Charting the Patriots’ First-Team Defensive Front vs. Eagles in Preseason Opener

What can be gleaned from the preseason debut of New England’s first-team defensive front? (Photo: NFL Preseason Live)

NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas

In the days following the New England Patriots’ preseason victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, head coach Bill Belichick was quoted as saying, “There’s no first team, at least none that I’m aware of.”

Now at this point in time, Belichick’s characteristic statement may be accurate. New England’s coaching staff is in the process of ironing out personnel groupings and finding the right pieces for the right situations. But regardless of how Belichick chose to slice it, the Patriots’ brass did use particular players by quarter.

And in the first quarter of the Aug. 9 tilt at Lincoln Financial Field, the Patriots’ brass elected to use a combination of players to field the defensive front.

Their collective effort transpired over the course of 11 plays.

First Series, 1st-and-10 — 4-3

On the initial play of the Eagles’ opening drive, the offense came out in “12” personnel with tight ends Zach Ertz and Brent Celek in the seam and flanked next to quarterback Michael Vick, respectively. The Patriots countered with a one-gapping 4-3 alignment, which included Chandler Jones, Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and Rob Ninkovich at the line.

Jerod Mayo set up as the weak-side linebacker, Brandon Spikes manned the “Mike” linebacker job and Dont’a Hightower served as the strong-side linebacker.

The play resulted in a Chris Polk carry up the gut for four yards. Mayo was in on the tackle.

First Series, 2nd-and-6 — 4-3

On second down, Philadelphia showed a “12” look once again, with Ertz in the seam, Celek in-line and Polk in the backfield behind Vick. New England reacted with a 4-3 alignment. Yet this time, Ninkovich stood up on the edge while his fellow linemen hunkered down in three-point stances.

The same seven Patriots were involved in the front: Jones, Wilfork, Kelly, Ninkovich, Mayo, Spikes and Hightower. Except this time, Mayo and Hightower swapped sides.

The Eagles handed Polk the ball yet again. But this time, Kelly was able to halt the halfback from the defensive tackle spot. There was no yardage gained on the carry.

First Series, 3rd-and-6 — 4-2 Sub Package

On third down, Philadelphia sent out a three-wide receiver set and “11” personnel. With New England bracing for the pass, rookie cornerback Logan Ryan subbed in for Hightower to play the “Star” role in the nickel defense versus wideout Jason Avant. On the D-line, pass-rush specialist Marcus Benard filtered in for Kelly, putting his hand in the grass as the three-technique despite weighing only 260 pounds.

The other five — Jones, Wilfork, Ninkovich, Mayo and Spikes — assumed their usual responsibilities in the sub package. But the strong-side guard was uncovered, as the Patriots posted up in a 4-2 “Under.”

Vick took the snap and delivered a 22-yard pass to Avant in the slot. Ryan made the tackle following the pick-up.

First Series, 1st-and-10 — 4-2 Sub Package

After failing to force a punt, the Patriots stuck with the same defensive personnel on the next play. Ryan covered Avant, Ninkovich stood on the edge, Benard and Wilfork switched spots, Jones played right end in the seven-technique, while Spikes and Mayo played off.

The Eagles maintained “11” personnel.

Polk took another handoff from Vick and gained four yards before being held up by the one-technique placement of Wilfork.

First Series, 2nd-and-6 — 4-2 Sub Package

The final play of Philadelphia’s opening series saw “11” personnel, with three receivers split out wide. The Patriots responded with the same 4-2 sub package. Although this time, Kelly subbed back in for Benard and Mayo shot the B-gap.

Vick handled the snap and tossed a well-thrown ball down the right sideline to speedy receiver DeSean Jackson, who was brought down in the end zone by cornerback Aqib Talib after a 47-yard gain.

Second Series, 1st-and-10 — 4-3

As the Patriots hit the field to defend Philadelphia’s second drive, the front did so back in the 4-3 base. The 1st-and-10 brought the Eagles out in “11” personnel, which meant that the usual suspects of New England’s front seven — Jones, Wilfork, Kelly, Ninkovich, Hightower, Spikes and Mayo — were in the mix. Hightower walked over near the Eagles’ Avant.

Vick dropped back from center and rifled a pass to “X” receiver Riley Cooper, who was tackled by Talib after a 19-yard gain.

Second Series, 1st-and-10 — 4-3

After the first-down pickup, the Patriots were back in the same base look to disrupt the Eagles’ “11.” Hightower merged to the left hashes to stay in the vicinity of Avant, while Jones looked to hassle Celek from the nine-technique, shading the tight end’s outside shoulder.

The Patriots played it well, as Polk’s run up the middle was put to rest by Brandon Spikes. The rush lost a yard.

Second Series, 2nd-and-11 — 4-3

In a second-and-long situation, the Patriots combated Philadelphia’s “11” personnel with Jones at right end, Wilfork and Kelly and D-tackle, Ninkovich standing up as a hybrid left end, with Spikes, Mayo and Hightower stretching their bounds at the three linebacker positions.

Kelly and Ninkovich bunched on the weak side, while Wilfork and Jones gave each other space, leaving the left guard open. Concurrently, Avant went in motion to put a trio of pass-catchers on the left side.

The trips-left attempt did not net any success for Philadelphia, as Vick’s pass to Avant fell incomplete.

Second Series, 3rd-and-11 — 4-2 Sub Package

That incompletion set up a third-and-long opportunity for the Patriots’ defense to shut down the Eagles’ offense. Striving to make that opportunity a reality, New England put Ryan in at the nickel and split the center of the defensive line.

Ninkovich and Jones played the ends, Benard played the undersized left defensive tackle gig that Jermaine Cunningham often did last year, and Wilfork played his strong suit at right defensive tackle. But in between the void of Benard and Wilfork was a duo of linebackers creeping up: Mayo and Spikes.

The interior 4-2 overload — somewhat of a six-man line — gave Vick a sense of urgency to get rid of the ball. And he did so to his tight end, Celek. The pass and catch gained six before Spikes and Arrington got the stop.

The Eagles needed five more yards, however, and were forced to send out the punt team.

Third Series, 1st-and-10 — 4-3

Vick’s evening was done after the second series, which meant that backup QB Nick Foles’ evening was just beginning. Nevertheless, New England’s starting defensive front returned to the field to cap off the first period of action.

With the Eagles spreading two wideouts and two tight ends outside the numbers, the Patriots’ front seven had to cooperate with the misleading offensive huddle and spread the field as well. The defensive line played a traditional single-gap 4-3, but the linebackers — especially “Will” and “Sam” ‘backers, Mayo and Hightower — had to step out to the flats.

The Eagles deceived the Patriots, as Foles handed off to chance-of-pace back Bryce Brown. The deception paid off, as the offense acquired six yards before Spikes wrapped the ball-carrier up.

Third Series, 2nd-and-4 — 4-3

Protecting the first-down marker on 2nd-and-4, the Patriots stayed in the 4-3 with the same assortment of tacklers. But Hightower swung up to the line of scrimmage next to Ninkovich in order to negotiate Celek’s presence as the off-line tight end. In turn, that gave Ertz room to run his pattern from the seam.

Off the shotgun snap, Kelly blew by the inside of right guard Todd Herremans. Jones ran the arc behind left tackle Allen Barbre. And consequently, the two were able to hit Foles both low and high, which dislodged the football. Spikes was in the area to swoop it up.

After review, what was first ruled a forward pass and an incompletion was overturned and ruled a fumble and a Patriots recovery.

That pivotal turnover put New England’s first-team front on the sidelines for the rest of the contest. The Patriots implemented eight players to do their duties. And the most surprising name within those eight was Benard, who spelled in on the interior.

Cumulatively, Jones, Wilfork, Ninkovich, Mayo and Spikes didn’t miss any of the first-quarter defensive snaps, while the rest split up reps given the down and distance.

First-Team Defensive Front Snap Counts vs. Philadelphia:

  • Jones, Wilfork, Ninkovich, Mayo and Spikes: 11 first-team snaps
  • Kelly: Eight first-team snaps
  • Hightower: Seven first-team snaps
  • Benard: Three first-team snaps

Should we expect a similar on-field product come Aug. 16 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers?

Yes, it should offer a resemblance. But it’s hard to be certain with Belichick. He doesn’t restrict himself to a “first team.”

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