Sunday, August 31, 2014

Patriots' Post-Cut Analysis - Options On Defense Almost Unfair

Do the New England Patriots have ten defensive linemen or ten linebackers?

Is it too much to ask for both?

For the past few seasons, the answer to that question would have been straight forward as the Patriots base defense was a standard brand 4-3, even though they were in their sub-nickle over half of the time - and not necessarily by design, but by need as injuries forced coach Bill Belichick into whatever defense that he had the most personnel to run...
Nose tackle Vince Wilfork is the key to the Patriots' defense

...especially last season, when the injuries mounted to the point that Belichick was reduced to starting many players out of their natural positions to fill the void, and often times, it wasn't pretty.

Season-ending injuries to Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork wreaked havoc on the interior of New England's front seven, as undersized Joe Vellano busted his butt to try and fill in for Wilfork and oversized Dont'a Hightower tried equally has hard to take over the play calling and cover running backs - and both took heavy criticism for not being able to physically match up with the position they were thrust into.

Which is absurd, but when Patriots' media and fans become frustrated, they are quick to look for a scapegoat - and the most convenient players to pick on were the ones that were playing out of position.  Eventually, Sealver Siliga arrived on the scene and shored up the nose, and Jamie Collins was eased into the lineup to provide the athleticism that Hightower lacked - and even though they rode that combination to the AFC title game, the lessons learned would manifest themselves in the offseason.

Belichick opened training camp with his wounded players cleared for contact, but instead of signing more players in an attempt to cover for any injury that may have occurred, he simply switched philosophies - and did so in such a manner that it didn't really matter if the team was in a 3-4 or a 4-3 or a sub-nickle, because the versatility of the depth chart, not injury, would now dictate to the formation.

Keeping that in mind, this depth chart is going to be a little bit different, as it will list the front seven in terms of both a 4-3 and a 3-4 base set, primarily to demonstrate the versatility of the units involved - and also how Belichick should now be able to transform his defense into anything it needs to be, and can do it on the fly if necessary.

Defensive Linemen 4-3 (10)

RE:  95 - Chandler Jones    99 - Michael Buchanan                            
DT:  94 - Chris Jones    74 - Dominique Easley (R)   72 - Joe Vellano  Kelcy Quarles 
NT:  75 - Vince Wilfork   96 - Sealver Siliga   Bruce Gaston                                              
LE:   50 - Rob Ninkovich   71 - Zach Moore (R)

Linebackers 4-3 (5)

SAM:     91 - Jamie Collins   44 - Darius Fleming
MIKE:   54 - Dont'a Hightower   44 - Darius Fleming
WILL:    51 - Jerod Mayo 

In order to make a 4-3 work with the current depth chart, much is reliant on health of the linebackers, which as we saw last season, is playing with fire - and just the fact that Belichick nearly wiped the cupboard bare of true linebacker depth dictates that he has to go with three man fronts and use his defensive ends as outside linebackers...

...which isn't the worst thing in the world, considering that when combined with the regular linebackers, he can create chaos with the opposing offense just because he will more be able to disguise coverages and where the pressure on the quarterback will be coming from.

That said, if a particular circumstance dictates a four man front as part of a nickle package, Collins and Mayo are capable coverage linebackers and Hightower can easily reduce down to a five technique nickle rusher, meaning that they would rarely have to come off the field.

Of course, whoever comes on as the nickle cornerback - either Kyle Arrington, Logan Ryan or Brandon Browner - would have to be skilled in run support and be willing to stick their nose in a pile, and all three have shown the ability to do just that.

But the personnel that Belichick has assembled speaks mainly to the 3-4, which brings us to...

Defensive Linemen 3-4 (6)                                           

RE:   74 - Dominique Easley (R)  Kelcy Quarles  Bruce Gaston
NT:   75 - Vince Wilfork    96 - Sealver Siliga
LE:    94 - Chris Jones     72 - Joe Vellano

Linebackers 3-4 (9)

SAM:   50 - Rob Ninkovich  91 - Jamie Collins  71 - Zach Moore (R)    44 - Darius Fleming
TED:    54 - Dont'a Hightower  44 - Darius Fleming
MIKE:  51 - Jerod Mayo   91 - Jamie Collins 
WILL:  95 - Chandler Jones   51 - Jerod Mayo   99 - Michael Buchanan

The linebacker positions in the 3-4 require specific skill sets - but the way Belichick has constructed his depth chart, he has many different players with diverse skill sets that speak to the 3-4 as a whole - and as a result, his defense will have a much different look this season.

As mentioned in previous articles, the line consists of a nose tackle, who will demand double teams and take up two gaps on either side of the center depending on which way the play flows, while the ends are actually three-technique tackles that take the inside shade on the offensive tackles, which will occupy both tackles and also one guard, depending on how disruptive the end is in his penetration.

The two outside linebackers are responsible first for containment, making sure that nothing gets around his respective end - either in the way of a sweep or a screen pass - and secondly to provide pressure on the quarterback from the wing, redirecting everything inside where the bigger bodies roam and the inside linebackers await, ready to fill any gap that come open.

In that instance, the TED linebacker - usually the largest of the inside backers - will take on any resistance created by a pulling guard or tackle, allowing the MIKE - the more athletic of the two - autonomy to flow to the ball carrier with a clear shot to make the tackle.

Collins and Mayo are both good coverage linebackers as well as quality interior playmakers, and Hightower is an excellent pass rusher from the edge so, in theory, none of them would have to come off the field in the nickle, if it came down to that.

Corners (6)

24 - Darrelle Revis 
39 - Brandon Browner* 
26 - Logan Ryan 
37 - Alfonzo Dennard 
25 - Kyle Arrington 
29 - Malcolm Butler (R) 

Safeties (5)

30 - Duron Harmon  
32 - Devin McCourty  
23 - Patrick Chung  
27 - Tavon Wilson 
43 - Nate Ebner 

With Darrelle Revis aboard, there is zero doubt about one of the cornerback spots, but the depth of the corner unit creates many different scenarios to play across from him.

The real value of having a shutdown corner like Revis on the field is that it allows the defense to run with a single high safety that will shade to the corner opposite Revis in support of the direction that the ball will probably be going, which would allow the Patriots to run with four corners in a nickle without sacrificing run support.

In this instance, it matters not who is playing across for him, as the Patriots have excellent depth everywhere in the secondary - even with Browner suspended for the first four games - which also means that Belichick has insurance in case Revis is forced from a game due to injury.

Obviously, none of the Patriots' corners are in the same class as Revis, but they are of quality cloth and all would be starters or the first nickle option on other teams - so the dynamics would change and the single high safety idea would probably fade into oblivion, but the Patriots are more able to maintain integrity in the secondary that any of those other teams

So it is a testament to the skill of rookie free agent Malcolm Butler that he played his way onto this roster, and in doing so offers the Patriots many more coverage options than they would have had otherwise, particularly in being able to dictate matchups against opposing receivers.

His presence also allows the team to kick Browner inside to the slot and for him to match up against bigger running backs, slot receivers and tight ends, which in turn frees up the linebackers to flow more freely to the ball, as Browner's length and physicality make him imposing in a phone booth underneath.

It also allows for the other corners to rotate in and out as safeties as need be, though the team has quality depth there already in McCourty and Harmon, with Chung as the early down option as more of a big nickle, a role that Browner could also assume when he returns.

The sky is the limit for this defense, as they have so many options to choose from in dictating matchups that it's almost unfair - and if it is indeed true that all is fair in love and war, Patriots' fans are likely going to love what these warriors bring to the battlefield.

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