The New England Patriots have made several high-profile changes to their defensive roster this summer. Moves that have left us all wondering what the defensive strategy is going to look like when the team lines up to play this year.
The Patriots, and their head coach Bill Belichick, have become famous for their 3-4 alignment, despite the fact that the numbers show he is much more flexible in how he chooses to line up his defensive players. In fact, last year the team lined up in sub packages (any alignment other than the base 3-4), 55.7 percent of the time.
Many have speculated that the move could be to a 4-3 defense, which would seem to fit with the additions of DT Albert Haynesworth and DE Mark Anderson, both players who have had previous success in the 4-3.
But still, the idea of the Patriots moving to a classic 4-3 just never sat well with me. Teams have been moving away from the 4-3 for years now, and for good reason. It’s a defense best suited to stopping teams from gaining yards on power-running plays between the tackles by putting seven players in the box, with the option of adding an eighth if needed. This was great 20 years ago, but modern NFL offenses are based on the pass.
The past decade has seen teams like the Patriots, Packers, Saints, Colts and even the 2009 version of the Steelers win Lombardi trophies with varying versions of the spread offense. Most recently, the Green Bay Packers won it all last year basically running the Air Raid, which uses four and five receiver sets, attacks the defense with vertical seam routes, then runs in the open spaces created by forcing the defense to cover so much ground on every play.
Just ask any kid who plays too much Madden, the key to winning in the NFL in 2011 is to be able to stop the multiple wide receiver sets.
This is clearly where the league is headed, so for a coach who is always ahead of the curve defensively to go back to a scheme that worked against the offenses of 20 and 30 years ago just doesn’t make sense to me. What makes more sense is that he would once again be innovative, be willing to try things that other coaches don’t have the forethought, or more likely the job security, to try.
No, I think Belichick sees NFL offenses looking more and more like the pass happy, high-scoring college offenses we’ve seen on Saturdays for years now. And I think he’s already on the cutting edge of the defenses that college teams have been experimenting with to stop them.
And that’s when it hit me, the moves that the Patriots have been making, adding defensive lineman and defensive backs while staying away from outside pass rushing 3-4 linebackers, sets them up to run the one defense that has had the most success slowing down the college spread offenses, the 4-2-5 scheme, most notably run by TCU.
Just to be clear, we’re not talking about a 4-2-5 in the sense of the classic nickel package that teams have used in the past, we’re talking about using the alignment as a base defense in a much different way than they have before. The four lineman, two linebacker, five defensive back set you've seen the Patriots play is used on obvious passing downs, and is a passive scheme meant to keep the offense in front of them. The college style 4-2-5 is an aggressive, attacking defense.
When you look at it that way, the moves start to make sense. The one main thing that the 4-2-5 has in common with the classic 4-3 is that you have to be able to get pressure on the quarterback with your front four alone. Sure, the scheme also leads to some really cool blitz packages, which I’m sure Belichick will take full advantage of, but at its core is a defense that relies on forcing quick throws while keeping the majority of the defenders in pass coverage. The stockpiling of defensive lineman who can rush the passer, guys like Haynesworth, Spencer, even Shaun Ellis, combined with Vince Wilfork will give New England the players it needs in the trenches.
The next level of the defense fits just as cleanly. The 4-2-5 utilizes two middle linebackers in much the same way that the 3-4 does. They aren’t asked to have the speed to chase running plays to the sideline, and mostly play zone against the pass. The Patriots already have these players in place with Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes.
It’s the next number in the scheme where things get really fun. The five defensive backs is reminiscent of a traditional nickel look, but it functions very differently. Instead of the third corner being a typical cover guy who’s asked to line up against a slot receiver, tight end or running back, the defense uses a player more closely related to a second strong safety.
Most importantly, all of the defensive backs need to have a broad range of skills. They have to have the coverage ability to line up man to man against pro receivers, but they also have to have the size and strength, not to mention the attitude, to step up against the run and be tenacious blitzers. The key to making the 4-2-5 work is having skilled and versatile defensive backs.
Belichick has been adding good young corners and safeties to the roster for the past few years, and now has several who could fill those roles. McCourty, Meriweather, Chung and hopefully even rookie Ras-I Dowling all have the skill set needed to make the defense work.
The Patriots are always on the cutting edge of defensive strategy, and no one is better than Belichick at finding new and creative ways to stop whatever type of offense his opponents are going to put on the field.
He’ll be smart, I’d be shocked if he shows his hand during any of this month’s preseason games, and as always will continue to mix up his defensive fronts. But when you look at the moves he’s made this offseason, and you consider the types of offenses he knows he’ll have to face on his way to another Super Bowl win, it looks like the Patriots are going to unleash yet another defensive revolution on the NFL this year.