Some of the Patriots’ 2013 acquisitions could bring the team’s defense back to its glory days.
Prior to 2011, Bill Belichick was known to run a complex hybrid defense that included 3-4 and 4-3 looks, zone coverages and man coverages. But a lockout leading up to the 2011 season, and a 2012 roster that was full of new and inexperienced players, forced the team to simplify on defense. That complexity may be back in 2013, though.
Last season, the Patriots’ secondary started out with mostly cover-two looks as both safeties were back deep and the cornerbacks, at that point Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington, were playing zone. After McCourty moved to safety, Aqib Talib was acquired and rookie Alfonzo Dennard became a starter, New England started playing more cover-one looks with McCourty back deep and Talib and Dennard playing man coverage outside.
With an entire year under their belts, Talib and Dennard may be able to take on more complex coverages, which means a combination of man and zone outside. New England really beefed up the depth at safety this offseason, and each player has their strengths in different coverages.
McCourty is good enough to play in cover-one or cover-two at free safety and should be playing nearly every snap on defense at the position. Veteran acquisition Adrian Wilson would be best used up in the box playing strong safety in a cover-one, Tavon Wilson can play either as the “money” back in dime, or deep high in a cover-two, Steve Gregory can play either in a cover-one or cover-two, but he may be best used as depth this season and rookie Duron Harmon was used both in the box and back deep at Rutgers and may look good next to McCourty as a deep safety in the cover-two.
At cornerback, Talib played well in man last season for the Patriots, but is used to zone coverages from playing in the Buccaneers’ Tampa-2 defense, too. Dennard played both man and zone at Nebraska and was thought of as a better zone corner as a 2012 draft prospect. Their ability to play more zone coverages will likely depend on them finding comfort in the system during training camp.
Arrington and rookie Logan Ryan are better slot and zone cornerbacks, while the oft-injured Ras-I Dowling is better depth in man. If McCourty ever had to switch back to cornerback, he too is better in zone, but that would mean finding two safeties on the roster adept in a cover-two.
All of that versatility allows the Patriots to have depth no matter what coverage they decide to run. The Patriots will have many choices as to who starts next to McCourty at safety, and they’ll have the experience from Dennard and Talib to adapt to zone or man.
Along the front seven, the Patriots have the depth to run 4-3, 3-4, one-gap and two-gap alignments. During the 2011 season, due to the lockout, the Patriots mostly played a 4-3 with Andre Carter, Brandon Deaderick and Shaun Ellis as the base defensive ends and Mark Anderson coming in to get after the passer in sub packages (or passing downs). The team started to show more 3-4 looks late in 2012 as the players were able to adapt more to the defense.
Vince Wilfork can play any number of roles in a defense, including nose tackle in a 3-4 or 4-3, three-technique defensive tackle (the “pass rushing” tackle) in a 4-3 or five-technique defensive end in a 3-4. Wilfork can play in a one-gap (meaning he controls just one gap along the defensive line to either plug or try to penetrate) or two-gap (meaning Wilfork has to eat space and control two blockers, allowing his linebackers more space to roam free) system.
Veterans Deaderick and Kyle Love have similar versatility, though Deaderick likely wouldn’t play nose tackle in a defensive front, and could play strong-side defensive end (meaning he’s lined up to the tight end side, which is primarily the “run-stopping” end, rather than the “pass-rushing” end) in a 4-3, while Love is primarily a nose tackle, rather than a three-technique.
New acquisitions Armond Armstead and Tommy Kelly bring valuable versatility, as well. Armstead has experience at nose tackle, three-technique and strong-side defensive end while at USC and the CFL, while Kelly can play three-technique defensive tackle or five-technique defensive end.
Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, Jermaine Cunningham and Jake Bequette all have experience with their hand down at 4-3 defensive end or standing up to play an outside linebacker role in a 3-4 — Ninkovich can also play outside linebacker in a 4-3. Jones, Cunningham and Justin Francis could all play five-technique defensive end or three-technique defensive tackle in a pinch, as well, since all have shown the ability to get after the passer from the inside.
That versatility along the defensive line at all positions could go a long way in allowing the Patriots to play more of a rotation, keeping the defense more refreshed.
The Patriots linebackers can all play in multiple schemes and are what should make the defense click. The most versatile are second-year player Dont’a Hightower and rookie Jamie Collins. Either player can play outside linebacker in a 4-3 or 3-4 (Collins can also play defensive end in a 4-3). Both players have the ability to drop back and cover and to rush the passer off the edge. If the Patriots go to more 3-4 sets, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a defensive line of Jones, Wilfork and Kelly and a linebacker unit of Hightower, Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Collins if the goal is to pressure the quarterback in a base defense. Mayo and Spikes can and have switched between 3-4 and 4-3 alignments seamlessly.
The added defensive versatility can only help the Patriots’ defense. That’s one of the reasons Belichick tries to bring in football-savvy players during the draft. It’s been noted how book smart and football smart all the Rutgers players the team drafted are, and that will only help them learn all their new schemes easier.
While many teams seem to be moving more toward players that excel in one area, Belichick is still acquiring players who can play multiple roles. He’s commented before on putting the best 11 men on the field, regardless of whether a guy is playing his best spot on offense or defense.
Of course, the Patriots will be in sub packages about half the time with teams running more three-wide receiver and two-tight end sets. And in those passing situations, the Patriots’ depth will also go a long way with players like Collins, who can drop back to cover or fly around the edge to get after the passer.
Perhaps the biggest key to reintroducing more of a complex defensive system is that the Patriots are bringing back all 11 defensive starters from late last season. That doesn’t mean they’ll still be starters in 2013, but they will all have experience with Belichick’s defensive playbook.
In adding more verstility on defense, the Patriots will be able to adapt to what offenses show them. The goal is to fool the offense, and if the Patriots can line the same 11 players up in different roles and formations, that can only help.