FOXBOROUGH – Bill Belichick opened his press conference on Friday morning by once again stressing how good he believes the Buccaneers are, and the challenge his Patriots face on Sunday with Tampa Bay in town.
“[I] feel like the more I’ve watched Tampa this week, the more impressed I’ve been,” he said. “They’re well-coached, they’re really good on defense, and they did a good job against New Orleans running the ball, made some big plays in the passing game, a couple of plays have hurt them, but overall they’re doing a lot of things well. Good kickoff, punt return team, they do a lot of little things well, field goal rush, things like that.
“A lot for us to get ready for, we have one more day to kind of polish it up, but it’s going to be a big challenge for us this week. This is a good football team.”
And here’s your almost-daily update from Belichick on Rob Gronkowski: “Rob’s been out there, I think he’s getting better every day. Working hard. No question about that.”
Doug Martin, the Buccaneers’ second-year running back who is averaging over 100 yards per game so far this season, is, of course, a different kind of back than the Bills’ Fred Jackson or other players the Patriots will see in coming weeks.
Belichick said planning for running backs is largely dependent on the type of player he is and how he’s deployed by his team.
“[The approach] can change a lot, depending on who the players are and how the offense uses them. Some offenses involve their running backs a lot in the passing game, some of them use them more in protection and to run the ball and play-action and things like that, some guys, they’re go-to guys on third downs or get them the ball in space,” Belichick said. “Protection’s another thing that varies from back to back – some backs can do a lot of different protections, some backs it looks like teams just use one or two protections with them so they don’t have a lot of different assignments.
“I think each week when the linebackers see who the backs are or the secondary if they’re involved, you definitely take more time to go through that scouting report with the backs: how they’re used in the passing game, what kind of skills they have, some examples of them using those skills, whether they’re deep receivers, whether they use a lot of option-type routes, whether guys can get open, whether they’re more catch-and-run players, check-down receivers, things like that. Usually the player’s skills will be complimented within the offense, so if the back’s a good route-runner they’ll probably run him on some man-to-man type routes; if the back’s more of a catch-and-run guy, then they’ll run receivers deep and let him be the check-down guy if there’s zone coverage and things like that instead of asking him to win in a lot of one-on-one situations if that’s not really one of his strengths.
“Knowing who’s in the game and what they’re capable of doing and how we want to defend them is a key, key point every week. [It’s] very important.”
Tampa Bay, which often employs three receiver sets, also makes a team decide when to play nickel versus when to go with a base defense in more of an effort to slow Martin.
“That’s an every-week, game plan discussion,” Belichick said. “Do you want to match, do you not want to match, or what situations do you want to match in or is there some three-receiver sets you want to match, others you don’t, maybe who the tight end is, who the back is, maybe if the receiver – sometimes it’s not the same three guys, maybe a certain receiver changes how you want to match up, maybe it’s by down and distance, or whatever. That’s another key coaching decision that’s, I’d say, a weekly decision. It’s this week but it’s every week, how and when to match up with multiple receiver groups.”
Another point of interest during Belichick’s talk came when he was asked about talking to the Patriots’ rookies. The initial question was whether he talks to the rookies about dealing with reduced playing time, especially for those players who were stars on their college team, but, he said, that is just one topic among many discussed with rookies on a regular basis.
“I talk to the rookies on a regular basis, elements of that conversation and things started long before now, going back to the spring, going back to training camp,” he said. “Guys that come from college that were stars on their team that were getting all the reps that maybe weren’t playing in the kicking game, that had so-called ‘special privileges’ or whatever with their status on that team, they’re in a whole different place very, very early coming onto this team. If that’s what it was somewhere else, it’s a lot different than that here. I don’t know what it was like somewhere else, but my sense is that some of them, it’s a big transition for them.
“But that transition started a long, long time ago. But we talk to them on a regular basis about that. Pro football is a lot different than college football, not just the game but the whole process of it; everything we do, it’s a lot different. We talk to them about that on a regular basis, at least weekly if not more. In a lot of cases, it’s really daily. It’s really a daily conversation with either all of them or groups of them.”
Over the years, Belichick has heard many a player lament his lack of knowledge about one thing or another, about his being unprepared for a situation, on or off the field. So the talks are a way to at least give players a head’s up when it comes to some things, and something he’s aimed to do better now than he did previously in his career.
“You tell them, ‘Look this is the way it’s going to be, here’s what you have to be ready for, this is what’s going to happen, this is how this is going to work, this is how you need to do this, this is how you need to do that’,” Belichick said. “Doesn’t mean it’s going to be perfect, but at least they’ve been warned ahead of time what to expect, they have an idea what to expect, then a lot of times you go back and say, ‘OK, this is what we talked about, did it happen about the way you thought it would, the way we talked about?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Well, what was different?’ ‘Well, I didn’t expect this or I didn’t expect that.’ OK, then we talk about that and then we move onto the next thing.
“It’s a long season for these guys, they have a lot of hills to climb, not just one – it’s a roller coaster. Each week is a new challenge and really each day is a new challenge. I think the better you can prepare them for it, then the better chance they have to meet it, but there’s still no substitute for experience, so coaches, players, we try to provide that, and we do that with every group, every year, on and off the field. There’s a lot of things in pro football that are a lot different from college, not just the game, not just the preparation, but once they walk out of the building, there’s no dormitories, no classes…a lot of other stuff, there’s other things, there’s regular life to deal with. Paying bills and being accountable in other areas of your life that you’re much less [concerned] with in college because it’s taken care of for you or you don’t have to deal with it at all.”
The Patriots currently have 13 rookies on the active roster and seven on practice squad, but the number of newbies doesn’t matter, Belichick said – none of them have been through the myriad things that have happened or will happen in the coming weeks.