In a COVID-wracked offseason, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is the NFL's biggest matchup nightmare.
By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Bill Belichick is a big Art of War guy. And in the age of COVID-19, as NFL teams prepare for Week 1 without a preseason, they've leaned heavily on one of Sun Tzu's defining principles, which is known to have hung in the Patriots' locker room: "Every battle is won before it’s ever fought."
Over the course of his 20 seasons as head coach, Belichick has excelled at out-preparing opponents. It's led to a lot of impressive team wins against more talented rosters, and absolute dominance of inferior competition. But 2020 presents a new kind of challenge.
The NFL's COVID precautions, which cancelled the preseason and other offseason activities, are outside of the Patriots' control. So, like they've done so much for the past two decades under Belichick, the Patriots focus on what they can control.
"Just adapting to a new way of doing things," said linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley, who was voted a team captain for the first time this season. "Obviously no team has preseason games to get ready for, so you try to replace them the best way you can. But we’re all just adapting. And as far as giving a synopsis of how I’m doing, that’s a personal thing for me and just looking for constant growth for not just me but the team as a whole. So, we’ve just got to take steps and adapt a little bit."
“Plan for what it is difficult while it is easy, do what is great while it is small.”
Through camp and the transition to the regular season, game-type preparations have had added emphasis. The Pats have focused more on situational football and minimizing mistakes. Undrafted rookies and roster long shots have to "stack days" and maximize their practice performance. With limitations on physicality, they have to prepare every technique up to the moment they make a tackle.
"That’s the thing about the NFL. With limited numbers, it’s tough to really go out and be tackling every day and bringing guys to the ground," said special teams captain Matthew Slater. "You don’t want to get guys banged up in a bit of a compressed preseason. We’ll see how it goes. I’m sure there will be some growing pains initially. As I said, we’re trying to focus on our fundamentals, trying to make sure we’re in position to finish those plays and then hopefully when we get into position, we make those plays.”
Without the benefit of live tackling in preseason games, Belichick has done his best to move the Patriots from camp to regular season prep. Ball carriers have had to face live tacklers. Defenders have had to bring guys to the turf. You can't totally replicate game tackling in practice, but the Patriots are doing their best to be ready for the real battles.
"We’ll have to see how it goes, but I think we’ve prepared our players for that, I think they’ve had their opportunities to feel the contact and to feel as close to game reps as we can get without playing in a game," Belichick said in a recent video conference. "There’s another level that we’ll have to experience, but I think we’ll be prepared to take that next step, and then we’ll have to refine it from there. I don’t think it will be perfect, but I think it will be competitive and we’ll continue to work and improve on it."
The Pats are preparing mentally, too. It's nothing new for Belichick to sprinkle situational drills into practices throughout camp and into game prep, but in 2020 it's even more important. This week's transition sharpened the situational focus, like how they would line up on a kickoff after a safety, for instance. They work on substitutions and prepare for nebulous in-game decisions like fourth down play-calls. And with no preseason or joint practices, they've had to amp up the unpredictability. It's the best way to prepare for an invisible opponent in unusual times.
"I think the difference is just not being able to go against other teams," said Burkhead. "We're just going against each other all throughout camp. I think what the coaches have done a a great job of is challenging us every single day, giving us new looks, giving us some new opportunities to be creative, show and do new plays. And so that's what the difference has been. So just trying to capitalize on that many new opportunities we may get.
"We're going against each other every single day, but you still try to mix up, whether that's in your runs or routes, just try to be creative and grow in all areas and improve every single day."
“Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”
Belichick understands the value of preparation better than perhaps any coach in NFL history, and it's even more important in the 2020 version of the NFL. In the words of starting quarterback Cam Newton, "nobody knows" what it's going to look like when the actual games begin, but the "nobody" includes every team in the league. What the Patriots do know is how they've prepared as a team, and Belichick knows that the battle can be won on the practice field.
Despite massive roster turnover at the most important positions and dependence on first and second-year players to make significant contributions, would anyone be surprised if Belichick fielded the NFL's sharpest, most prepared squad come Week 1?
"Just know as a team, we’re looking to take these steps as a big group, whether it’s young guys or older guys, and just looking to constantly progress before we start honing in," said Bentley. "But we’re definitely looking to take the next steps. Obviously there’s [eight days] until the first game, so we’re putting all the pieces together and getting ready to roll."
Bentley bridges the gap with Patriots teammates
As a former three-year captain at Purdue, it's not terribly surprising that Ja'Whaun Bentley has earned that title in just his third NFL season. After significant turnover at linebacker, Bentley is suddenly one of the veterans in the room. So it's his duty to lead, and he does so in a variety of ways.
"There's a time and a place for everything, so sometimes it's good to be vocal and sometimes it's good to show by action," said Bentley. "I feel like there's a time and place for everything, and everybody's different, so you've got to play that role. At the same time, I feel like you're elected because your teammates look to your personality, so you have to continue to be yourself and do all those great things that got you in that place."
Bentley's leadership style can change based on who he's communicating with, which can strengthen personal connections. He and the Patriots believe in the importance of valuing the input of everyone on the roster, regardless of experience level. He shows his younger teammates that respect, while imparting whatever wisdom he can on them as a longer-tenured player.
"Having the in-game experience definitely helps a little bit when you’re trying to break that down, as opposed to being a new player and not knowing what may happen in situations or how the communication may play out," Bentley said. "So I think it’s definitely person-to-person, but we always try to bridge the gap, in a way."
Closing that gap will be crucial for the Patriots defense - especially the linebackers, which will have to lean on sophomore Chase Winovich and rookies Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings in a transitional season at the position. Bentley will be tasked with keeping it glued together.
Why Gunner Olszewski actually kind of liked this offseason
Gunner Olszewski wasn't downplaying the real-life struggles many have experienced in 2020, by any means. But the Patriots' second-year receiver is relieved that he didn't have to bother with Combine drills and other events that made him feel more like a piece of cattle than an NFL player.
"Shoot. I know that coronavirus is tough on everybody and stuff, but I liked this offseason more than I liked the last offseason," Olszewski said in a recent video conference. "We were wasting our time – rookies coming into the league are wasting your time running 40-yard dashes and seeing how many times you can bench 225. I mean, this offseason I knew what I was doing so it was more fun to just get in shape and what not."
As an undrafted converted defensive back, Olszewski deserves no blame for feeling like his work speaks for itself. By all accounts he was one of the Patriots' more improved players in camp. And he certainly didn't need the bench press to make it happen.
Learning from each other
In order to bring the Patriots' running backs to the next level in the passing game, the Patriots turned to a former receiver. Troy Brown excelled as Tom Brady's first great inside target for the Pats, and will go down as one of the most gloriously versatile players in the dynasty. He always loved new challenges. Now, as the running backs/kick returners coach, Brown is adapting to the challenge of coaching players who play a different position than he did.
"I have to remind players all the time, I was an issue as a player, and now as a first-time running back coach, we have our challenges," Brown said in a recent video conference. "But we have to always keep a positive mind about what we're up against. So it's just been great. It's been great having Ivan [Fears], he's been doing his job with their running backs for almost 20 years now. But he switched over to running backs [in 2002]. So he's been with them for a very long time. I'm fortunate to be coaching under somebody that has so much experience, and then the players who have so much experience.
"I think that's probably what's accelerated my learning in that position as well, was just being able to lean on those guys and get information from those guys about things that's not necessarily written in the playbook, but things that actually happen that you have no control over. So those guys are great with teaching me those kinds of things."
The hope is that the Patriots' backs unlock new potential, having learned about the passing game from a former wideout.
"Troy's been great," said Rex Burkhead. "Like you said, he played receiver - I mean, he played defensive back and did punt returns as well. Very multiple guy. I think one of the few things he may have not done was play running back. But it's been great, with our route techniques, really seeing it through the lens of a receiver side of things, and whether that's just with our hands, using our hands, or getting in and out of our routes and certain techniques, bringing that to the backfield or for a split out or whatever that may be.
"It's been huge. It's really opened my eyes to certain routes we run or certain techniques we use, really developing that game even more."
The running backs' experience and inherent coach-ability has certainly eased the transition for Brown. We'll see if the partnership turns out to be mutually beneficial for the team.
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? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff or send him a nasty email at [email protected].