New England Patriots strategy

The New England Patriots generally run a modified Erhardt-Perkins offensive system and a Fairbanks-Bullough 3–4 defensive system, though they have also used a 4–3 defense and increased their use of the nickel defense.

Erhardt-Perkins offensive system

The Patriots run a modified "Ron Erhardt-Ray Perkins" offensive system[1] installed by Charlie Weis under Bill Belichick. Both Ron Erhardt and Ray Perkins served as offensive assistant coaches under the defensive minded Chuck Fairbanks while he was head coach of the Patriots in the 1970s.[1] This system is noted for its multiple formation and personnel grouping variations on a core number of base plays. Under this system, each formation and each play are separately numbered. Additional word descriptions further modify each play (see below for examples).

Running game

The Erhardt - Perkins system traditionally had a reputation (whether or not earned) of being a traditional smash mouth offense that maximizes a team's time of possession and does not as frequently call upon its running backs to serve as receivers.[2] Erhardt was famous for his adage, "throw to score, run to win."[3] This may have been especially true during the years Bill Parcells ran this system as the head coach of the New York Giants.[4] This system was thought to be particularly well suited for teams playing in harsh outdoor weather conditions of the northeast of the United States.

An example of a running play under this system is Zero, Ride Thirty-six. Zero sets the formation. Thirty indicates who will be the ball carrier running with the ball. Six indicates which hole between the offensive linemen the ball carrier will attempt to run through (see Offensive Nomenclature).

Passing game

This offense traditionally used the run to set up the pass via play-action passing, faking the run in order to throw deep downfield when the defense is least expecting it. Despite its earlier reputation, this system is no longer a run first offense. Erhardt commonly ran the system in his later years spread wide open with multiple receivers (earning the moniker "Air Erhardt"), as NFL rules evolved to benefit the passing game. As a result of this influence, the Patriots will frequently run this offense with five potential receivers and an empty backfield should a favorable matchup present itself or as a function of available personnel. With the addition of Randy Moss and Wes Welker to the Patriots offense in 2007, the Patriots placed an emphasis on a wide open passing attack (with record setting results).[5] As rules of the NFL have loosened to favor the offense, the Patriots have increasingly adopted a wide open approach, to the point that they are often now thought of as a short pass first team. The Patriots have also made good extensive use of the non huddle offense to tire out defensive personnel and to disallow substitutions.

Weis states in his autobiography "No Excuses" that the first play that he called in Super Bowl XXXVI was: Zero Flood Slot Hat, Seventy-eight Shout Tosser. Zero is the base formation. Flood Slot Hat further modifies this formation to a set with one back in motion, two tight ends and two wide receivers (which is to say five potential receivers in total). Seventy-eight is the base play number, a three-step drop play. Shout tells the three potential receivers on one side of the quarterback what routes they should run, while Tosser tells the other two potential receivers their patterns. During the actual game, Tom Brady threw the ball to Troy Brown for a 21-yard gain, 17 of it after the catch.

Other teams running similar offensive systems

Parcells ran the Erhardt-Perkins offensive system during his pro coaching years, which is where Weis originally learned it. Many teams coached by members of the Parcells-Belichick coaching tree currently use this system, such as Notre Dame during Weis' tenure. The Pittsburgh Steelers also continued to run this system during the Bill Cowher years, from when Ron Erhardt was their offensive coordinator.[6] The Carolina Panthers run this system as well, under Jeff Davidson, a former Belichick assistant.

Comparison to "West Coast" and "Air Coryell" offenses

In the view of some experts, there are only approximately five or six major offensive systems run in the NFL today.[1]

The nomenclature of the Erhardt-Perkins system is very different from the Bill Walsh west coast offense. Formations under the West Coast Offense are commonly named after colors (i.e., Green Right).[7] The west coast offense commonly utilizes high percentage, short slanting passes and running backs as receivers. It prefers to have mobile quarterbacks (since its running backs may not be available to block) and large receivers who are able to gain additional yards after the catch.[8]

The nomenclature of the Erhardt-Perkins system is also very different from the Ernie Zampese-Don Coryell "Air Coryell" timed system. Route patterns of the receivers are numbered instead of named in the Air Coryell system (thereby making memorization easier).[9] For example, an Air Coryell play such as "924 F stop swing" indicates that the primary wide receiver (X) should run a 9 pattern (a go), the tight end (Y) should run a 2 pattern (a slant), the secondary wide receiver (Z) should run a 4 pattern (a curl) and the F-back should go out for a swing pass (see Offensive nomenclature). Timing and precision are extremely important under the Air Coryell system, as the routes are intended to run like successive clockwork in order to be successful. The Air Coryell offense was used successfully by several coaches. Its history includes Jimmy Johnson's tenure as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. Johnson's offensive coordinator, Norv Turner implemented the system when he became head coach of the San Diego Chargers in 2007. The St. Louis Rams ran the Coryell system successfully under coordinator and then head coach Mike Martz; earlier still, Joe Gibbs won several Super Bowls running his version of the Coryell offense.

Recent innovations

Around 2011, Bill Belichick increasingly adopted an up-tempo, no-huddle offense for his team.[10] The idea behind this strategy is for the offense to call plays rapidly without pause and without a huddle. The intention was to tire the defensive side of the ball out more quickly, prevent them from changing their personnel on the field, and limit the complexity of their plays.

In 2014, Bill Belichick implemented creative substitution tactics in the playoffs versus the Ravens and Colts.[11] In the Ravens game, on three plays the Patriots used four offensive linemen, but had a skill-position player (RB Shane Vereen did it twice, TE Michael Hoomanawanui, once) in the position of an offensive lineman; in each case, Vereen and Hoomanawanui reported as an ineligible receiver, but split wide on the line, confusing the Ravens on which players to cover, similar to the A-11 offense. Taken by surprise, the Ravens head coach protested, to be told by the NFL that the formations were legal, and had been reported properly before each play. The NFL then imposed rule changes prohibiting such substitutions for the 2015 season; players who wear eligible numbers at ineligible positions must now place themselves closer to the center.[12]

NFL teams that used the Erhardt-Perkins offense

Start End Team Head coach Offensive coordinator
1979 1981 New England Patriots Ron Erhardt Jim Ringo
1979 1982 New York Giants Ray Perkins Ron Erhardt
1983 1990 New York Giants Bill Parcells Ron Erhardt
1985 1989 New England Patriots Raymond Berry
1987 1989 Tampa Bay Buccaneers Ray Perkins
1992 1997 Pittsburgh Steelers Bill Cowher Ron Erhardt and Chan Gailey
1993 1996 New England Patriots Bill Parcells Ray Perkins
1995 2002 Jacksonville Jaguars Tom Coughlin Kevin Gilbride, Chris Palmer, and Bobby Petrino
1996 1999 Tampa Bay Buccaneers Tony Dungy Mike Shula
1997 1999 New York Jets Bill Parcells Charlie Weis
1997 1998 San Diego Chargers Kevin Gilbride Mike Sheppard
1998 1999 Dallas Cowboys Chan Gailey
1999 2000 Cleveland Browns Chris Palmer Pete Carmichael
1999 2006 Pittsburgh Steelers Bill Cowher Kevin Gilbride, Mike Mularkey, and Ken Whisenhunt
2000 2001 Miami Dolphins Dave Wannstedt Chan Gailey
2000 2004 New England Patriots Bill Belichick Charlie Weis
2002 2003 Buffalo Bills Gregg Williams Kevin Gilbride
2002 2004 Houston Texans Dom Capers Chris Palmer
2003 2006 Dallas Cowboys Bill Parcells Maurice Carthon
2004 2005 Buffalo Bills Mike Mularkey Tom Clements
2004 2013 New York Giants Tom Coughlin John Hufnagel and Kevin Gilbride
2005 2006 Cleveland Browns Romeo Crennel Maurice Carthon and Jeff Davidson
2006 Miami Dolphins Nick Saban Mike Mularkey
2006 2010 New England Patriots Bill Belichick Josh McDaniels
2007 2012 Arizona Cardinals Ken Whisenhunt Todd Haley and Mike Miller
2007 2010 Carolina Panthers John Fox Jeff Davidson
2008 2011 Atlanta Falcons Mike Smith Mike Mularkey
2008 Kansas City Chiefs Herman Edwards Chan Gailey
2009 2010 Cleveland Browns Eric Mangini Brian Daboll
2009 2010 Denver Broncos Josh McDaniels Mike McCoy
2009 2011 Kansas City Chiefs Todd Haley Charlie Weis and Bill Muir
2010 2012 Buffalo Bills Chan Gailey Curtis Modkins
2011 2012 Kansas City Chiefs Romeo Crennel Bill Muir and Brian Daboll
2011 St. Louis Rams Steve Spagnuolo Josh McDaniels
2012 Jacksonville Jaguars Mike Mularkey Bob Bratkowski
2012 present New England Patriots Bill Belichick Josh McDaniels
2012 present Pittsburgh Steelers Mike Tomlin Todd Haley
2013 present Carolina Panthers Ron Rivera Mike Shula
2013 2014 Denver Broncos John Fox Adam Gase
2013 present San Diego Chargers Mike McCoy Ken Whisenhunt and Frank Reich
2013 present Houston Texans Bill O'Brien George Godsey
2014 present Tennessee Titans Ken Whisenhunt Jason Michael
2015 present Chicago Bears John Fox Adam Gase
2015 present New York Jets Todd Bowles Chan Gailey


Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4 defensive system

The New England Patriots run a modified base 3-4 Chuck Fairbanks-Hank Bullough system[14] installed by Bill Belichick. The term 3-4 means that their base formation consists of 3 defensive linemen (defensive end, nose tackle, and defensive end), 4 linebackers (outside "Will" weak side linebacker, middle "Jack" weak side linebacker, middle "Mike" strong side linebacker, and outside "Sam" strong side linebacker), and 4 defensive backs (cornerback, free safety, strong safety, and cornerback).[15] It is believed that this 3-4 structure gives the defense the greatest amount of flexibility because the linebackers are among the most versatile players on the defense, capable of rushing the quarterback, tackling runners or dropping into coverage. By mixing the roles of their linebackers from play to play, the Patriot's defense seeks to cause confusion on the part of opposing offenses. At times the Patriots will also shade their defensive linemen different ways, creating "over" or "under" defenses. "Over" and "under" defenses simply refer to the shift of the defensive linemen to the strong or weak side of the offense, respectively, and the rotation of the linebackers in the opposite direction.

The "Fairbanks-Bullough" 3-4 system is known as a two gap system, because each of the defensive linemen are required to cover the gaps to both sides of the offensive lineman that try to block them.[16] Defensive linemen in this system tend to be stouter, as they need to be able to hold their place without being overwhelmed in order to allow the linebackers behind them to make plays. This is the reason that defensive linemen such as Richard Seymour and Vince Wilfork do not always rack up sack and tackle statistics despite their critical importance to the team.[17]

The system is at times more conservative than certain other defenses currently in vogue in the league,[18] despite the constant threat of its potent linebacker blitz. The Patriots defensive system generally places an emphasis on physicality and discipline over mobility and risk taking and is sometimes characterized as a "bend but do not break defense".[19] The Patriots are also known for putting a great deal of emphasis on the front seven (defensive line and linebackers) but less so on the secondary.


The 3-4 defense was originally devised by Bud Wilkinson at the University of Oklahoma in the late 1940s.[20] Former Patriots and Oklahoma coach Chuck Fairbanks is credited with being a major figure in first bringing the 3-4 defense to the NFL in 1974.[21] It is unclear if the Patriots under Fairbanks or the Houston Oilers under Bum Phillips were the first team to bring the 3-4 defense to the NFL.

Patriots defensive coordinator Hank Bullough made significant further innovations to the system.[22] Parcells was linebackers coach under Ron Erhardt as head coach of the Patriots in 1980 (after Fairbanks left for Colorado in 1978 and Bullough lost out on the head coaching position). When Parcells returned to the Giants as defensive coordinator under Ray Perkins in 1981, he brought the 3-4 defense with him.

Bill Belichick was initially exposed to the 3-4 defense while working as an assistant under Red Miller, head coach of the Denver Broncos and a former Patriots offensive coordinator under Fairbanks. Joe Collier was the defensive coordinator under Red Miller at the time,[23] and his Orange Crush Defense was very successful at stifling opposing offenses. The Broncos had decided to adopt the 3-4 in 1977. Bill Belichick subsequently refined his understanding of the 3-4 as a linebackers coach and defensive coordinator under Parcells with the Giants. Belichick returned the 3-4 defense back to New England when he became coach of the team in 2000.[22] Romeo Crennel subsequently became defensive coordinator for the team.

In a 2007 press conference Belichick said the following of Fairbanks: "I think Chuck has had a tremendous influence on the league as well as this organization in terms of nomenclature and terminology and those kinds of things. I'm sure Chuck could walk in and look at our playbook and probably 80 percent of the plays are the same terminology that he used - whether it be formations or coverages or pass protections. We were sitting there talking yesterday and he was saying, 'How much 60 protection are you guys using? How much 80 are you using?' All of the stuff that was really the fundamentals of his system are still in place here even, again, to the way we call formations and plays and coverages and some of our individual calls within a call, a certain adjustment or things that Red (Miller) and Hank (Bullough) and Ron (Erhardt) and those guys used when they were here".[24]

Other teams running similar defensive systems

Bill Parcells ran the Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4 defensive system during his coaching years.[25] Many teams coached by members of the Parcells-Belichick coaching tree currently run similar defensive systems, such as the University of Alabama under Nick Saban and the Cleveland Browns under Eric Mangini.

Comparison to other 3-4 systems

The "Phillips 3-4", a one-gap version of the 3-4, was also brought into the league by Bum Phillips, head coach of the Houston Oilers in the 1970s. The Phillips 3-4 defense is currently run by the San Diego Chargers as well as the Dallas Cowboys formerly coached by Wade Phillips, the son of Bum Phillips. Wade Phillips replaced Joe Collier as defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos in 1989. The modern Phillips 3-4 is largely a one-gap 3-4 system, meaning that the defensive linemen are often only responsible for one gap between the offensive linemen. The linemen can afford to be more aggressive because they receive more support from the linebackers in performing their roles. This system generally prefers relatively lighter, more agile lineman better able to perform aggressive slants, loops and gap charges in order to directly attempt to sack the quarterback and make tackles.

The 3-4 zone blitz defense was developed by Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals. Prior to becoming defensive coordinator of the Bengals, LeBeau was tutored by Bengals defensive coordinator Hank Bullough. LeBeau's system commonly calls upon linemen to be mobile enough to drop back into zone coverage in place of blitzing linebackers.[26] Elements of the 3-4 zone blitz defense have been incorporated over time into the modern Phillips 3-4.

Changes to New England's defensive scheme over time

Over time, New England has also used a 4-3 defense and increased its usage of nickel defense.[27] Belichick believes that teaching the techniques and fundamentals of his defense is more important than what alignment his defenses use, noting that he used a 4-3 defense when he coached the Cleveland Browns.[28]


The New England Patriots are noted for the following characteristics:

  • Their self-critical, perfectionist, and militaristic approach;[29]
  • Their emphasis on team,[30] equality among players and lack of individual ego;
  • Their strong work ethic, intelligence and high level of focus and preparation for each individual game;[31]
  • Their multiple schemes intended to take advantage of their opponent's weaknesses.[33][34]

For example, in Super Bowl XXXVI, the Patriots' defense used an aggressive bump and run nickel and dime package instead of their base 3-4 to disrupt the timing of the highly touted Air Coryell system employed by the Rams under Mike Martz (also known as "The Greatest Show on Turf"). This modifiable aspect of the Patriots system is in stark contrast to simpler systems like the Tampa 2 defense, in which the same scheme is often run repeatedly with the emphasis being on execution rather than on flexibility.

In his book "How Football Explains America", Sal Paolantonio noted the many parallels between the Patriots' philosophy and military training taught at West Point. This is likely the result of Bill Parcells' having coached at Army for four years and Bill Belichick's close ties with the Naval Academy.[35]


  1. 1 2 3 Borges, Ron (2000-09-01). "Coming to terms with the system". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2009-10-06.
  2. Eskenzai, Gerald (1992-08-28). "Steelers Are Happy to Hand Offense Off to Erhardt". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-10-06.
  3. Rasizer, Lee & Jeff Legwold (2007-10-03). "Looking for the Delivery of Something Special". Rocky Mountain News. Retrieved 2009-10-06.
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  11. NFL: Patriots controversial substitution tactic was legal
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  21. "No. 2: Pro Football Weekly NFL Preview". Cold Hard Football Facts. 2005-06-30. Retrieved 2009-10-06.
  22. 1 2 Cafardo, Nick (2003-09-05). "Recurring scheme". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2009-10-06.
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  25. Puma, Mike. "Parcells made struggling franchises into winners". ESPN. Retrieved 2009-10-06.
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  27. How the Patriots Recent Additions Could Imply a Shift Back to the 3-4 Defense
  28. Belichick talks 4-3, 3-4 defense
  29. Gasper, Christoper L & Mike Reiss (2007-10-05). "Humble pie always on menu". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2009-10-06.
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  31. Bell, Jarrett (2005-01-24). "Patriots all about the rings". USA Today. Retrieved 2009-10-06.
  32. Long, Mark (2005-02-06). "Versatile Vrabel vaults into Super Bowl lore". San Diego Union-Tribune. Retrieved 2009-10-06.
  33. Pasquarelli, Len (2002-08-28). "Patriots used game plan to stymie St. Louis". ESPN. Retrieved 2009-10-06.
  34. Grotz, Dave (2011-01-15). "Eric Mangini Shares His Secrets on How to Beat the Patriots". NESN. Retrieved 2011-01-15.
  35. Syken, Bill (2006-06-29). "West Pointers overtaking West Coasters". Sports Illustrated. Retrieved 2009-10-06.

See also

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