In a 3-4 defense, it's pretty safe to say that no defensive lineman is going to put up gaudy numbers year in and year out. However, that is not to say that the D-line is unimportant in a 3-4, if it weren't for NT Vince Wilfork's ability to occupy and sometimes even shed 2 blockers on any given play, defenses would be able to run down the Patriots' throats at will.
With that said, the Patriots have always had a deep, solid, and often times unappreciated D-line as the anchor of their defense since Bill Belichick introduced the 3-4 in Foxboro in 2000. Here's my breakdown of this year's front 3.
The Nose Tackle: A prototypical 3-4 nose tackle is supposed to occupy space in the middle of the field, disrupt passing lanes, and wreak havoc in the backfield, and Vince Wilfork is one of the few NTs in the NFL who do all of those things.
Wilfork is huge at 6'2" 325lbs and unlike some of his bigger counterparts, most notably Oakland's Terdell "the big terd" Sands, Wilfork shows the quickness, motor, and consistence to take advantage of his natural athletic abilities.
Not to mention the fact that Wilfork is only 26 and his six year, 18 million dollar deal doesn't expire until 2010. Wilfork has said that he "not even thinking of asking for a contract extension."
The Patriots are also surprisingly deep at the nose tackle position since backup Mike Wright has earned significant playing time on 3rd downs and other passing downs due to his superior speed.
DEs Ty Warren and Richard Seymour have both have the size and strength needed to play NT on some particularly obvious passing downs or in conjunction with the employment of some blitz or run-blitz packages.
The Defensive Ends: Starting DEs Ty Warren, Richard Seymour, and Jarvis Green (Seymour missed 7 games due to injury.) combined for 12 sacks in '07, which is an especially good number considering the fact that Seymour played injured and Warren was a frequent recipient of the double team.
The Patriots also combined for 108 tackles from the defensive end position, or 8.25 tackles per game. Those are also incredibly surprising numbers considering the fact that 3-4 D-lineman are primarily used to create openings for linebackers.
However, 5-time pro bowler Richard Seymour only had 1.5 sacks and 15 tackles last year due to the knee injury he suffered during the season. While it remains to be seen whether Seymour can make a complete recovery, the prognosis is good considering the fact that Seymour is durable, tough, and a 5-time pro bowler.
Say what you want about his "dirty" play (I'm looking at you Nick Hardwick) but Seymour has been a fixture on New England's D-line for seven years and for good reason.
Starting LE Ty Warren is coming off a 4 sack, 53 tackle season and although his sack total is down 3.5 from 2006 and his number of tackles went from 84 to 53. The drop in production from Warren doesn't worry me because the Patriots' prolific offense forced most teams to pass more often, hurting Warren's chances of bolstering his tackle numbers.
The dropoff in sack production is somewhat alarming but no real dip in the quality of Warren's play was noticeable so I'll let that one slide for now. Warren is young and has gotten the job done in seasons past so the Pats are fine here.
The wild card on New England's D-line is pass-rush specialist and fill-in starter Jarvis Green, who has accumulated an impressive 14 sacks over the past 2 seasons, including 6.5 in '07 in somewhat limited playing time. Green started in 7 games last season and managed to rack up 40 tackles.
Green has good size for a 3-4 DE at 6'2" 285lbs and he is quick enough to get to the quarterback, which was highlighted last season by a 2.5 sack performance against an injury plagued Pittsburgh O-line in week 14.
OLBs Adalius Thomas and Mike Vrabel also line up at DE from time to time and Thomas actually started at DE in Baltimore.
The Verdict: My overall judgement of the Pats D-line is favorable in that they clearly have the personnel needed to get the job done. However, concerns remain about Seymour's injury and while Green has been solid in Seymour's stead, he has never been a starter for a full season.
The only real slam dunk prediction that i can make is that Wilfork will be his usual disruptive self. Aside from that, I guess we'll all just have to wait until September rolls around.