Caused by a series of events, the Patriots subtly changed their defense midseason.
Vince Wilfork was the first domino to fall when he went down for the season. Then Jerod Mayo and Tommy Kelly joined Wilfork on injured reserve. The Patriots went to a 3-4 base defense with the same personnel they would have used in a 4-3. That moved Chandler Jones to five-technique defensive end, which is more of an interior role, and Rob Ninkovich to rush outside linebacker, a position he’s probably best suited for.
With Mayo out, Dont’a Hightower moved from outside linebacker to inside linebacker, and rookie Jamie Collins was thrust into a starting role on the outside. Chris Jones and Joe Vellano swapped between the other five-technique defensive end position and nose tackle.
Here’s how that personnel looks in a 4-3 and 3-4:
There’s not a giant difference between the 3-4 and 4-3. There’s essentially two shifts. The line shifts to the right in a 3-4, and the linebackers shift to the left with Ninkovich putting his hand in the ground at defensive end.
There were two problems with the personnel in that alignment. 1. It was quickly obvious that Chandler Jones was better playing further to the outside. He’s big, strong player, but he’s better at getting after the quarterback and at setting the edge against the run when he has space to work with. He was getting double-teamed too often playing five-tech DE in the 3-4. 2. Collins just wasn’t ready to contribute as a full-time starter, especially at ROLB, where he had to set the edge against the run. Collins was fine at rushing the quarterback, and he was adequate at dropping into coverage, but he didn’t appear strong enough to stand up against the run.
That was all essentially realized in the first half of the Jets game. So, the Patriots acquired Isaac Sopoaga. And while it was initially thought that the new addition would replace either Chris Jones or Vellano, that has not been the case. Here’s how the base defense has looked since New England traded for the former Eagle:
This essentially makes Ninkovich more of a traditional linebacker. Jones and Ninkovich swap between rushing the passer and dropping into coverage against the pass, though, so far, Ninkovich has dropped into coverage more than Jones (because he’s much more comfortable in that role than Jones). Hightower and Spikes switch left and right depending on what the opposing team throws out. (In the sub-package defense, Ninkovich and Chandler Jones still play defensive end, for the most part.)
The defense became better against the run. Must have been some sort of miracle, right? (No.) Worse opponents? (No.) Some sort of Bill Belichick black magic? (We won’t rule that out.)
It’s simple, really: That defense is a whole lot heavier than the one with Collins. It replaced a 250-pounder with the 315-pound Sopoaga. It’s made New England better against the run and not quite as good at rushing the passer since it swaps either Ninkovich or Chandler Jones with Vellano and Chris Jones.
This change is part of the reason the Patriots were able to stop Carolina’s running backs for 41 yards on 16 carries. It can also be at least partially blamed for the reason Cam Newton was able to run for 62 yards on seven carries.
Let’s check out how that happened in this weeks’ film review, which, since it’s a short week, will also serve as this week’s No-Huddle Offense segment.
1. The Patriots were great at stopping running backs and not so great at stopping Cam Newton’s legs.
It didn’t matter where DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert or Jonathan Stewart tried to run. If they went through the middle, Sopoaga was eating up double teams. If they tried to cut off tackle, Ninkovich and Chandler Jones were setting the edge. If they tried to go way to the edge, the defensive ends would set the edge, a linebacker would push them out even farther and the cornerback would stop the back for a short gain. Both Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington did this.
The Panthers’ running backs have had success this year. None averaged three yards per carry against New England, and none ran for more than seven yards on a carry.
Newton, however, had tons of success. He ran for 24-, 15- and 14-yard carries. Some of that success was due to New England taking risks. The Patriots chose to rush Ninkovich and Jones fully, leaving the edges ready to be exploited. There was also just less speed on the field. When New England’s defense went heavy, it also got slower.
2. Rob Ninkovich sets the edge really well.
That being said, there were also times Newton did not have success. And that’s because Ninkovich is typically extremely solid against the run. The Patriots were lucky to sign Ninkovich long-term. He’s not only a consistent pass rusher, he’s also a top five run-stopping defensive end, despite being the size of a linebacker.
Ninkovich is extremely active, making plays on the opposite side of the field regularly. He also expertly sets the edge, making running backs — or quarterbacks — keep trying to cheat farther and farther outside. Since the Patriots have good tackling defensive backs, there’s usually not success in this method for the opposition.
3. The offensive line held up well.
Until the final drive, the Patriots gave up just two sacks and a hurry. The offensive line self-combusted a bit on the final drive, which led to eight incompletions from Brady.
Marcus Cannon held up well for Sebastian Vollmer, and Dan Connolly had another solid game. Nate Solder had a down game, but he’s been the Patriots’ best offensive lineman this season. Maybe it’s the mustache Solder has been growing this month.
4. Tom Brady had the quick-passing game down.
There was one good reason the offensive line wasn’t giving up much pressure: Brady was getting rid of the ball quickly. Between quick passes to Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Shane Vereen and Aaron Dobson, Carolina’s defense had no chance to get after Brady on numerous plays.
5. Duron Harmon was solid.
The Patriots’ secondary struggled at times, but it wasn’t on Harmon. He was a steady tackler against the run and filled his lanes well when playing in the box. He also did a nice job covering Greg Olsen, especially on a target in the end zone. It looks like the Patriots found a winner in Harmon.
6. Kyle Arrington had a good game, despite allowing a touchdown.
As soon as Ted Ginn entered the end zone, I knew the public perception of Arrington’s game was going to trend negative. Arrington allowed just two catches for 24 yards, had a great pass breakup and made two stellar plays against the run. Yes, he gave up the game-winning touchdown catch and missed that tackle, but a player’s performance can’t be judged on a single play.
7. Nate Ebner plays in dime.
With Steve Gregory out and Harmon filling in, Ebner was the team’s dime defensive back, playing the “money” role. He got just three snaps but looked pretty good out there. Tavon Wilson was expected to take that role, but Ebner got the nod.
8. Brandon Spikes has another strong game.
The Patriots have a decision to make next year. So far, Spikes has played really well this season, mostly against the run. His contract is up, though, and New England just drafted Hightower and Collins the past two drafts. So, do they re-up Spikes? Or let Hightower and Collins play next to Mayo?
This defense would not be as good against the run without Spikes.
9. Kenbrell Thompkins has nice bounce-back game in a limited role.
Thompkins played just 14 snaps for the second straight week, but he racked up 60 yards on two catches. Thompkins showed better catching ability — bringing in the ball with his hands rather than his body — and some impressive moves after the catch.
10. Michael Hoomanawanui goes down.
Hoomanawanui tweaked his right knee near the end of the half on a LeGarrette Blount run. It appeared he hyper-extended it a bit and then limped to the bench. It certainly didn’t look season-ending, but he was ruled out for the remainder of the game and wasn’t practicing on Wednesday.
Hooman has the second most snaps for a Patriots’ skill position player behind Edelman.
11. A lot has changed since Week 1.
It’s amazing to look back and see Thompkins started the season as a near every-down player, Zach Sudfeld was heavily involved, Josh Boyce got 15 snaps and Michael Buchanan was the team’s third-down rusher.
Since then, Chris Jones, Dobson, Sopoaga, Harmon, Matthew Mulligan, Logan Ryan and Andre Carter have taken on bigger roles.