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Pros and cons for ex-assistants going up against Bill Belichick

Lions coach Matt Patricia hopes his familiarity with the Patriots’ system can give his team an edge on Sunday.
Lions coach Matt Patricia hopes his familiarity with the Patriots’ system can give his team an edge on Sunday. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

FOXBOROUGH — Josh McDaniels knows what it’s like to prepare to face Bill Belichick from the opposite sideline. He might know how to do it better than any of Belichick’s other former coordinators, since he’s the only one of them with a winning record (1-0) against his former boss.

McDaniels’s win against Belichick, 20-17 in overtime, came in Week 5 of the 2009 season during McDaniels’s tenure as head coach of the Broncos. This Sunday, Matt Patricia faces the same task McDaniels had then, and he’s hoping for the same result.

“It was tough because you know you’re — you came from a place that really gave you your foundation and they have a way of playing and he knows it,” McDaniels said Tuesday, remembering back to that 2009 game.


The preparation was tough for McDaniels, but the results have been tough for everyone else.

Belichick has coached against one of his former coordinators in 15 games. He is 11-4 against Eric Mangini, Romeo Crennel, McDaniels, and Bill O’Brien.

Belichick’s Patriots and Mangini’s Jets faced off eight times. Belichick won five, Mangini three. The Patriots won their lone matchup against Crennel’s Browns and have beaten O’Brien’s Texans all five times they have played them (aggregate score: 151-75).

In the first meeting between Belichick and his former pupils, when they would have the closest familiarity with the Patriots’ scheme and players, Belichick is 3-1. McDaniels is the only branch of the Belichick tree to beat the Patriots on his first try.

Belichick’s 11-4 record (.733 winning percentage) against his former coordinators is higher than his overall winning percentage (.678) but lower than his winning percentage with the Patriots (.741). Even so, Belichick played up the Patricia factor on Friday.

“Nobody knows us better than Matt does,” he said. “He’s worked against our offense every day for a long time. I’m sure that he’ll address it in ways that’ll be challenging for us.”


Patricia was with the Patriots for 14 years, six of them as defensive coordinator. He knows the majority of the players, was intimately involved with the defensive scheme, and went up against the offense at every practice.

“They’ll scheme up a bunch of different things to keep us off balance,” quarterback Tom Brady said Friday. “We saw that for a long period of time.”

Patricia knows player tendencies and what the Patriots are apt to do in certain situations. If that alone were enough, Belichick’s former assistants would probably have a better record against the Patriots.

“It’ll help, but it won’t decide the game,” said safety Devin McCourty.

The biggest reason that’s true is a lack of time. A week’s worth of meetings and practices offer enough time for Patricia to impart only a tiny fraction of what he knows about the Patriots. It also creates the risk of overdoing it on the scouting reports.

“You don’t want to give them so much information that you just kind of paralyze what they’re doing,” Patricia said via conference call on Wednesday. “They still have to watch, they still have to play, they still have to react, they still have to execute a game plan.”

That was McDaniels’s memory from his 2009 preparations as well.

“You have to balance that out, I think,” McDaniels said. “You can’t try to get every guy in your building to know everything that they’re doing or could do or potentially could do or you could overwhelm them. There’s a balance there. I think the focus you need to have is on your team, which I’m sure Matt will do.”


Any talk of Patricia knowing the Patriots’ signals is overblown, too. The offense will make some effort to disguise what it’s doing and have multiple ways of signaling the same plays regardless of who it is facing.

No Patriots offensive player would answer an (admittedly hopeless) question about how they’d disguise their calls, but one can take their responses — a mixture of oh-come-on-type laughs and clever pivots away from the topic — as indication they will.

“We know some of the things that he does but it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to do what he did here, or we’re going to do what we did last year,” Patriots running back James White said.

In general, signal stealing (the legal kind) is too risky a strategy to prove valuable. When the Lions lost, 48-17, to the Jets in Week 1, several Jets defenders said after the game that quarterback Matthew Stafford was tipping the Lions’ plays. Looking closely at their comments, though, they were talking about formation recognition gained from film study, not knowing what plays were coming based on what Stafford called out before the snap.

McCourty agreed it was unlikely the Jets actually had the signals.

“That seems extreme,” he said. “For me, since I’ve been here, and I think we do a lot of watching TV copy, you know what I mean? And we’ve never had that. Hats off to them if they had it, but that’s usually tough to get.”


For a safety, especially, McCourty said it wouldn’t really work because he usually can’t hear the quarterback anyway. From watching the film, he said it mostly looked like the Jets had good route recognition.

For every game, McCourty said he tries to identify a few plays he thinks he can sniff out fairly reliably. If there’s something a team likes to run in a particular situation, and that situation occurs and McCourty sees the right personnel grouping out on the field, he’ll play aggressively because he has a good idea of what’s coming. Occasionally he’ll be wrong, but when he’s right it often leads to a negative play for the offense. That’s what he thinks the Jets were doing well to intercept Stafford four times, not knowing the exact signals and verbiage.

“If they were going off signals to receivers and stuff? That is impressive,” McCourty said.

Impressive, but unlikely. It just goes to show that the signal-stealing business isn’t particularly lucrative, and it’s probably not what Patricia is up to this week.

“You try to do a great job of scheming it up on either side of the ball and then there’s some things that they do that can hurt you and you know there’s certain things that hurt them, you know each other so well,” Patricia said.


Using knowledge of an opponent effectively comes down to prioritizing what information is most important, then teaching it well. There’s no secret sauce, or if there is Patricia would be the first to find it.

Nora Princiotti can be reached at nora.princiotti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @NoraPrinciotti.