Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Art Of Football, Part 7: Patriots' Linebacking Corps Built For The Base 3-4 Alignment

The New England Patriots just keep piling on veteran players with an axe to grind...

On Wednesday afternoon, various media outlets were reporting that the team had signed ten-year veteran run-stuffer David Harris to the 90-man roster, shoring up what some believed to be a weak spot on the Patriots defense - and while there may be some truth to that notion, one has to wonder how that shakes up the defense as a whole, if at all.

As we know, New England played three-quarters of their defensive snaps last season in a three-safety nickel, rushing just three at times and playing three linebackers - sometimes only two - plus bringing strong safety Patrick Chung down into the box as sort of an impromptu and undersized weak side linebacker - in effect, giving the defense a traditional 3-4 look.
Hightower and Roberts form a good interior linebacking corps

The signing of Harris confirms that.

In the New York Jets' 3-4 defense, Harris played the "Mike", or strong-side interior linebacker who takes on rogue linemen trying to get to the second level, freeing up the "Will", the weak side interior linebacker, to flow to the football - a role that Patriots' defensive captain Dont'a Hightower played to success in college at Alabama.

Coincidence that New England would bring the veteran stone wall?  Not at all, considering that Hightower is considered the best blitzing linebacker in the NFL, and having a veteran "Mike" in the lineup to keep him clean from offensive linemen on the second level speaks to that end.

Coming out of Michigan in 2007, Harris was considered a two-down run-stuffer and a liability in pass defense - yet was taken in the second round, the Jets trading up from number 63 overall to number 47, surrendering that second rounder plus their third and sixth rounders to make Harris the anchor of Eric Mangini's 3-4 defense...

...and though he never made a Pro Bowl and notched just one lone second-team All Pro nod in 2009, Harris is a typical Patriots' pick up - a consistent, durable and amazingly agile athlete who does everything well, but is not elite in any particular aspect of the game and who finds himself in a circumstance of battling for a roster spot for the first time in his career.

Because the Patriots depth chart is loaded down with linebackers, but have experienced some volatility since Jerod Mayo's body started breaking down in 2013, eventually forcing his early retirement after the 2015 season.  In between, head ball coach Bill Belichick has ridden Hightower on the second level, his team-first attitude and flair for the dramatic turning the tables in two Super Bowls.

Veteran sidekicks have helped to fill the void left by Mayo's misfortune - Jamie Collins leading the list of temporary fill-in's that includes names like Dane Fletcher, Jonathan Casillas and Akeem Ayers - and now includes the likes of Kyle Van Noy and Shea McClellin...

...and as far as human missiles are concerned, the Patriots haven't had a true one since Brandon Spikes, though second-year man Elandon Roberts shows promise as a downhill stuffer - but there's also more to Roberts' game than meets the eye; pigeon-holed as a two-down run-stuffer with limited athleticism, Roberts posted a potential-sparking fifth-rated overall grade among rookie linebackers.

In fact, it was Roberts manning the middle of the second level zone, allowing for Hightower to blitz from the strong side and cause the strip sack that changed the momentum in the Super Bowl. But it was also Roberts who got tangled up with Falcons' receiver Mohamed Sanu and allowing running back Devonta Freeman to flow into the flat uncovered for a play that should have cooked the Patriots' collective goose.

So there's progress to be made with a young "Mike" linebacker with more game than advertised as a sixth-round pick - a low round pick surrounded by top round talent, in fact, as both Hightower and Shea McClellin are former first-rounders and Kyle Van Noy came into the league as a second-rounder, as did Harris.

That's some serious draft capital investment for a unit considered by many to be the weak spot of the defense - but if one takes the cup-half-full angle, they would realize that the linebacking corps being the weak spot of the defense just goes to show how good the defense actually is, and that the second level is actually designed this way for a reason.

Earlier it was mentioned that the defense played seventy-five percent of their snaps in the three-safety nickel alignment in 2016 - an alignment known to Patriots' fans as the Big Nickel - in which the linebacking corps "sacrifices" one of it's positions (usually the weak side linebacker) to allow the strong safety to reduce into the box and play the position to counter the opposition's off-the-line strengths.

That typically means coverage on either the tight end or the running back - vital because the type of linebacker that the Patriots employ usually leaves a bit to be desired in pass coverages which, as mentioned, is intentional in the scheme.  But it isn't as if the linebackers have no coverage skill, it's just that they typically have been a read-and-react entity, which leaves them subject to deception.

Case in point? We mentioned Roberts getting tangled up with Mohamed Sanu in the Super Bowl, leaving Devonta Freeman wide open in the flat for a 39 yard catch and run, and that was a designed play in which Sanu could have easily been called for interference for blocking downfield before the ball was thrown, but wasn't because he was also being engaged by strong safety Patrick Chung on the play.

On the play, Roberts had responsibility for the middle zone while Hightower shot the gap between the left guard and tackle as if expecting a running play, and the Falcons took advantage of the aggressiveness by isolating the rookie and easily eliminating him.  To his credit, Roberts recovered and eventually made the tackle, but that is a play that should have led to Atlanta icing the game...

...but their own aggressiveness got them in hot water a few plays later and they ended up kicking the ball back to the Patriots, who drove down the field to tie the Super Bowl and sending it into overtime. The same issue came up in Super Bowl 49 when former Patriots' linebacker Jamie Collins was isolated on Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, who burned him in a similar manner to put Seattle in business late in that game.

The point is that teams have been able to exploit New England's defense when they take the aggressive route to try and force a play - and that can only happen when the opponent has put the Patriots in a mode where they have to take chances in coverage, and it usually involves a matchup issue between running backs and linebackers.

The solution? a switch back to the 3-4 base in which the "Mike" takes on the disruptor on the second level and freeing up the "Will", which in both instances would have been Hightower.

The depth is better now , with Van Noy and McClellin both able to play either the "Will" or the weak side and with greybeard Rob Ninkovich and rookie third-round pick Derek Rivers able to handle the strong side, and the signing of Harris providing invaluable depth as the "Mike" - not to mention mentoring Roberts in the role that Harris has excelled in during his ten-year career.

So the depth chart at linebacker is stocked to overflow, which means that it is likely names like Jonathan Freeny an d Rob Ninkovich become tough cuts at the end of training camp - perhaps even McClellin as well, if undrafted free agent Harvey Langi performs as advertised.

Langi is worth mentioning in the mix because he possesses a skill set that could make him an effective interior linebacker in the Patriots' scheme, though he needs work on the fundamentals of the position since he was used first as a running back, then linebacker, then defensive end in college, having the versatility to fill in where the team needed him to...

...which means that he has work to do, but what better way to learn the position than with Harris and Hightower showing the way, whether he make the 53-man roster or spends a season on the practice squad?

In the end, New England should sport a top linebacking corps.  They have essentially the same personnel that they ended last season with, but it has to be remembered that the unit was in flux most of the season - what with trading Collins during the bye and trading for Van Noy to take his spot - and they really didn't start to gel as a unit until their playoff run, but even then, it wasn't seamless.

This season, however, the corps starts fully stocked and ready to roll - and the competition for roster spots will bring out the best and cause the cream to rise to the top - and maybe, just maybe, this set of linebackers won't be a weak spot for the defense any longer...

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