It seemed odd during the 2011 season, when nearly every NFL team began stressing passing over rushing the ball, that the Patriots decided to build their defense around stopping the run.
The team’s base defense that year had either Shaun Ellis or Brandon Deaderick at left defensive end, Kyle Love and Vince Wilfork at defensive tackle, Andre Carter at right defensive end, Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Rob Ninkovich at linebacker and a starting secondary of Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, James Ihedigbo and Patrick Chung.
You could argue that not one of those players was better against the pass than they were against the run. Mark Anderson came in on third down to boost the pass rush, but beyond him, the team was structured to stop the run. It didn’t help that players like Mike Wright, Albert Haynesworth, Myron Pryor and Ras-I Dowling didn’t work out, either because of injuries or personality.
The team took a step forward in their pass-defending ways in 2012 when they traded for Aqib Talib, got smaller at left defensive end by moving Ninkovich down, slid McCourty up to safety and drafted Chandler Jones. But there were still some holes in the pass defense. The team had obvious issues covering running backs and tight ends with its linebackers, injuries to Pryor and Jonathan Fanene meant the team had no prototypical interior rusher and they never replaced Anderson as a sub rusher.
It appears those holes have now been filled. Rookie Jamie Collins played safety at Southern Miss before moving to linebacker and defensive end. Collins will likely fill a need as a coverage linebacker, but he could also come off the edge in the Anderson role as a third-down rusher. Collins had 10 sacks in 2012 for the Golden Eagles and certainly has the speed, explosion and athleticism to serve as an edge rusher.
Along the defensive line, the Patriots recently cut Deaderick and Love, both of whom were better run defenders than pass rushers. In their place, Armond Armstead and Tommy Kelly were brought in. Each player’s best role is the three-technique defensive tackle position, which is the interior rusher next to Vince Wilfork, who plays the one-technique.
Both Armstead and Kelly should also be stout against the run, but they’re better at pressuring the quarterback. Unless the Patriots bring in another veteran, it looks like either Marcus Forston (an undrafted rookie last season), Joe Vellano or Cory Grissom (both undrafted rookies) makes the roster. Forston and Grissom can play the one-technique role, but they also possess pass-rushing skills.
What the Patriots have done in the secondary, especially at cornerback, really shows how they’re leaning more toward defending the pass than stopping the run. When McCourty and Arrington were starting at cornerback, New England had two cornerbacks who were among the best in the league in defending the run. By playing zone, that put the cornerbacks’ responsibility closer to the line of scrimmage, so those players could help out more easily if the play on offense was a run.
Now with Talib and Alfonzo Dennard playing more man coverage, their responsibility is to shadow their wide receivers. That puts their back to the ball more often, and their reaction time will be slower in reading a run play. Both players are decent against the run, but they’re not McCourty or Arrington.
If there has been a weakness of late with the Patriots, it has been in defending the pass. There’s no cure-all for this problem (unless you can get a player like Darrelle Revis), so New England has slowly been putting the pieces in place to improve that aspect of the defense.
Building the team to stop the run put the Patriots in the Super Bowl and AFC Championship Game in consecutive years, even if the defense struggled at times. Where building a better pass defense will get New England remains to be seen.
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