Front in Transition: Charting the Patriots’ Defensive Shift Beyond Rob Ninkovich vs. Dolphins

The Patriots showcased 17 different personnel combinations along the defensive line versus the Dolphins. Rob Ninkovich was part of only four. (Brad Barr - USA Today Sports Images)

The Patriots showcased 17 different personnel combinations along the defensive front versus the Dolphins. Rob Ninkovich was part of nine. (Brad Barr – USA Today Sports Images)

NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas

Over the course of 2013, the New England Patriots defensive line altered through 58 personnel groupings.

Part of it was scheme, as some players departed to the sidelines during short yardage or passing downs. Part of it was attrition, as some stayed on the sidelines for the duration.

Rob Ninkovich was not one of them.

His No. 50 jersey was spotted on the field for 1,114 snaps last season – according to Pro Football Focus – second to only teammate Chandler Jones among the league’s 4-3 defensive ends. And by the conclusion of Week 17, there were only 54 snaps in which Ninkovich hadn’t been seen on it.

In Sunday’s 33-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins in 2014 regular-season opener, there were 39.

Ninkovich was one of the first 11 on the field for the tilt at Sun Life Stadium. But the 6’2”, 260-pound edge-rusher was not a constant across from Jones.

That wasn’t necessarily a deviation from the 2013 campaign, which saw Ninkovich step back to outside linebacker when the Patriots moved from a four-man line to a three-man line. Yet something was different on Sept. 7.

The 30-year-old Purdue product logged 16 of his 37 snaps in what was the starting 3-4 defensive personnel.

The assembly shipped second-year defensive tackle Joe Vellano to five-technique defensive end opposite Jones. In turn, it shipped Ninkovich back to linebackers Jamie Collins, Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower, where he spelled between rushing and covering.

It was a collective transition for the Patriots. It was not seamless.

STARTING 3-4

(NFL Game Rewind)

(NFL Game Rewind)

Defensive Line: Joe Vellano, Vince Wilfork, Chandler Jones

Linebackers: Rob Ninkovich, Jamie Collins, Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower

It began between the lines.

Over those 16 plays in the starting 3-4, Vellano’s lack of strength and range at the point of attack caused Miami to run at him. With a natural seven-technique in Jones across from him, mismatches and struggles with gap discipline were the byproduct.

The ground game of Knowshon Moreno and Lamar Miller racked up 56 yards on six rushes, while quarterback Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins aerial attack went 5-of-8 passing for 60 yards.

On one of those passes, with 14:53 left in the third quarter, Ninkovich brought down tight end Charles Clay and came up grasping his right shoulder.

Ninkovich left the game only to return a string of plays later. And when he did, New England’s deployment of a 3-4 remained in the plans.

SWAPPING SEALVER SILIGA FOR JOE VELLANO IN 3-4

(NFL Game Rewind)

(NFL Game Rewind)

Defensive Line: Vince Wilfork, Sealver Siliga, Chandler Jones

Linebackers: Rob Ninkovich, Jerod Mayo, Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower

For another six plays, Ninkovich was on the field at outside linebacker in similar 3-4 personnel. The lone difference was nose tackle Sealver Siliga, who stepped in for Vellano and swapped places with Wilfork.

With two defensive tackles both weighing in over 325 pounds, the front three two-gapped rushing lanes and was able to neutralize blocks for Mayo to sack Tannehill on a delayed blitz.

Even so, Miami’s running game collected 10 yards on two attempts versus this variety, while the passing game went 1-of-3 for four yards and a touchdown.

SUBBING DOMINIQUE EASLEY INTO 3-4

(NFL Game Rewind)

(NFL Game Rewind)

Defensive Line: Dominique Easley, Sealver Siliga, Chandler Jones

Linebackers: Rob Ninkovich, Jerod Mayo, Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower

When Wilfork and Vellano took a rest from the 3-4, the Patriots called on 6’2”, 290-pound first-round pick Dominique Easley to play the five-technique opposite Jones.

Ninkovich remained in the mix alongside him, standing up off the left side for four snaps.

This variation saw Miami gain 14 yards on two carries and 29 yards on two passes. Though the bookends carried speed off the snap, they were unable to create sufficient pressure when head to head with offensive tackles.

VINCE WILFORK AND DOMINIQUE EASLEY IN 3-4

(NFL Game Rewind)

(NFL Game Rewind)

Defensive Line: Dominique Easley, Vince Wilfork, Chandler Jones

Linebackers: Rob Ninkovich, Jamie Collins, Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower

Then, in a small, two-play sample size, Easley and Wilfork crouched next to Jones for a fourth 3-4 look. A seven-yard run overshadowed an incomplete pass, however.

Both Ninkovich and Hightower continued to handle the outside responsibilities. And both got a chance to hit blocks and rush the backfield – something Hightower did on a limited basis last season.

JOE VELLANO, SEALVER SILIGA FILTER BACK INTO 3-4

(NFL Game Rewind)

(NFL Game Rewind)

Defensive line: Joe Vellano, Sealver Siliga, Chandler Jones

Linebackers: Rob Ninkovich, Jamie Collins, Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower

New England’s final 3-4 showcase of Week 1 transpired as Vellano and Siliga made their way back to the huddle. Concurrently, Ninkovich and Hightower hovered over the C-gaps once again.

The consequence was an incompletion.Buthow the Patriots approached sub packages had a different consequence for Ninkovich.

PATRICK CHUNG REPLACES ROB NINKOVICH IN 3-3 NICKEL SUB PACKAGE

(NFL Game Rewind)

(NFL Game Rewind)

Defensive Line: Joe Vellano, Vince Wilfork, Chandler Jones

Linebackers: Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Jerod Mayo

When the Patriots transitioned to a 3-3 nickel, Vellano stayed on next to Vince Wilfork and Jones. Ninkovich did not.

For the 10 snaps out of this assortment, safety Patrick Chung found his way into the box to replace him. And the Dolphins proceeded to run the ball on eight of those 10 opportunities. The correlation may have not equaled the causation, but 49 rushing yards were accumulated while Miami went only 1-of-2 passing for three yards.

Taking a seventh front-seven player out of the rotation figures to have had a hand in it.

SUBBING DOMINIQUE EASLEY, SEALVER SILIGA INTO THE 3-3

(NFL Game Rewind)

(NFL Game Rewind)

Defensive Line: Dominique Easley, Sealver Siliga, Chandler Jones

Linebackers: Dont’a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, Jamie Collins

Ninkovich looked on for another nine plays, as Easley and Siliga headed out for a 3-3 dispersal. The likes of Chung and fellow former second-round pick Tavon Wilson followed suit, looming off the tight ends.

Despite New England’s change in façade, the Dolphins found openings to the tune of four rushes for 14 yards and 4-of-5 passing for 22 yards.

But when Hightower surged into the pocket on one play, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was able to make another, intercepting Tannehill. Through all the mixing and matching of three-man lines, the 2012 first-rounder out of Alabama was able to hit the Dolphins quarterback on three pass plays.

INTEGRATING VINCE WILFORK INTO 3-3 NICKEL NEXT TO SEALVER SILIGA

(NFL Game Rewind)

(NFL Game Rewind)

Defensive Line: Sealver Siliga, Vince Wilfork, Chandler Jones

Linebackers: Jerod Mayo, Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower

When Easley was taken out of the 3-3 and Wilfork was brought back in, No. 75 once again assumed the nose. The linebacker trior remained the same, though every so often, Chung was a fourth defender in the second level.

Ninkovich was an onlooker.

Over the six plays from this nickel, the Dolphins racked up 15 rushing yards and a touchdown on four attempts, all while going 2-of-2 passing for 29 yards and a touchdown.

JOE VELLANO PAIRED WITH SEALVER SILIGA IN 3-3

(NFL Game Rewind)

(NFL Game Rewind)

Defensive Line: Joe Vellano, Sealver Siliga, Chandler Jones

Linebackers:Dont’a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, Jamie Collins

Vellano worked in tandem with Siliga and Jones for another two snaps from the 3-3, as Wilson moved in for Chung along the fringe.

Perhaps it was part of an effort to take Ninkovich off the field in coverage situations. But for Wilson, who played a total of 22 defensive snaps last season, it was part of a resurgence – he played 22 snaps against Miami.

On these two given snaps, the Dolphins gained five yards rushing and seven yards passing.

ROB NINKOVICH REENTERS 3-3 ON THIRD DOWN WITH DOMINIQUE EASLEY AT NOSE

(NFL Game Rewind)

(NFL Game Rewind)

Defensive Line: Rob Ninkovich, Dominique Easley, Chandler Jones

Linebackers: Jamie Collins, Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower

Ninkovich was seldom on the three-man line versus the Dolphins. He was, however, back playing there when Easley reentered at nose for a pair of third-and-longs.

Playing more of a five-technique than a seven, his purpose in the 3-3 was situational. The Dolphins passed on both plays, and both fell incomplete.

3-2 ROB NINKOVICH REMAINS NEXT TO DOMINIQUE EASLEY, NATE EBNER MOVES IN

(NFL Game Rewind)

(NFL Game Rewind)

Defensive Line: Rob Ninkovich, Dominique Easley, Chandler Jones

Linebackers: Dont’a Hightower, Nate Ebner, Jerod Mayo

It was a similar scenario for one more third-down play, as Ninkovich stayed leftward of Easley and Jones. The one difference was the presence of special-teamer Nate Ebner, who stepped in for Collins as an undersized linebacker.

Against what was essentially a 3-2 dime package, the Dolphins passed again, and again it fell to the grass.

BRINGING EIGHT INTO THE 4-3 BOX

(NFL Game Rewind)

(NFL Game Rewind)

Defensive Line: Rob Ninkovich, Vince Wilfork, Sealver Siliga, Chandler Jones

Linebackers: Dont’a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, Jamie Collins

It was a rare occasion, but the Patriots did move away from the three-man line for a 4-3 showcase down in the red zone. For Ninkovich, that meant a chance to shoot the gap between the tackle and tight end.

The Dolphins handed the ball off for a gain of two.

4-2 TAKES DONT’A HIGHTOWER WIDE IN PLACE OF ROB NINKOVICH

(NFL Game Rewind)

(NFL Game Rewind)

Defensive Line: Dont’a Hightower, Chandler Jones, Vince Wilfork, Dominique Easley

Linebackers: Jerod Mayo, Jamie Collins

Much like the 4-3, Ninkovich’s role in the 4-2 nickel was as limited as the Patriots’ implementation of it. Hightower moved on up to a wide-nine stance for one snap, while the onetime Dolphin moved on out.

The front four of Hightower, Jones, Wilfork and Easley spread one side light and loaded the other side heavy. The result was an incompletion.

SEALVER SILIGA INSIDE, DONT’A HIGHTOWER OUTSIDE FOR 4-2 NICKEL

(NFL Game Rewind)

(NFL Game Rewind)

Defensive Line: Dont’a Hightower, Sealver Siliga, Dominique Easley, Chandler Jones

Linebackers: Jerod Mayo, Jamie Collins

When the Patriots set up in a different 4-2 nickel personnel at midfield, it was expected that Ninkovich would be part of it. Instead, Hightower still was, playing left end next to Siliga, Easley and Jones.

The move kept Mayo and Collins back at linebacker, with Wilson often abutting them. And while the Dolphins notched just six yards on two rush attempts, the offense also notched 3-of-3 passing for 32 yards.

4-2 CHANGES, BUT DONT’A HIGHTOWER CONTINUES AT SEVEN-TECHNIQUE

(NFL Game Rewind)

(NFL Game Rewind)

Defensive Line: Dont’a Hightower, Vince Wilfork, Sealver Siliga, Chandler Jones

Linebackers: Jerod Mayo, Jamie Collins

Hightower remained at the seven-technique for two more plays from the 4-2, as Wilfork, Siliga and Jones put their hands on the ground to the right of him.

With the end zone at their backs, the Dolphins turned to the halfbacks to collect eight yards on two rushes.

4-2 NICKEL CATCHES DONT’A HIGHTOWER INSIDE, JOE VELLANO OUTSIDE

(NFL Game Rewind)

(NFL Game Rewind)

Defensive Line: Joe Vellano, Dont’a Hightower, Vince Wilfork, Sealver Siliga

Linebackers: Jamie Collins, Jerod Mayo

While Ninkovich stood on the sidelines for all of New England’s plays in a 4-2 nickel, Hightower’s reps on the defensive line did not end at defensive end.

On one 4-2 display inside the five-yard line, he switched places with Vellano, with Wilfork and Siliga huddled to his right. The Dolphins passed to no avail.

5-4 FRONT INCORPORATES ROB NINKOVICH

(NFL Game Rewind)

(NFL Game Rewind)

Defensive Line: Dominique Easley, Sealver Siliga, Joe Vellano, Vince Wilfork, Chandler Jones

Linebackers: Rob Ninkovich, Dont’a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, Jamie Collins

One last play was in the cards for Ninkovich. Looking to stifle the run late in the fourth quarter, the Patriots brought out a 5-4 front, laden with Easley Siliga, Vellano, Wilfork and Jones at the line.

Ninkovich stood back with New England’s linebackers as the Dolphins picked up one yard rushing.

With that, the game drew to a close. Head coach Bill Belichick, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and the Patriots had utilized 17 different groupings to fill out the 3-4, 3-3, 3-2, 4-3, 4-2 and 5-3 fronts. And, excluding penalties, Ninkovich had been within them as a 3-4 outside linebacker for 29 plays, a 3-3 defensive end for three plays, a 3-2 end for one play, a 4-3 end for one play, and a 5-4 linebacker for one more.

The reason why remains uncertain.

It remains uncertain whether it was about versatility or design; whether it was about testing players in a different mold early on in the 2014 season. Whatever the reason was, the outcome itself was not there for New England.

Miami’s rushing attack forged through open lanes for 191 yards and a touchdown on 38 attempts, while the passing attack stayed around for another 178 yards and two touchdowns over 18 completions.

Things may look different once again against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 2.

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13 Responses to “Front in Transition: Charting the Patriots’ Defensive Shift Beyond Rob Ninkovich vs. Dolphins”

  1. Kevan says:

    Yea BB needs to stick with a 4-3 as his base D. Putting Chandler Jones in as a DE in a 3-4 is minimizing his talents. BB has always been known for maximizing a players potential, putting them in the best possible position to succeed. Maybe if some other players on the roster develop the pats could play a 3-4 later in the season and that would be a way to give C.jones a breather but ninko would still be playing LB. A consistent 4-3 with Easely playing end on some early downs, spelling jones and ninko. Move Easely or a fresh dt inside on 3rd downs. Seliga on 3rd,4th and shorts. BB and the Pats appear to be throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks. Pats better get better though, there is too much talent on this defense to be playing like they did in Miami. Gotta beat the Vikings, no excuse to lose either with AP out. Vs. Cassell too, that’s cool. Trading pick 29 to the Vikings is another story line, pats better win though.

    • steve earle says:

      Right, agree. Your phrase “throwing stuff at the wall” is how it looked to me too. This should have been shaken out in camp but hopefully Bill saw enough last Sunday to make up his mind what and where his def is.

  2. Justin says:

    I’m not a fan of seeing Chandler Jones lineup as a 3-4 defensive end. Using him in that manner doesn’t utilize him to the best of his abilities. Had BB added some depth at the 43 defensive end position, he’d be able to spell Jones and Nink more often without switching base schemes.

    • steve earle says:

      lot’s of if’s and maybe’s in the past couple or three of drafts but it is what it it I guess. I myself had what I thought was a decent 2014 mock and though very different from what happened I was only on for half my selections though I can brag that three of my top four picks are looking good.

  3. MaineMan says:

    Frankly, with all the personnel-swapping on the OL and DL, and especially considering the use of various defensive players in roles that might seem outside their comfort zone, it’s almost as if BB & Co. were treating this as another pre-season game. Chandler and Vellano being used at DE in 30-fronts is something I saw them working on in camp, so this seemed like an extension of some of that experimantation (and, whatever folks think of Vellano, he’s still way better than Brace ever was).

    I mean, on the defensive side, I’m sure that keeping guys fresh in the heat was a factor in some of the rotations. But then, Hightower played every one of the 74 defensive snaps while Chandler played 70 and Wilfork was on for 50.

    BTW – I thought Revis was fine. He got seriously beat by Wallace on one play, but he wasn’t shadowing him all game, either. A couple-three of Wallace’s catches came when other guys were trying to cover him. Revis had a couple PDs and would’ve had another if Wallace hadn’t gotten a lucky bounce on his TD. Revis was on the field for all but the final 9 defensive snaps of the game and I don’t think the guy he was covering was targeted at all, unless it was Wallace (Revis was also used in zone a few times).

    • steve earle says:

      Chandler????? We have a Chandler on the roster? Have I missed something? Checked on Patriots site and didn’t notice one listed there. Are you thinking of someone else maybe?

      • Oppitz says:

        I guess is Chandler Jones…

        The thing is, we gonna miss Brandon Spikes more than we had imagined, Collins is great covering, but on early downs he has a lot to work on.

  4. big w says:

    Holy shit just play your best 4-3 let chandler and nink rush the damn passer and wilfork and whoever is the other dt push the middle and quit thinking your some kind of defensive genius . Put other guys in when they tire and remind everybody what NFL stands for if they suck. To many bloody genius defensive thoughts on this team.

  5. Dan Sullivan says:

    My 5 things Patriots need to work on.
    1 Vince Wilfork needs to get lighter in doing so he will make a lot more plays as he always
    has had good athletic ability.

    2 Offensive and Defensive play calling very bland to predictable.

    3 Offensive Line will be fine but us a TE to chip fast defensive ends.

    4 Use James White similar to Danny Woodhead and get a big back to move pile and break tackles.

    5 Revis hasn’t showed me much yet either in preseason or first game. May need to sit him a game like Ridley with fumbles.

    • big w says:

      How in the hell are you comparing a slow half assed linebacker be compared to Danny Woodhead and Vince just needs to play NT or Dt quit with all the stupid front changes and just get after it.

    • steve earle says:

      Dan I think big w is talking about RB White not LB White. Other then that I agree Vince should be inside where he can be most effective.

  6. Joe E O says:

    Did anyone notice Sealver Siliga lining up in two point stance over the center. I couldn’t tell if this was due to his cast or by design. The back in the day – before people called it the zero technique – the NT or Middle Guard would line up in a two point stance.

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