Yes, Bill Belichick is one of the best head coaches in the NFL. A genius defensively, he creates imaginative game plans that few coaches think of. But even an elite mind isn’t above borrowing ideas from other coaches.
That’s the NFL. Coaches see one team do something new, then several coaches quickly borrow the concept and adapt it to their team. No coach is above doing this, not even Belichick.
It wasn’t too long ago the Miami Dolphins introduced the Wildcat offense that baffled the Pats and then the league. It worked so well that even RB Kevin Faulk took a snap or two from shotgun. The results weren’t nearly as productive for New England as it was for the Dolphins, but Belichick gave it a try.
This brings us to Ras-I Dowling. Belichick in the past stayed away from taller cornerbacks because they typically don’t have the same quickness in and out of cuts like shorter corners.
Dowling is an imposing 6-1, 198 pounds. The simple line of thinking was selecting the former Virginia Cavalier with the first of two second round picks was a direct adjustment to the number of big, physical receivers the Pats will face now and in the future.
Dowling has the body to get physical with the names above and receivers like them throughout the league. But Dowling wearing 21 for the Patriots might be a sign that Belichick plans to use Ras-I like a certain accomplished NFC cornerback:
Woodson made his name as an elite corner, first with the Oakland Raiders and now with the Packers. At 6-1 and just four pounds heavier than Dowling, Woodson battles the best receivers weekly. He earned seven Pro Bowl and two All-Pro selections and was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2009.
Woodson is more than just a cover corner. In the Packers’ aggressive 3-4 defense, Woodson slides from the outside and into the slot on passing downs, putting him in position to blitz.
The results speak for themselves. In five years with the Pack, Woodson picked up eight sacks and forced 13 fumbles to go with 30 interceptions. Woodson’s ability as a blitzer is familiar to New England as he made the sack on the pivotal “tuck rule” play in the 2002 Divisional Playoff game.
If Belichick can develop Dowling into a versatile Woodson-like player, Dowling would be a devastating weapon on defense. Dowling is too fast for offensive linemen and has long arms to disengage from blockers and swipe at the ball in the quarterback’s hands.
This isn’t a far fetched idea, as Belichick used Kyle Arrington as a blitzer last year. We even saw Arrington positioned at defensive end with his hand on the ground. Arrington didn’t get any sacks, but it is pressure Belichick wants. Arrington did an OK job, but Dowling’s build can make him a better blitzer than Arrington.
It would be a somewhat unconventional way to generate pressure by Belichick. With improving the pass rush a priority for the Patriots entering the draft, Dowling was selected 33rd overall, ahead of projected NFL 3-4 OLBs: Pittsburgh’s Jabaal Sheard (37th overall, Cleveland Browns), UCLA’s Akeem Ayers (39, Tennessee Titans), and University of Arizona’s Brooks Reed (42, Houston Texans).
Without an accomplished collegiate sack artist added through the draft (no one expects sixth round pick Markell Carter to be the pass rush solution this year), the Patriots are mining the veteran consignment isles, hoping a player or two can find a second life in New England.
How much playing time Dowling gets in the preseason is unknown as he’s been a spectator for much of training camp. If Belichick does have Woodson-like plans for Dowling, we won’t see it in the preseason much, if at all.
But Dowling is one of the bigger curiosities out of this rookie class not just for what Ras-I can be, but for what the Patriots passed on to select him.