NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas
There is a basic goal shared between all 32 NFL defensive fronts:
Be versatile but deceptive against both the run and the pass.
The problem, however, is that this goal is only a goal. And as former New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs head coach Herman Edwards once said, “A goal without a plan is a wish.”
He was right.
Being versatile but deceptive against both the run and the pass is a concept that can only be attained through a sound plan of X’s and O’s, as well as personnel fits. Not every system has the pieces to compose a scheme; not every piece has the skillset to thrive in a scheme.
It’s about finding a medium in the front seven. It’s about finding an interchangeable identity.
The New England Patriots — while not alone — have been able to do so.
Head coach Bill Belichick, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia as well as director of player personnel Nick Caserio have worked together to build an adaptable unit of players; ones that can face off against the ever-changing game plans of NFL offenses.
Part of being a scheme-flexible defense, though, is accepting that you are neither a 4-3 nor a 3-4. You are both.
In a 2011 news conference, Belichick divulged his thoughts on the value of defensive alignments. As CSNNE.com’s Tom E. Curran transcribed, Belichick’s thoughts forecasted the alterations now visible across the football landscape:
“There are a lot of different alignments out there, you see 4-3 teams use odd spacing, you see 3-4 teams use even spacing. Look, you have 11 defensive players. You can put them in various positions. Whether you want to put it in the pregame depth chart as one thing or another I think is a little bit overrated.”
Needless to say, Belichick doesn’t like to classify the Patriots defense as one thing or another.
It’s understandable why that’s the case.
With the rise of sub-packages as well as hybrid 3-4, 4-3 alignments, New England’s defense is continuing to evolve. According to Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston, the Patriots spent 57.4 percent of snaps last season in a sub-package look with five-plus defensive backs, 39.4 percent of snaps a base look and 3.2 percent of snaps in a short-yardage look. Those rates have been the norm in Foxboro over the last three seasons.
Yet the key term to remember there is “base.”
Not so long ago, the Patriots were seen predominantly as a 3-4. Although, that was when the 300-pound bookends Ty Warren and Richard Seymour were flanking nose tackle Vince Wilfork.
There were “Elephants” — like the 6’5” Willie McGinest — who could stand up or bear down on any given play. There were outside linebackers — like Rosevelt Colvin and Mike Vrabel — who weren’t big enough to be full-time NFL defensive ends, but could still cover and rush the passer.
The 3-4 was good for the Patriots. But it didn’t last forever as the No. 1 configuration.
[In a standard 3-4 alignment, all three down linemen typically two-gap the A-, B-, and C-gaps, which can allow a linebacker to shoot one gap in an effort to rush the passer as the rest defend the run and pass.]
The nucleus underwent a transformation. Belichick and Co. decided to reinvent the defense. And the only way that’d transpire was if the majority of the old guard departed.
Looking back, the Patriots have operated predominantly as a 4-3 over the last couple of seasons. The transition was in full effect when 265-pound defensive ends Andre Carter and Mark Anderson arrived at 1 Patriot Place, and also when the 315-pound Kyle Love emerged as a “masher” next to Wilfork on the interior.
[In a standard 4-3 front, the left defensive end typically lines up in the seven-technique outside the tight end, the three-technique defensive tackle shoots the B-gap, the nose tackle shoots the A-gap and the right defensive end shoots the C-gap outside the left tackle. The three linebackers play more of a coverage and run-defending role with the extra down lineman on the field.]
Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower were drafted in 2012 to play seven-technique defensive end and strong-side linebacker, respectively. Their utilization was on par with a 4-3 formation. That said, they were not restricted to a 4-3 formation.
Adding to the intrigue, Jones told Patriots Football Weekly this May that he added 10 pounds of muscle during the offseason. That puts him up to roughly 275-pounds, which is seemingly enough for him play some five-technique over the helmet of the tackle, and perhaps even some left defensive end against the run.
Jones bulking up sheds some light as to how the Patriots defense will be plotted in the next voyage.
And with the likes of pass-rushing three-technique defensive tackle Armond Armstead, athletic “Bandit” Jamie Collins, defensive end Jermaine Cunningham who can spell in at defensive tackle, as well as natural outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich all in the fold, the Patriots have an assortment chess pieces to do a variety of things in 2013.
It’s been in the making for some time, too.
As Christopher B. Brown, Grantland contributor and author of The Essential Smart Football, explained in a February 2012 column, the Patriots have been known to play a one-gap alignment on one side and a two-gap alignment on the other. It is referred to as a hybrid 4-3 “Over” alignment or a hybrid 4-3 “Under” alignment, and it packs the best of both worlds into one defensive wall.
[In an “Over” hybrid 4-3, the left defensive end typically shoots the C-gap, the three-technique defensive tackle shoots the B-gap, the nose tackle works the inside gaps, and the right defensive end works the B- and open C-gaps. The strong-side linebacker lines up on the inside of the tight end, while the middle and weak-side linebackers overlook the weak-side offensive guard and offensive tackle.]
[In an “Under” hybrid 4-3, the left defensive end typically works the C- and B-gaps, the nose tackle works the inside gaps, the three-technique defensive tackle shoots the opposite B-gap and the right defensive end shoots the open C-gap. The strong-side linebacker shades the outside shoulder of the tight end, while the middle and weak-side linebackers overlook the offensive guards.]
In a hybrid front, there can be four linebackers and four defensive linemen on the field all at once, even if the total actually tallies up to seven. There is pass-rushing and there is run-stuffing. And there are both, on any given down.
Outside linebackers will find themselves playing defensive end. Defensive ends will find themselves playing outside linebacker. Defensive ends will also find themselves playing defensive tackle. And every so often, defensive tackles will find themselves playing defensive end.
There’s a little bit of everything in a hybrid defense.
And although the Patriots may no longer have one go-to defensive look, that does not mean the front seven is without an identity.