Mike Zimmer is one of the best coaches in the NFL pre-snap. He’s famous for his double-A-gap blitz looks that toy with pass protection calls, and he is also phenomenal at disguising coverages, rotating safeties late, scheming zone blitzes and more.
But Bill Belichick is the best coach in the NFL pre-snap.
Combine Belichick’s scheming with Tom Brady’s pre-snap brilliance, and the Patriots had the Vikings beat on Sunday before Tom Brady or Kirk Cousins ever touched the ball.
Josh Gordon’s Touchdown
Injuries at cornerback likely meant Zimmer had to dial back some of his more complex, disguised coverage, so on this play, Zimmer ran a simple Cover-2 zone:
Tom Brady diagnoses the two-high safety look pre-snap, then post-snap confirms it. Josh Gordon is running a post route—an easy cover-2 beater. Anthony Harris gets a little frozen on the route combination, but given how Gordon flattens his route after the break, it likely doesn’t matter. Brady had the Vikings’ defense beat on this play before the ball was even snapped.
The Fourth Down Dagger
The Vikings’ last hopes of winning the game came after a fourth-and-11 play call led to a slant to Treadwell for only four yards:
The Patriots came out pre-snap showing their “psycho” or “amoeba” look—having the entire front seven up and moving around to sell out against any pre-snap reads. Post-snap, the Patriots are running Cover 0—no safeties, one-on-one man coverage on the receivers, everyone else blitzes.
Criticize DeFilippo’s play call here all you want, but against an amoeba Cover 0 on fourth-and-11, there is really nothing the offense could have done. Diggs and Thielen run vertical routes past the sticks, but the Cover 0 forces Cousins to throw the ball before any routes past the sticks could develop. The blitz forces the hot read to Treadwell on the slant, and the best-tackling team in the NFL unsurprisingly doesn’t miss the tackle. This Vikings’ drive was dead on arrival.
Belichick’s Psycho Fronts
Belichick’s most notable pre-snap strategy coming into this game was his use of “psycho” or “amoeba” fronts, which you can see in the play below:
Psycho fronts are effective because they are so unpredictable. Who’s blitzing? And from where? What are the safeties doing? It’s nearly impossible to tell until the ball is snapped.
Belichick doesn’t use psycho fronts too often, but I think he liked the strategy against the Vikings for a few reasons:
First, the Vikings rank dead last in the NFL in both how often they run and in how successful they are at it. Perhaps the biggest reason you don’t see psycho fronts more often in the NFL is because you are begging your run defense to screw up its gap assignments (especially inside). Against the Vikings, that’s less of a concern.
Second, Cousins will pick defenses apart from a clean pocket. Psycho fronts means lots of blitzing. NFL defenses have blitz on about 27% of passing plays this year. The Patriots blitzed on 37% of their dropbacks in this game. Even when they weren’t blitzing, they were typically at least showing blitz. That forced Cousins to get rid of the ball quickly before he had time to read every progression and let plays develop.
Third, Cousins’ biggest strength as a quarterback is his pre-snap vision. Cousins, like Brady, is brilliant at reading the field before the snap and surgically picking it apart after the snap. Psycho fronts refuse to give the quarterback a pre-snap read. The Patriots had 15 different defenders blitz this game. Outside of Trey Flowers, their leading blitzers were not defensive linemen but two standup linebackers. It’s a lot harder to read defenses when any of seven or eight players on any given play might be blitzing.
On the play above, Cousins does a great job baiting the Patriots into finally showing their single-high coverage immediately pre-snap. Post-snap, Thielen is bracketed, but he splits the double team. Cousins makes a great throw downfield, but Thielen drops it, and the Vikings have to punt.
Prior to this game, Belichick singled out Harrison Smith for what he is able to do pre-snap:
Harrison Smith does a great job with pre-snap disguise. He’s one of the best – you know, Smith, Ed Reed, [Troy] Polamalu. …He’s a hard guy to read. He does an excellent job of timing his movement based on either the quarterback’s cadence, the offensive formation, motion, the play clock, all those combination of things. He does an excellent job of using some or all of them to put the offense in a difficult position to account for them or to not account for them when he’s blitzing and so forth. He’s really good.
The irony in Belichick praising Harrison Smith and Mike Zimmer for their pre-snap disguises and reads is that is exactly how Belichick beat Zimmer.
Take Tom Brady’s third-down scramble for a first down:
Tom Brady and Mike Zimmer are playing a game of chicken here with the play clock: neither wants to show what they are doing until the very last second of the play clock. The Patriots come out of the huddle early enough to set up some motion and pre-snap reads, but more importantly bait Zimmer into showing his hand early in a pre-snap standoff. As the play clock ticks past 4 seconds left, it’s Mackensie Alexander that breaks first, trying to get a good jump on his corner blitz. Brady takes a beat to process the incoming corner blitz, then after the snap, when he sees Anthony Barr rotating to cover the area where Alexander blitzed, Brady simply steps up the A-gap for the easy third-down conversion.
A similar play happened later in the game when Brady again baited Alexander into showing blitz early, then Brady threw the ball right at the slot receiver that was freed up by Alexander’s blitz:
Edelman dropped the pass, but except for that execution failure, Brady had the Vikings beat on that play.
Another crucial conversion came later in the game off Brady’s pre-snap read:
It’s 4th-and-1. In short yardage, Brady is expecting man coverage, so he sends Chris Hogan in motion across the formation. Mackensie Alexander follows him across, confirming Brady’s expectation. From there, Hogan gets a good inside release to freeze Alexander, then Hogan breaks outside. With Hogan’s immediate outside leverage, Brady has just enough room to fit the ball near the sideline for the crucial first down.
This game was full of plays like that—Brady and Harrison Smith playing chicken until Smith was forced to rotate into coverage immediately prior to the snap, Brady waiting until the last second until Zimmer’s double-a-gap look backs off into coverage, and on and on.
The Patriots beat the Vikings at their own game—on defense, their psycho front’s unpredictability wreaked havoc on Cousins’ pre-snap brilliance and forced early throws that kept the Vikings’ offense behind schedule. On offense, Brady’s patience forced the Vikings to show their hand immediately before the play clock hit zero, and then Brady methodically read the defense and found the exact counter to every play.
It was a phenomenal game plan. Even on plays where DeFilippo or Zimmer had a great play call, Belichick and McDaniels always had the perfect counter. On a number of different plays, the Patriots won the play before the quarterbacks ever touched the ball.