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Boston Herald
Boston Herald
16 Dec 2023
Andrew Callahan


NextImg:NFL Notes: Inside the Dirty Show, one of the last hallmarks of the Patriots dynasty

In the early days of the Patriots’ dynasty, the defense that frustrated Tom Brady most often was his own.

Not the legendary starting units that shared Brady’s locker room and sideline, but their backups: The Dirty Show.

The Patriots’ scout-team defense earned its “Dirty Show” nickname from former linebackers coach Pepper Johnson, who orchestrated the unit that pestered Brady in practice, occasionally to the point of repeated outbursts. Offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien once referred to Johnson as the best scout-team coach ever; a coach who turned a mash unit of backups into a loud and proud defense that brought out the worst in the greatest of all time.

Unlike most franchise hallmarks from that era, the Dirty Show tradition remains fiercely alive in Foxboro.

“It’s about dudes who want to grind every day, show up to work and have fun doing it,” said Pats cornerback Alex Austin.

According to Dirty Show cast members who previously played elsewhere, pride, history and inclusion separate the Patriots’ scout-team defense from others across the league. The Dirty Show pushes the starting offense in a way opposing teams and coaching staffs won’t allow. Technically, the job is to simulate the next opponent the Patriots will face by running their schemes in practice.

But as players see it, their job is to dominate.

“It matters. It’s what we do,” said cornerback Shaun Wade. “We’re not out there just walking around. We’re trying to compete.”

Added Austin: “You’re taking every rep to get better. We’re trying to win, unless it’s a Friday practice, a day we let the offense catch the ball. But we’re trying to compete because while we’re getting better, they’re getting better, too.”

Scout-team defenders, who mostly reside on the practice squad, must juggle mastering the Patriots’ system, while learning a new scheme and player tendencies each week. After wins, the reward for players who simulate opposing stars like Bills linebacker Matt Milano or Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick can be a black practice jersey, which indicates they were named Practice Player of the Week. Or, scout-teamers might even earn a shout-out from head coach Bill Belichick.

Patriots defensive back Jonathan Jones (31) stretches during a preseason practice at Gillette Stadium this past summer. (Matt Stone/Boston Herald)

Patriots defensive back Jonathan Jones (31) stretches during a preseason practice at Gillette Stadium this past summer. (Matt Stone/Boston Herald)

In team meetings after a win, Belichick will show tape from the previous game, then a clip from a recent practice to demonstrate how the Patriots offense succeeded because The Dirty Show did first.

Safeties coach Brian Belichick, who used to run the Dirty Show as a young assistant, highlighted several players on the practice squad in a recent videoconference, including linebacker Joe Giles-Harris, defensive end Will Bradley-King, safety Joshuah Bledsoe, and cornerbacks Breon Borders and Azizi Hearn, among others.

“Those guys don’t get the credit they deserve. They really put a lot into it,” Brian Belichick said. “We have meetings about the (opponents’) looks, and and they’re trying to get their games better individually, so they can have a chance to get to the game and help our own defense.”

Adrian Phillips, right, walks with safety coach Brian Belichick during practice at Gillette Stadium on Sept. 15, 2022. (Staff Photo/Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)

Adrian Phillips, right, walks with safety coach Brian Belichick during practice at Gillette Stadium on Sept. 15, 2022. (Staff Photo/Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)

Nowadays, the Dirty Show runners are young defensive assistants V’Angelo Bentley and Keith Jones. Organizing the scout-team defense involves not only hands-on coaching, but selecting which plays to run in practice; from the next opponents’ most common calls to the coverages the Patriots should see based on their offense or those expected in critical situations, like in the red zone or two-minute drills. Once the plays are selected, the assistants draw them on large cards they will later hold up at practice for players to see before each snap and then execute against the starting offense.

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The scout-team play selection used to fall to Ernie Adams, Belichick's longtime consigliere formally known as the team's director of football research. Adams' job remained a mystery for much of his 22-year tenure, even to players and certain Patriots staffers. On Friday, Belichick shed light on Adams' involvement with the scout-team defense, which reflected how important the job is, given Adams' standing as one of the brightest minds in the history of the franchise.

"I mean, a team like Kansas City, you could run 400 plays easily – some of the same plays out of different formations, different personnel groups, different motion. It's a different adjustment, too. So, which ones do you run? Which ones do you want to run? What does the other side need to see based on maybe what we've been hurt with, what they like to do? Belichick explained.

"Maybe they've done something else the last couple weeks, and now this would be a good time to run a reverse off a sweep that they've been successful with, that everybody's gearing up to stop that, or a boot or something like that. So, it's kind of that decision-making of what plays to run against the other side of the ball, what blitzes to run. You prepare for everything, but you only get so many plays to practice, and which ones do you want to test your unit with at a practice tempo? Those are key decisions to make."

Key decisions also extend to personnel. While practice-squad players like Giles-Harris and Borders are staples on the scout-team defense, sometimes they must cede snaps to veterans who volunteer for extra work. Defensive linemen Christian Barmore and Keion White have both moonlighted on the Dirty Show this season, as has safety Jalen Mills.

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A year ago, Pro Bowl edge rusher Matt Judon helped simulate Browns defensive end Myles Garrett ahead of the Patriots' road game at Cleveland. Veteran eagerness to join scout-team defense, a duty some NFL stars see as beneath them, is baked into the Dirty Show culture.

The newest Patriots Hall of Famer, former linebacker Mike Vrabel, is the prime example. Vrabel played all over the scout-team defense, surrounded by players who lasted for just another season or two.

"Free safety, strong safety, defensive end, linebacker, inside linebacker, outside linebacker," Belichick said in 2018, "I'm sure there were probably times (Vrabel) was out there at corner. Safety, for sure."

At safety, Belichick said Vrabel "drove (Brady) crazy." His youngest son, Brian, remembers it well.

"He would want to jump in and be (former Steelers All-Pro) Troy Polamalu, which in that era was a pretty enviable spot to play because you can -- not do whatever you want -- but you can do what you want to try and make it an instinctive play because that's what Polamalu did," Brian Belichick said. "He made a lot of good plays where it looked like he was freelancing a little bit."

While the Patriots' coaching staff will decry freelancing, scout-team players can and have implemented parts of their opponents' approach into their own games.

"There's a lot to it, but it's fun," Wade said.

All parties, from the coaching staff to Dirty Show extras, agree the scout-team exercise is integral to the team's operation. Even amid a 3-10 season, the Patriots owe part of their success to players who may never see the field, but can see their own victory in their teammates' wins.

"It's something we do every week for 17 weeks straight that doesn't get talked about a lot in the media obviously because they don't have a chance to see it. But it's a big part of the week," Brian Belichick said. "And we enjoy it -- players and coaches trying to just get the team in the best position to win."

Shortly after Patriots star Matthew Judon tore his bicep during the team's Week 4 loss at Dallas, reports indicated he might heal in time to play in the team's final few games.

New England Patriots linebacker Matthew Judon walks off the field with teammates and staff after suffering an injury in the second half during a Week 4 loss to the Dallas Cowboys. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

New England Patriots linebacker Matthew Judon walks off the field with teammates and staff after suffering an injury in the second half during a Week 4 loss to the Dallas Cowboys. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

Now that those games have arrived, will Judon return? Belichick deferred to the medical staff when asked Friday.

"He’s been around. He’s given a lot of emotional support. He's a good teammate. He's with us. He's doing what he needs to do. So, it’s really been good," Belichick said. "I appreciate that, and I think we all do. We love having Ju around. He’s a good energy guy, anyway."

"OK, so, listen to the whole quote. I said I'm not not a fan. I used to be a fan. I'm a country guy. I listen to country music. She used to be country. There was times where, of course, Taylor Swift's country songs came on. I'd listen to it. Now she's moved over to pop. I'm not a pop guy. So, I'm a fan. I just don't listen to that type of music. So, just to clear that up in there." - Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe explaining why he remains a fan of Taylor Swift