Monday, August 28, 2017

The Patriots' 53, Part 2: Defensive Personnel, Belichick, Give Us A Lesson In Alignments

So...which is it, Bill?  Is it a three-man line or a four-man line?

During the past two preseason games, the New England Patriots' defense has used a variety of what appears to be a three-man front.  On some plays, the nose tackle is lined up right on the center and two players are lined up head-to-head on the offensive tackles - and on some others, there are linebackers flanking the down linemen.

But most of the time, it has been three down linemen offset from the strong side, meaning that instead of the linemen set up in even spacing over the center and tackles where they would be responsible for covering two gaps, they shift into odd spacing with one linebacker sliding up to where one would typically find a 4-3 defensive end...

And, yes.

But if you were to ask Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick what he would label the defense he's been using, he'd tell you that labels are overrated.

"There are a lot of different alignments out there" Belichick said when tasked with the question a few years back, "You see 4-3 teams using odd spacing, you see 3-4 teams using even spacing.  You have 11 players that you can put in different positions."

What we have seen lately is a 3-4 team using odd spacing with a linebacker, typically rookie Harvey Langi, standing up at the end of the line on the strong side, which Belichick elaborated on by using an anaolgy from when he was the defensive coordinator under Bill Parcells with the New York Giants.

"Most people thought we played a 4-3 at the Giants." Belichick explained, "Lawrence Taylor did a lot more pass rushing than he did dropping into coverage, probably 80 to 90 percent of the time, he was the designated rusher on the defense. It wasn't always a pass play, but certainly in passing situations and on pass plays, he was the designated fourth rusher, which really did put us in what amounts to a 4-3."

This isn't to suggest that the rookie from BYU is anywhere close to being in the same class as one of the greatest linebackers to ever lace up a pair of cleats, it just goes to show that in the National Football League, and especially with Belichick, it's a fools errand to label anything.

That said, I have been trying to tell anyone who will listen to me that the moves that Belcihick has made this offseason - starting with the free agent deal for former Baltimore Ravens' five-tech end Lawrence Guy and ending with the drafting of Arkansas defensive end Deatrich Wise and the signing of undrafted Vanderbilt free agent Adam Butler - are directly in line with someone who is stocking up for a three man line.

What really hammers that home, however, is the depth that Belichick has accumulated at linebacker.

In signing former New York Jets' linebacker David Harris, Belichick brought in a veteran "Ted" 3-4 interior linebacker, which essentially frees up the rest of the linebacking corps to play their natural positions.  For example Shea McClellin is a natural strong-side "Sam" linebacker who can set the edge in the running game and drop into zone coverage to hammer crossers...

...while Kyle Van Noy is a natural "Mike", an interior linebacker who feeds into the gap that has been neutralized by the "Ted" and flows to the ball, and is also an excellent weak side "Will" linebacker who can cover backs curling out of the backfield.  Harvey is a wild-card who has gotten the looks at the "Jack", which is essentially a hybrid defensive end / strong side lienbacker.

But the player that makes the whole thing work is Dont'a Hightower, who can - and has - played all of those positions and will likely become a chess piece all along the front seven.  In college at Alabama, Hightower played the "Mike", the "Jack" the "Sam" and also had his hand in the dirt as a 3-4 rush end.

He can do it all, and just the fact that Pro Football Focus has named him the best blitzing linebacker in the NFL for three years running makes him a valuable chess piece indeed.

But wait, there's more: Most times, the Patriots are in a nickle look which, of course, means that they have a fifth defensive back in the alignment at the expense of either a lineman or a linebacker, but when the Patriots align in the Big Nickle - which is their three-safety look - the strong safety, usually Patrick Chung, reduces down into the box and becomes, in essence, a weak side linebacker...

...while free safety Devin McCourty helps out in coverage or even goes press-man in the double slot, leaving Duron Harmon as the "centerfielder", with sideline-to-sideline speed typical of a free safety but with the striking style of a strong safety.

In other words, just about every player on Belichick's defense is a hybrid of some sort, which means labels be damned.

"Honestly," Belichick mused about labeling alignments, "I think that's something (labeling) that's a media fabrication."

A needed fabrication, as it serves as a decades-old template from which a reporter can relay to their viewers and readers the most fundamental formations, so that they are able to conjure an image in their mind that when one of them says the team is in a 3-4, the image that comes to mind is three down linemen and four linebackers.

So, like it or not, Bill, for many to understand the sport in lay terms, things have to labeled - and then the more a person becomes familiar with the sport, they start getting more in-depth and can move away from the labels, or at least expand them to accept the possibilities that what has been taught fundamentally is, but can and does carry more than just one specific destiny.

"You teach the techniques of your defense. That is what's consistent." Belichick said in closing. "They will continue to play the same fundamental techniques as they've been teaching the entire year. I think that's what teaching defensive fundamental football is all about.  It's about fundamentals. Wherever you put the players, you've got other people in complimentary places."

Meaning, of course, that players are taught the techniques that Belichick wants them to learn, and they play those techniques no matter where they align, as the flow of the game dictates, secure in the knowledge that if you just do your job as you've been taught, and the people around you do as they've been taught, everything meshes together regardless of the label.

"It's pretty straight forward, really. It's more of techniques and fundamentals that you teach your defensive players, more than it is the 4-3 or 3-4 alignment."

Defensive Line:

Malcolm Brown
Alan Branch
Trey Flowers
Vincent Valentine
Lawrence Guy
Deatrich Wise
Adam Butler

Brown and Valentine are true nose tackles, though both have the versatility to play either gap or both and both are solid in occupying the center and a guard, allowing others to flow to the ball unimpeded while Guy and Butler can be found playing just about anywhere on the line that the alignment dictates.  Wise and Flowers are defensive ends that are able to reduce down to a three-technique (shading the outside shoulder of the guard).

But what really makes the line unique is the gargantuan presence of Branch.  Even at the ripe old age of 32, Branch is a physical freak at 6' 6' and a listed 350 pounds, and with the wingspan of a condor (35" long arms) and consistently grades out as one of the best run-pluggers in the league.

Dont'a Hightower
Kyle Van Noy
Shea McClellin
David Harris
Elandon Roberts
Harvey Langi

Given Belichick's rant above, could he have planned for Hightower what he had going with Taylor on the Giants years ago?  There certainly seems to be a possibility, given the talent and depth at linebacker and the fact that the Big Nickel adds personnel to this grouping with the strong safety reducing down onto the second level.


Stephon Gilmore
Malcolm Butler
Eric Rowe
Jonathan Jones
Cyrus Jones

Solid - all around solid group.  I had a moment where I wanted to add Justin Coleman to this list, so I wouldn't be surprised to see him on the roster in September.  Cyrus Jones is going to be crucial now that Edelman is injured, as he will have only Danny Amendola backing him up on punt returns, and with the possibility that we could see Dion Lewis as an emergency fit.

Beyond that, Gilmore and Rowe have looked awesome in the preseason, and while Butler has suffered from a case of the hiccups in the last two games, he remains a quality corner - a corner that will likely be relegated to the slot where his foot quickness and feistiness will work in covering smaller receivers on some Sundays, while still playing on the outside covering smaller receivers on the boundary.


Devin McCourty
Patrick Chung
Duron Harmon
Nate Ebner
Brandon King
Damarius Travis

I've personally been waiting for the team to use King as part of the Big Nickel - because he played the "Star" position while in college at Auburn, which is the weakside nickel linebacker hybrid, though with his sub 4.4 speed and special teams prowess as an angle obliterator, he could conceivably play centerfielder as well.

I saw enough of Travis to be convinced that he is an immediate upgrade over Jordan Richards as Chung's backup.


Joe Cardona
Ryan Allen
Stephen Gostkowski

In watching video of Gostkowski's kicks over the past couple of years, it is clear on his misses that he changes up his leg speed on extra points, probably in response to having to do so on his kickoffs, as Belichick doesn't want to just give up twenty-five yards of field position on a touchback.  It's a good thought and usually his coverage units hold the opponents far short of the mark - so it's a matter of taking the bad with the good.

Allen is a weapon that can flip field position, as seems to do so in the most dire of situations.

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