For years, expectations have been kept fairly low for the New England Patriots defense.
That's about to change.
For the first time in a long time, the defense actually looks better than the offense in practice.
There are a few reasons not to read into that too much: For one, the Patriots have almost completely turned over the wide receiver position, while the starting secondary remains intact; the top two tight ends have been absent from practice, as well.
Even if their performance at OTAs is no indication—for better or worse—as to this defense's ability, there are still some areas in which we know what to expect from this defense in 2013.
Continued Use of the 4-3
Recently, the Patriots have hardly identified with one base defense. They have bounced back and forth between 4-3 and 3-4 looks and three- or four-man lines in sub packages.
Colleague Mike Dussault has tracked defensive alignments for years, and thanks to his research, we get a good look at just how versatile the Patriots defense has been.
There are a lot of reasons for that versatility, but over the past two years, the defense has clearly shifted more towards four-man fronts and the 4-3 alignment.
There's little that would change about this front from last season to this season—aside from the departures of defensive tackles Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick. Look for veteran defensive tackle Tommy Kelly or first-year defensive tackle Armond Armstead to be slotted in as the starter alongside Vince Wilfork.
Chandler Jones excelled as a 4-3 defensive end before an ankle injury slowed him down. Before that, he showed an impressive amount of strength and agility in creating pressure on the quarterback.
Rob Ninkovich, Jamie Collins or Michael Buchanan could be filling the spot on the other side. They are all around the same size, and although Ninkovich came up big in spots, consistent pressure was an issue for the Patriots last year.
Perhaps the Patriots are cooking up something defensively that will allow them to get more pressure on quarterbacks, which brings me to the next thing we can expect to see.
Return of the 3-4?
Aside from a brief return in 2011 after defensive end Andre Carter went down with a season-ending injury, the 3-4 has been far less prominent for the Patriots than in years past.
We've played a mixture of odd fronts and even fronts, but I just felt like from a starting point—given the lack of spring opportunities to practice and meet, and the shortened training camp in terms of actual number of practices—that from a teaching standpoint we felt like there would be more carryover teaching our base defense and nickel defense really as one front.
...we felt like in trying to evaluate young players, asking them to learn one system in a 3-4 and then learn another system in nickel [was too much]. As you know, we were in nickel defense just as much as we were 3-4 defense because of teams using multiple receivers on early downs and two-minute and all those kind of things.
...There are so many intricacies to a 3-4 defense that I just didn't know if we'd be ready to handle them this year. Probably wouldn't have been, to be honest with you.
Most of the players on that roster had more experience in a 4-3 that year, as well, but now that Belichick has relative consistency in the front seven, with six of seven returning starters, this could be the perfect time to roll out some advancements in the technique.
Additionally, this year's group has experience in both a 3-4 and a 4-3.
This is an admittedly crude outline of what the Patriots defense could potentially look like from a positional grouping standpoint, with the caveat that this is based on practice reports and prior experience.
As a result of a constantly revolving door of coordinators in Oakland—and coaching staffs as a whole—Kelly played a variety of spots in both the 3-4 and the 4-3 for the Raiders in his nine seasons with the team. He'll be an important piece as the Patriots flex their versatility muscles.
It's been said that Jones has bulked up this offseason, though his new size is not yet known. It's possible he could be gearing up for more two-gapping responsibilities at defensive end, though that would be a misuse of his skill set, in my opinion.
Of course, the one piece in particular that has allowed them to be so versatile is Wilfork.
He was primarily a 3-4 nose tackle in his first seven years in the league but has begun playing more 4-3 defensive tackle, albeit in an enhanced role—one that has required him to carry a heavier workload—in terms of both snaps and in assignments.
As detailed by Chris Brown on Grantland, the defense is built around Wilfork's ability to soak up blockers.
The Patriots run a 3-4 to one side of the field and a 4-3 to the other, all on the same play. The key to all this is Wilfork. He lines up over the center and assumes his traditional spot of run-stuffing, blocker consuming, two-gapping war daddy. Belichick fills out the rest of the pieces based on the strengths and weaknesses of his other defenders.
In the traditional 4-3, there are two basic fronts: over and under. In Belichick's hybrid 4-3 "over," Wilfork is responsible for controlling (that is, destroying) the center and thus the gaps to either side of him. To Wilfork's left, the defense functions just like a regular 1-gap 4-3 scheme, with the other defensive tackle attacking the gap between guard and tackle and the defensive end covering the tight end. The strong-side linebacker aligns to this side, and there will often be further run support, either from a safety or a cornerback. To the other side, however, it's all 3-4. The defensive end to Wilfork's right is a 2-gap player, and there are two linebackers to that side as well, lined up as they would be in a traditional 3-4.
Wilfork is the key to the defense regardless of what front it runs, but what happens around him remains to be seen.
Still, none of this versatility would be possible without one player who has only recently begun getting the recognition he deserves—partly because no one could stop talking about the fact he wasn't getting the recognition he deserved.
Rob Ninkovich, Chess Piece
Ninkovich's versatility has been part of what's allowed the Patriots to employ such a wide range of defensive schemes over the past three seasons.
In 2010, he served as one of the team's primary stand-up 3-4 outside linebackers.
He continued to stand up in 2011 but instead as a 4-3 outside linebacker.
He went back to playing on the edge of the defense, and although he would sometimes line up in a two-point stance and dropped into coverage sparingly, he was primarily a defensive end last year.
The Patriots have added players at both defensive end and linebacker this offseason, specifically in the draft. Collins, a linebacker, and Buchanan, a defensive end, could cut into Ninkovich's playing time, but the veteran could move around to accommodate playing time for those players as the Patriots look to get a mix of experience, leadership, youth and athleticism on the field.
Continued Improvement in the Secondary
The Patriots have fielded a constantly rotating group of cornerbacks recently. As pointed out by Dussault, since 2009, the Patriots haven't finished the season with the same cornerbacks that started the season and haven't carried over the same starting secondary from Week 17 of one season to Week 1 of the next season.
That's four consecutive seasons with little or no continuity in the secondary.
The Patriots saw something they liked in last year's group, which improved greatly down the stretch. The starting unit didn't get locked in until Week 11, after a sea of change.
- Cornerback Ras-I Dowling was injured for the season in Week 6, thus promoting Alfonzo Dennard to a starting spot on the outside;
- Devin McCourty (who was not playing bad at cornerback to that point) was moved to safety full-time in Week 7;
- Kyle Arrington was moved to the slot—a role which he emerged in—in Week 11;
- The Patriots traded a fourth-round pick for Buccaneers cornerback Aqib Talib.
When the Patriots re-signed Talib and Arrington this offseason, it was a signal that they were looking for something they have lacked in the secondary for years: continuity.
Despite all the continuity, one can only wonder what changes will come for the Patriots secondary this offseason.
We can pen McCourty as the starting free safety and Talib as one starting perimeter cornerback, but beyond that, much remains up for grabs.
Arrington, Dennard, Ryan and Dowling will likely compete for the remaining spots at cornerback. Harmon and Adrian Wilson will compete with Steve Gregory and Tavon Wilson for time next to McCourty.
If nothing else, the depth won't hurt. The Patriots faced several injuries in the secondary last year, and it was a result of their depth that they didn't come unraveled and even improved over the course of the season.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all stats obtained from Pro Football Focus' premium section, and all quotes obtained firsthand or via team press releases.