The three-man rush is the worst. It’s often a passive measure when the defense is scared to give up a big play. But more often than not, the three-man rush gives a quarterback ample time in the pocket and a big play — or at least a successful one — happens anyway. A big reason why the Tennesee Titans lost the AFC Championship Game to the Kansas City Chiefs was their overreliance on sending three and getting burned in the process.
With a general consensus opinion that the three-man rush is bad, it might be surprising that one of the sport’s greatest defensive minds, Bill Belichick, has been among the biggest proponents of the strategy.
Last season, the Patriots rushed three on 15% of opposing pass plays, which was the fifth-highest rate in the league. This isn’t necessarily new. Although the frequency has fallen slightly over the past two seasons, Belichick defenses have rushed three at league-high rates for years, including the highest rates from 2015-2017 at over 20%. Here are those rates over the past five seasons:
Like many Belichick philosophies, it’s been spread by those in his coaching tree that have gone on to jobs with other organizations. Of the five teams that rushed three most frequently in 2019, four have ties to New England, Belichick included. Those other teams are Detroit (Matt Patricia, 26%), Miami (Brian Flores, 20%), and Tennessee (Mike Vrabel, 18%). Only Washington (18%) had no Belichick connection.
Also like other Belichick philosophies, it doesn’t always hold its effectiveness when translated through another coach or team. The Patriots had the eighth-best EPA per play in 2019 on three-man rushes. The Titans were close behind at 11th, but the Lions and Dolphins sat at 19th and 24th, respectively.
When the Patriots sent three, there didn’t have to be a huge impact for it to work. It could only mess with the quarterback’s head and timing just enough to throw the entire play off. In Week 16 against Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills, the Patriots sent a fairly standard three-man rush on a 3rd and 15. New England’s edge rushers were wide enough to get one-on-one matchups on the outside just long enough before help came from the guards. That forced Allen to step up in the pocket and with a one-on-one with the center, Shilique Calhoun (90) was able to disrupt Allen’s timing and force a pump fake and extra hitch before the quarterback launched a pass well beyond the reach of receiver John Brown.
More often, there was a little more involved. In Belichick’s defense, disguising the rush is a big factor in its success. With so little typically invested in edge rushers, the Patriots have worked to manufacture pressure in a number of ways. A lot of the times, that relies on winning late in the down. It’s a big reason why the Patriots can rank second in pressure rate, per SIS, while they were just 22nd in ESPN’s Pass Rush Win Rate, which measures success within the first 2.5 seconds after the snap. New England also has so much invested in the secondary and so much talent there, it’s easier to allow those players to sustain their coverage while the pass rush is schemed up.
Because the Patriots don’t have one star player who is going to rush the passer, that job can go to anyone on the defense, especially among the “linebackers.” Kyle Van Noy rushed on 79% of his pass snaps, John Simon rushed on 83%, Dont’a Hightower rushed on 59%, and Jamie Collins rushed on 32%. (With Van Noy and Collins now gone, it should be noted that second-round pick Josh Uche fits this mold. He rushed the passer 71% of the time in his final college season.)
Since everyone is a threat to rush the passer, opposing quarterbacks can’t always clearly identify who is coming. That works whether the Patriots bring four, blitz, or decide to only rush three. Belichick also sets up these rushes so the Patriots aren’t the team at a disadvantage, even when they only send three.
The below play is a 3rd and 1 against Daniel Jones and the New York Giants from Week 6. The Giants motioned to an empty set and the Patriots showed six defenders at the line of scrimmage. With one defender likely to cover the tight end, that left five possible rushers. At the snap, the Patriots rushed three but the alignment was such that Simon was still able to get a one-on-one matchup against left tackle Nate Solder (76). Simon was able to get enough pressure to move Jones from the pocket and the quarterback eventually threw a dangerous off-target pass on the run.
The following week, the Patriots faced Sam Darnold and the New York Jets. On a 2nd and 10 in the red zone, the Patriots showed seven in the box with just two down linemen. New England rushed the interior three but because of the wide alignments of the two wide linebackers who dropped back in coverage, Collins (58) and Van Noy (53), both tackles had to set wide and the Patriots still had one-on-ones on the edges. Both were able to push the pocket and Deatrich Wise (91) forced Darnold to flee and fire an off-balance jump pass out of the end zone.
That was the Darnold “seeing ghosts” game. The Patriots were showing pressure but the quarterback didn’t know which defenders were coming at the snap. Darnold was bracing for pressure that didn’t come or came from somewhere unexpected. This was a cat-and-mouse game the Patriots played with opposing quarterbacks all season and it worked because the defensive alignment was rarely a tell of how many defenders or which specific defenders were going to rush the quarterback.
What really made the New England pass rush so effective is how often those crowded looks at the line of scrimmage would turn into actual blitzes. While an opposing quarterback was trying to figure out which defenders will be coming, sometimes the answer was all of them. The Jets had a 2nd and 8 deep in their own territory earlier in the game and the Patriots loaded the line with seven defenders. This time, all seven rushed and Darnold rushed a pass into the arms of Devin McCourty.
That’s the key to Belichick’s success with the three-man rush. He uses it like an elite pitcher mixing in all of his pitches. It’s a 99mph fastball followed by an 80mph changeup that looks exactly the same coming out of the hand. Belichick’s three-man rushes are never passive in nature and there’s always a path to an advantage somewhere along the line.
Along with being among the league-leaders in three-man rush rate, the Patriots were also among the leaders in blitz rate in 2019. New England sent five rushers 23% of the time and six or more on another 7% and that 30% blitz rate was the seventh-highest in the league, per SIS.
This is also where some of the disconnects come as the strategy travels across the league. The Lions rarely ever had that change of speed in their arsenal last season. While they led the league in three-man rush rate, they also had the lowest blitz rate in the league at just 12%. Lions opponents were either facing a three- or four-man rush and almost any offense can deal with that if those are the only two options nearly 90% of the time.
Patriots vs Lions Pass Rush Tendencies, 2019
|Team||Rush 3%||Rush 4%||Blitz %|
Miami came close to New England’s tendencies but just didn’t have the talent to play defense well enough, in general. Now that the Dolphins have splurged on that side of the ball, including a massive investment in the secondary and the signing of Van Noy to play a similar role to what he did with the Patriots, there could be more effectiveness there for 2020 and beyond.
But, of course, this is another Patriots strategy that’s not just easily replicated and those that have tried to replicate it so far have missed out on the nuance of what initially made it work. Belichick and the Patriots are ahead of the curve on not just the three-man rush, but when to use it and how to mix in a more effective blitz. New England will continually leave opposing offenses guessing and even if it’s just a three-man rush, the Patriots will use it in an aggressive way to continually hold an advantage.
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