Thursday, August 21, 2014

Panthers' huge pass catchers the focus of Patriots' defense

The premise of Bill Belichick's defense is to make sure that his best 11 players are on the field at the same time.

And not only that, but the best 11 players that fit the game plan for any particular game.  For example, the game plan is going to be decidedly different for defending against a mobile quarterback such as this Friday's opponent in the Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton compared to a less-ambulatory, pure pocket passer like Peyton Manning.
Big Vince Wilfork anchors the Patriots' defense

That's why one can never really look at the New England Patriots' defense and pin a label on them.  Sure, they can play a straight up 3-4 or a 4-3.  They can play a 3-3-5, a 4-2-5 or even a cloud or psycho - not that they would, mind you, but with the depth and versatility on all three levels of the defense, the point is that they could.

But for the sake of argument, let's assume that Belichick's ongoing trend of utilizing mostly a 3-4 defense as a "base" in this years training camp and preseason games is going to be the standard - even though defense will support mostly nickle looks

Belichick's version of the 3-4 defense is one that relies on outside pressure and containment from it's outside linebackers for it's success.  It is a gap-containment concept - meaning that his nose tackle lines up head-to-head with the opposing center, while the ends take the inside shade on the offensive tackles, leaving the guards uncovered.

The gaps between the ends and the nose tackle are referred to as "Bubbles" that the two inside linebackers are responsible for - a solid wall of muscle-bound humanity that seems like it should account for every offensive lineman, the quarterback and a running back straight up, but things like misdirection and stretch plays counter the wall analogy and dictates that each position along the front seven requires a certain skill for each.

As mentioned, the ability of the outside linebackers to apply pressure from the wings is essential to the success of the scheme, as is containment, because when done correctly it forces the offensive tackles to deal with the rush coming off the edge, leaving the guards to deal with the three-techs one-on-one, and creating seams for the inside linebackers to crash.
Ninkovich and Hightower highlight the versatility of the linebackers

In the preseason 3-4, Man-mountain Vince Wilfork anchors the entire defense with his play at the nose while Tommy Kelly and Joe Vellano have flanked Wilfork as the three-techs, with the try-hard Vellano getting the starting nod due to the injury status of both Chris Jones and the team's top draft pick, Dominique Easley, who has practiced this week and will probably see some limited playing time.

On the outside, Weakside linebacker Jerod Mayo, who missed several of the joint practices with the Philadelphia Eagles last week and was subsequently missing from the lineup in the second preseason game against the same on Friday night, has offered little information on his status for this week's contest against the Panthers - but its not as if the captain needs to rush his way back into the lineup...

...not with the plethora of options that the Patriots have on the wings.  4-3 Defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich will likely reprise their roles from the first two preseason games as outside linebackers, with either reducing down to rush the quarterback while the other drops back into coverage or sets the edge in run support.

This is a typical element to a 3-4 as it provides a four-man rush, but in such a manner as to disguise from which side the pressure will be coming, and both Ninkovich and Jones should enjoy some measure of success against the Panthers as both of their offensive tackles - as well as both guards - are first time starters.

Byron Bell is a massive 6' 5", 340 pounder that is manning Newton's blind side for the first time following the retirement of Pro Bowl left tackle Jordan Gross.  Bell has been on the right side since joining the Panthers as an undrafted free agent in 2011 after working from the left in college, so it remains to be seen if his natural technique allows for Jones to beat him to the outside, though he held his own against Kansas City's Pro Bowl defensive end Tamba Hali last week.
Surprising Malcolm Butler may be the best option opposite Revis

Bell has 60 pounds on Jones so it will be a good test for Jones in setting the edge in the running game.

The right tackle will belong to Nate Chandler in the regular season, but he's been hobbled as late and will most likely relent to veteran swing tackle Garry Williams while rookie Trai Turner and veteran mauler Amini Silatolu get the nods at right guard and left guard, respectively, and Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil has the honor of trying to stack up Wilfork - and history suggests that Kalil will need help.

All three interior linemen are massive road graders, but Turner and Silatolu are first time starters, which the experienced Patriots should be able to gain the upper hand on in the running game, as Panthers' running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are greybeards but are supported heftily by fullback Mike Tolbert, who is a load to bring down...

...and of course Newton's calling card coming into the league was his running ability, and while he's developed into a serviceable passer, he will still tuck the ball and take off upfield on both designed runs and scrambles, which adds a difficulty factor to the Patriots' pass rush in that the players responsible for containment must also be careful not to be driven to the inside or wide by the tackles and leaving Newton a clear running lane.

When Newton does stay in the pocket this season, he will be throwing to a brand new set of receivers after losing Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn, and Domenik Hixon in a mass exodus from Carolina this past offseason.

Smith and Ginn were smaller and speedy, but the Panthers decided to go bigger with their pass catchers, drafting Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin and signing free agents Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant to go along with holdover Brenton Bersin, with all but Avant 6' 1" or taller, but the real threat in the pattern comes from their pair of tight ends.

Greg Olsen and Ed Dickson join Benjamin - whom Newton was quoted as saying was "a bag of chips short of being a tight end" - as a trio of 6' 5" athletic seam stretchers that will cause issues for any pass defenders - though the Patriots are uniquely qualified to match up with them as 6' 4" corner Brandon Browner will probably draw duty on the rookie Benjamin while 6' 3" second year linebacker Jamie Collins should handle Olsen.

Dickson sees most of his time as an inline blocker but must be accounted for as he is adept at chipping defensive ends before curling into the pattern underneath the coverage - making the big trifecta of receivers perhaps the greatest area of concern for the New England secondary.

Avant is an outstanding possession receiver playing mostly out of the slot while Cotchery and Bersin should line up on the outside.  Cotchery was a teammate of Patriots' corner Darrelle Revis with the New York Jets and the two had battles in practices for years.

Revis most assuredly will man one of the corners, but who will start across from him is a matter of conjecture, and there is no shortage of quality options - though the smart money is on undrafted rookie free agent Malcolm Butler holding down the fort, while second year corner Logan Ryan handles Avant out of the slot and veteran slot corner Kyle Arrington continues his unofficial transformation into a strong safety next to free safety Devin McCourty.

But it is pointless to try and nail down who is going to play where in the secondary against the Panthers, both because the puzzle on the back end is incomplete and subject to much mixing and matching, and because Belichick's scheme is all about his coverages confusing the opposing quarterback - so naturally it is going to confound the fan base and media alike.

Regardless, the third preseason game should give us a more complete picture of the structure of the defense, though the game planning with likely include more vanilla looks than anything exotic.

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