NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas
NFL defensive fronts are like chameleons; they change identity on any given play. And if you’re looking for confirmation, examine the alignments and personnel groupings the New England Patriots showcased versus the New York Jets in Week 2.
The defense wasn’t all deployed in a front seven, a base or a first team during Thursday night’s divisional tilt. Instead, head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia opted for fluidity, implementing 10 players to fill out an assortment of packages.
While the Patriots defense was on the field for 70 official plays over New York’s 34 minutes of offensive possession, the unit did its best to make every snap unique for rookie quarterback Geno Smith.
In the process, 16 different personnel combinations were utilized in the box.
Here’s a snapshot of the metamorphosis.
[Note: Personnel titles are provided for differentiation and are not official descriptions.]
First-Team 4-3: Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Dont’a Hightower | Chandler Jones, Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Rob Ninkovich
The Patriots ran seven plays from what could be called the “First-Team” defense. Even though left defensive end Rob Ninkovich is seen standing up, he’s usually considered a down lineman because right defensive end Chandler Jones is in the seven-technique – shaded outside the left tackle – opposite him. New England has worked heavily in the 4-3 over the last several seasons, traditionally sending out four starting defensive linemen and three starting linebackers. Yet with three-receiver sets on the rise, the collective muscle of the 4-3 is seeing less field time together.
Sub One-Technique 4-3: Dont’a Hightower, Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo | Chandler Jones, Tommy Kelly, Joe Vellano, Rob Ninkovich
The Patriots ran four plays from what could be referred to as the “Sub One-Technique” 4-3, for the sake of differentiation. This particular grouping is the same as the base 4-3, with the exception of undrafted defensive tackle Joe Vellano. Vellano’s presence gives one-technique and nose tackle Vince Wilfork a breather against the A-gap of New York’s offensive line.
Sub Three-Technique 4-3: Dont’a Hightower, Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo | Chandler Jones, Vince Wilfork, Joe Vellano, Rob Ninkovich
New England ran two plays from a “Sub Three-Technique” 4-3. Again, this is not its standardized name, but in this four-man line, Vellano is in for natural three-technique Tommy Kelly, who typically shades the outside of the offensive guard. With that said, Vellano is seen lining up in more of a one-technique while Wilfork is in the three-tech to his right. Six of the men in this front are starters, making the Maryland product the lone replacement.
Sub Seven-Technique 4-3: Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Dont’a Hightower | Michael Buchanan, Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Rob Ninkovich
New England ran one play from a “Sub Seven-Technique” 4-3 versus the Jets. The same guidelines are applicable to the base 4-3, with Ninkovich in a two-point stance against the in-line tight end, Kelly playing the three-technique, Wilfork playing more of a one-technique and the linebackers abutting. The one difference in this assemblage is that rookie seventh-round draft pick Michael Buchanan is swapped in for Jones at the seven-technique.
Sub Mike 4-3: Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, Jerod Mayo | Chandler Jones, Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Rob Ninkovich
For one down versus New York, the Patriots shipped rookie second-round pick Jamie Collins onto the field in place of middle – or “Mike” linebacker – Brandon Spikes. With the defense maintaining a 4-3 despite the rotational switch, this could be noted as a “Sub Mike” 4-3. With the athletic Southern Mississippi standout in the game, strong-side – or “Sam” linebacker – Dont’a Hightower is seen transitioning to the middle linebacker spot.
Sub Sam 4-3: Jamie Collins, Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo | Chandler Jones, Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Rob Ninkovich
The Patriots registered two snaps from a “Sub Sam” 4-3 – following the same pattern as the “Sub Mike” 4-3. In which, Collins subbed in for Hightower at strong-side linebacker. Other than that move, no substantial alteration was made to the rest of the front seven. Six starters remained in the game.
First-Team 3-4: Dont’a Hightower, Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo, Rob Ninkovich | Chandler Jones, Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly
The Patriots first-team defense may be carved out for the 4-3. However, what’s essentially a starting front did log four plays from the 3-4. In this design, the three defensive linemen – Jones, Wilfork and Kelly – play head-to-head with their opponents. Wilfork sits in the zero-technique, while Jones and Kelly sit in the five-technique. These assignments afford Hightower and Ninkovich opportunities to stand up, far outside the line. Concurrently, Spikes and Jerod Mayo crouch as inside linebackers.
Sub Five-Technique 3-4: Dont’a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Rob Ninkovich | Chandler Jones, Vince Wilfork, Joe Vellano
The 3-4 defense did not exit the game with Kelly, as Vellano filtered into his place to play four snaps as a five-technique defensive end. In this “sub five-technique” 3-4, Vellano is the only new face to the rotation, huddling especially close to New York’s right guard.
Sub Zero-Technique 3-4: Dont’a Hightower, Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo, Rob Ninkovich | Chandler Jones, Joe Vellano, Tommy Kelly
Vellano’s collegiate success in the 4-3 and 3-4 schemes has given him a leg up in the versatility column. Not only was he able to file in for Kelly, but he was able to file in for Wilfork and play the nose after Kelly reentered the contest. In turn, this could be coined a “Sub Zero-Technique” 3-4. But even though 3-4 defensive ends are seen as five-techs, Jones also proved he could play some three-tech in the B-gap of the Jets’ offensive line.
Sub Five-Techniques 3-4: Dont’a Hightower, Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo, Rob Ninkovich | Michael Buchanan, Vince Wilfork, Joe Vellano
For one play during the Jets game, New England’s coaching staff called on two reserve defensive linemen to accompany Wilfork in the 3-4. Consequently, this could be categorized as a “Sub Five-Techniques” 3-4. Both Vellano and the 6’6”, 255-pound Buchanan jumped in to play defensive end.
Sub Mike 4-2 Nickel: Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower | Chandler Jones, Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Rob Ninkovich
Seven-man base defenses have their purpose, but they may no longer be the backbone of defensive playbooks. With offenses spreading out, defensive secondaries are finding themselves in the nickel – five defensive backs – more than ever. Case in point: the Patriots defended the Jets with a “Sub Mike” 4-2 nickel for 19 plays. With cornerbacks Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington all in the game at once, Spikes – who’s regarded as a run-stopper – had to depart for the sidelines. Hightower and Mayo stayed in the mix.
Sub Sam 4-2 Nickel: Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes | Chandler Jones, Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Rob Ninkovich
For two five-DB situations against New York, the Patriots stuck with Mayo at the “Will” – or weak-side linebacker – and Spikes at the “Mike” spot. Hightower, though, was taken out to keep the magic number at 11 men. And thus, the personnel merged into a “Sub Sam 4-2” nickel.
Sub Will, Three-Technique 4-2 Nickel: Brandon Spikes, Dont’a Hightower | Chandler Jones, Vince Wilfork, Joe Vellano, Rob Ninkovich
For another two plays in the nickel defense, Hightower, Spikes and Wilfork stayed on while Mayo and Kelly went out. The beneficiary of the “Sub Will, Three-Technique” 4-2 defense was Vellano. No. 72 got into the game in another facet, playing between New York’s center and right guard after the natural three-tech got a break.
Sub Mike, One-Technique 4-2 Nickel: Dont’a Hightower, Jerod Mayo | Chandler Jones, Tommy Kelly, Joe Vellano, Rob Ninkovich
The Patriots defensive line made a move to the “Sub One-Technique” 4-2 nickel for two snaps. In this orchestration, it was Wilfork and Spikes who spelled out for Vellano at the one-tech. The rest of the first-team defensive front remained in the game with the Arrington, the nickelback.
Sub Mike, Three-Technique 4-2 Nickel: Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower | Chandler Jones, Joe Vellano, Vince Wilfork, Rob Ninkovich
The Patriots stuck with the nickel defense without both Spikes and Kelly for five snaps. In their place was Vellano, who played more one-technique. Jones and Ninkovich stood on the outskirts, all while Mayo and Hightower manned linebacker territory.
Speed Sub 4-2 Nickel: Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower | Michael Buchanan, Chandler Jones, Vince Wilfork, Rob Ninkovich
If there’s a situational pass-rushing front to keep an eye on, this is it. And for now, we can brand it the “Speed Sub 4-2” nickel. For 13 plays in the rainy battle at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots ran a defensive end-heavy line out on the field. The nucleus consisted of just 780 pounds between Buchanan, Jones and Ninkovich, but it was less about weight than it was speed. For the majority of those 13 plays, Buchanan served as the right defensive end, Jones served as the right defensive tackle, and Ninkovich served as the stand-up left defensive end. The light grouping forced Kelly and Spikes off the field, but it also forced pressure into the backfield.
The Patriots are more than just a 4-3 base defense. In fact, the 10-person front ran only 17 plays in the 4-3 versus New York. The defensive line and linebackers also spent 10 plays in the 3-4 and 43 plays in the nickel.
If there’s one thing that can be gleaned from these totals, it’s that takes more than seven players and one formation to compete with ever-changing NFL offenses.
It takes diversity.