, brings the latest bump. Seatbelt light officially on.

Now what? Belichick lost his de facto defensive coordinator when Brian Flores became head coach of the Miami Dolphins. Ex-defensive line coach Brendan Daly and ex-cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer both left for similar roles on the Chiefs and Dolphins, respectively.

Unless he wants to elevate son Steve Belichick into the role from safeties coach – or foist the responsibility on new linebackers coach Jerod Mayo in his first season on an NFL staff – Belichick may just have to call the plays himself.

The 2010 season set the precedent. And while it came crashing down at the very end, the season didn’t work out as badly as some may remember.

Dec 2, 2018; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick on the sideline during the second quarter against the Minnesota Vikings at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Taking over defensive play-calling duties early in 2010 after the departure of Dean Pees, Belichick coached up the Patriots defense to 19.6 points allowed per game, eighth-best in the NFL. They bolstered that number by allowing just 9.4 points per game in their last five games of the regular season. Matt Patricia took on more duties as the season went along before calling plays full-time in 2011, so Belichick wasn’t alone.

But it’s fair to note that it wasn’t perfect and it ended poorly.

The yardage, as it often is with a Belichick scheme, wasn’t so hot – their 5,864 total yards allowed ranked 25th. The passing defense suffered, allowing the third-most yards through the air at 4,136. In an increasingly pass-happy league, a pair of dominant run defenders (Mayo and Vince Wilfork) headlined.

It imploded in the infamous loss to the Jets in the 2010 divisional round. Mark Sanchez (16-for-25, 194 yards, 3 touchdowns, 127.3 passer rating) played with Joe Montana-level efficiency for one baffling afternoon in Foxborough, when the Jets won 28-21.

Despite their ultimate downfall with Belichick playing a more active role in its coordination, the defense was arguably more a failure of personnel than scheme or play-calling. The Patriots’ secondary in 2019 is infinitely better equipped to defend the pass than the 2010 group.

Devin McCourty started at cornerback and showed promise, but was still a rookie who turned out to be playing the wrong position. Kyle Arrington started 14 games as a primary outside corner. The frustratingly undisciplined Brandon Meriweather started 13 games at safety, while Patrick Chung wasn’t nearly the player he eventually became in his second stint with the team.

Compare that to McCourty and Chung leading a savvy safety group, First-Team All-Pro Stephon Gilmore manning top cornerback duties, veteran Jason McCourty returning after a career-best season, and a more promising stable of young cornerbacks led by J.C. Jackson and Jonathan Jones filling things out.

L-R: New England Patriots cornerbacks Jason McCourty, Stephon Gilmore, and J.C. Jackson (Philip G. Pavely/Mark J. Rebilas/David Butler II, USA Today Sports)

L-R: New England Patriots cornerbacks Jason McCourty, Stephon Gilmore, and J.C. Jackson (Philip G. Pavely/Mark J. Rebilas/David Butler II, USA Today Sports)

It’s even fair to wonder if the Patriots’ defensive front is better than it was in 2010, despite losing anchor Trey Flowers to the Lions. Michael Bennett, Lawrence Guy, Mike Pennel, and Deatrich Wise Jr. could inspire more confidence than Wilfork, Rob Ninkovich, Jermaine Cunningham (!), and Gerard Warren – as pass-rushers, anyway.

But despite the disheartening end to the 2010 season – which still ranks among the great disappointments of the Belichick era – he still won Coach of the Year. He still found a way to coach his personnel to a dominant second half of the regular season. And he certainly has a shinier chest of toys to play with now.

Concerns are obvious. Belichick lost a significant portion of his defensive staff and may paint with a crowded canvas if he needs to bury his face in play sheets. Last year’s setup worked wonders, when Belichick focused on head coaching duties while Flores served as the de facto Patriots defensive coordinator.

A more aggressive coordinator than Matt Patricia, Flores spun a masterpiece in Super Bowl LIII against the Rams. He confused Jared Goff with unexpected zone looks and pressured the Rams QB with strength in numbers up front. He struck gold when he called a safety blitz by Duron Harmon late in the fourth quarter, which forced a heave from Goff that fluttered into Gilmore’s hands for a pivotal interception.

Feb 3, 2019; Atlanta, GA: New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore intercepts a pass intended for Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Brandin Cooks in the fourth quarter in Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

Feb 3, 2019; Atlanta, GA: New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore intercepts a pass intended for Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Brandin Cooks in the fourth quarter in Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

Can the Patriots defense work the same kind of magic with Belichick handling the play-calls? The clear risk is Belichick overextending his duties amid an inexperienced staff. If any head coach can pull it off, it’s Belichick. He did an admirable job with the 14-2 Patriots in 2010, and this time the defense is more talented than that mostly rebuilding bunch.

After mixed results nine years ago, Belichick has yet another opportunity to prove why he is who he is. His situation on the defensive staff? It is what it is. In the wake of Schiano’s departure, the onus may simply fall on him. But it’s hard not to be confident that he can figure it out.

And let’s be honest. It may be a better option than Schiano.

Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at matthew.dolloff@bbgi.com.

Note: This story was updated with more information regarding Matt Patricia’s role on the Patriots staff.