Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Reloading The Musket, Part 6 - Eclectic Patriots' Defense Much More Than The Sum Of It's Parts

Sheard (triple-teamed on right) and Brown (90) set the tone against the run and provide an effective pass rush

The Top 100 players in the NFL have been revealed - all, that is, except for the top 10 - and unless one of New England's excellent linebackers are in that final group, no Patriots' defenders have been included on the list.

That really shouldn't surprise anyone, as the Patriots' defense has had more than it's share of detractors since the start of the current decade - six seasons featuring the now-familiar bend-but-don't break approach, where the defense gives up a ton of yards between the twenties, but not much more than that...

...ranking in the bottom-third of the league in yardage allowed, yet ranking in the top-third in points allowed.  It's not sexy - in fact, it can be downright frustrating to watch at times - but it has been effective.

But for the past two seasons, the trend has been shifting from bend-but-don't-break to a more dominating approach. For example, in the 2014 Championship season, the Patriots' defense came in 13th in yardage allowed and eighth in points allowed, and followed that up last season by finishing in the top 10 in both categories - ninth in yardage and tenth in points allowed, only the second time in franchise history that the defense ranked better in yardage allowed than in points allowed.

That trend is certainly looking up for 2016, despite the fact that no Patriots' defender made the list of the 100 best football players in the league - a glaring omission that will likely add an additional twinge of motivation to a group of eleven that already had a chip on their collective shoulder.

But then again maybe not, as the unit is used to working in obscurity, taking a distant back seat to the potent offense led by future first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady and his considerable weaponry - which is odd, since most of the top draft capital spent by head ball coach and defacto General Manager Bill Belichick recently resides on the defensive side of the ball.

2010 top round pick Devin McCourty leads a starting defensive lineup that sports no less than eight players drafted on the first or second day of the NFL Draft, with linebacker Dont'a Hightower and defensive tackle Malcom Brown joining the unit as first round selections in 2012 and 2015, respectively...

...while Brown's fellow defensive tackle Alan Branch was a second round selection of the Cardinals in 2007, with safety Pat Chung and freak linebacker Jamie Collins both Patriots' top picks as second round selections, Chung in 2009 and Collins in 2013.  2015 Free agent pickup steal Jabaal Sheard was a second rounder with Cleveland 2011 and cornerback Logan Ryan rounds out the list as a third rounder in 2013.

That's eight of New England's defensive starters that were selected with top draft capital as opposed to just three of the Patriots' offensive starters (Solder, 1st round in 2001; Vollmer, second round 2009 and Rob Gronkowski, second round 2010), so one would think from the disparity that New England would have twice as many players on the list from the defense as they do their offense.

Ah, but talk of such things such are for the split milk crowd, as is the collective anxiety generated when one thinks of the contract situation for the defense heading into the 2016 season.

Granted, the players most likely feel slighted, but those feeling are nothing that a new rich contract wouldn't cure, and the players who deserve to feel the most slighted - linebackers Hightower and Collins - are due for very big pay raises, indeed.

But first there is the matter of a football season, which for the aforementioned pair of linebackers is a contract year, along with such stalwarts as Sheard, fellow defensive end Rob Ninkovich and centerfielder Duron Harmon, and newbies playing on one-year deals in defensive tackle Terrance Knighton and rush end Chris Long.

That's a lot of talent hitting free agency after the season, but there are two things about the circumstance that should give Patriots' fans a little cleaner air to breathe:  First, contract years usually equate to best efforts, and with that many auditioning for big contracts combined with a deep talent structure in place, we will likely see the best defense that Belichick has had in a decade or more...

...and secondly, as things stand now, the Patriots will have a whopping $63.5 million in cap space to play around with at the start of the league year in March, which could conceivably get everyone signed, and also get a new deal for up-and-coming cornerback Malcolm Butler as well.

So the focus going into the 2016 season should be all on the field of battle for a defense that should easily be one of the top units in the entire National Football League.


The New England Patriots are so eclectic in their players' individual skill sets that there is no way to properly hang a label on them.

Look on any football website and it will tell you that the Patriots run a 4-3, but the truth is that with as many hybrid players the defense possesses, they could easily slip into a 3-4 or morph into any number of exotic formations.  That said, the reason for the Patriots' defensive successes last season was their ability to play primarily out of a 4-2-5 Big Nickle.

Those of you who follow my blog know from long experience that the Big Nickle is a defensive formation that follows the tenets of a traditional nickle defense - with four down linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs - but with a twist: Instead of bringing in a third cornerback, the Patriots bring in a third safety, who drops into the box and acts as a weakside linebacker, providing coverage on running backs and heft in run support.

The Patriots are able to do this because they have a true centerfielder in Harmon, who is one of the best sideline to sideline blue liners in the game, and because they have the outstanding linebacker duo in Hightower and Collins.  The Big Nickle is on them as the linebackers play the run, cover tight ends and rush the passer while Harmon patrols the deep end as the last line of defense...

...leaving McCourty to assist in coverages on wide receivers and supplement Pro Bowl corner Malcolm Butler and fourth-year man Ryan, while Chung drops down and becomes the primary playmaker. Add into that the pass rushing skill and edge-setting ability of Sheard and Ninkovich on the wings and the run stuffing prowess of Brown and Knighton on the interior, and the Patriots have a seriously stout defense.

There are not many teams who can set up the Big Nickle quite like Belichick has, as he stock-piles safeties that fit his prototype and, even more important, there are not many teams that can match up well offensively with the alignment, something that became more and more evident last season down the stretch, as the defense carried the handicapped offense.

How effective was the alignment?  Well, for the entire season, the Patriots' defense allowed just three - THREE - 300 yard passing games, and held ten of their opponents to 250 passing yards or less - while on the ground they allowed less than 100 rushing yards in ten of their sixteen contests - but they saved their best performance for last, holding the eventual World Champion Denver Broncos to 244 total yards in an epic display of skill and strength.

That, unfortunately, wasn't enough as the offense constantly put the defense in poor field position and could only muster 18 points against what was the league's top-rated defense of 2015, and still could have won the game had any one of a number of poor decisions and poor executions had turned out differently.

But as Belichick is fond of saying, If "if's" and "but's" were candy and nuts, everyday would be Christmas - meaning excuses be damned.  The Patriots came within a whisker of going to their seventh Super Bowl of the Belichick era, riding a defense down the stretch that was one of the best in the game.

There is no reason to believe that this year's edition can't expand upon that success, and in the remaining parts to this series, we will examine all three levels of the defense in detail, giving special credence to both the diversity of the talent and the resultant Big Nickle alignment...

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