FOXBORO, Mass. — The New England Patriots’ defense changes on a play-to-play basis, but Bill Belichick is making sure he’s not putting too much on the plates of his players. The same can’t be said for the opposing offense.
The Patriots align their base defense in a variety of different ways, whether they’re three- or four-man fronts or a hybrid of the two. The Patriots’ nickel defense also changes forms dependent on down and distance and who the opposing offense has trotted onto the field.
The Patriots played a base alignment with three 300-plus-pound players in Malcom Brown, Alan Branch and Woodrow Hamilton against the Cleveland Browns. They’ll also deploy a four-man front with four 260-ish-pound edge rushers in nickel and everything else imaginable in between. There’s clearly a method to the madness, but the amount of different looks makes it nearly impossible to sort out.
“Well, I mean, we’re a multiple team anyways, so I think that’s all part of it,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday. “I would say we try to keep most of our techniques the same, but there are some variations in alignment and a little bit in scheme, but as much as we can we try to execute the things that we practice and work on and get good at. Rather than having 50 different techniques, we try to get good at a few things. We may move the players around a little bit, but basically we try to keep the fundamentals the same.”
The Patriots mostly played in a traditional 4-3 in recent years, though they’ve steadily been introducing more looks in a 3-4 or hybrid fronts. Though the techniques are the same, the Patriots demand versatility out of their players when they change alignments. When the Patriots go to a 3-4 with only two 300-pounders in the front seven, either Chris Long, Jabaal Sheard or Trey Flowers moves to five-technique defensive end, a role traditionally saved for much, much bigger players. That hasn’t hurt their run defense, which ranks ninth in both yards allowed per attempt (3.7) and yards per game (86.4).
“It all depends on what we’re playing against,” Belichick said. “We’ve played a lot of nickel. Last week we played less nickel because the Browns were more of a two-receiver team, or in some cases one receiver. Again, defensively, whatever you do a lot of cases is a function of what the offense does. You just can’t go out there and start calling defenses.”
Dont’a Hightower leads the Patriots in pass-rush productivity percentage this season, generating pressure on six of his 31 pass-rush snap, and moves around more than anyone on the defense.
“I do a little bit of everything,” Hightower said. “The more places they can put me in a situation for me to make plays and for everybody else to make plays, I don’t mind it. I definitely feel like versatility helps me be able to make more plays and helps other people. I embrace it. I love it. I love when I can line up at defensive end and outside linebacker then come into middle linebacker. I don’t know if teams are game-planning me or not, but whether or not, it’s just different.”
Rob Ninkovich has seen his role change a number of times over the years. He came to the Patriots as a linebacker, moved to defensive end and now appears to be transitioning back to linebacker, where he practiced this spring and summer.
The lines are blurred between defensive ends and linebackers anyway in the Patriots’ defense. When the Patriots go to a three-man front, the defensive end who doesn’t move inside to the five-tech role must stand up and rush off the edge. In a given game, Long, Sheard or Flowers can play both five-tech defensive end (think Richard Seymour) and outside linebacker (think Clay Matthews).
“There’s definitely strengths and weaknesses of every position,” Ninkovich said. “I think you definitely have a lot of guys who can do multiple position things. That just helps with the more you can do aspect of being multiple, playing different positions and helping the team any way that you can.”
The Patriots’ pass rush looks slightly disappointing this season, ranking 22nd in the NFL in sacks with nine. But they’re generating pressure, and as a whole, the Patriots’ pass defense is allowing just an 87.7 passer rating, good for 14th in the NFL. New England’s pass rush also should improve once Hightower fully recovers from a knee injury.
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