FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — When New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick first addressed his defense about an impending increase in the use of a 4-3 base, there was, in all likelihood, a mighty celebration coming from one corner of the room.
For defensive linemen, the 4-3 (four defensive linemen and three linebackers) is their biggest chance to cause chaos in the offensive backfield. They?ve got a better opportunity to whack the quarterback or slam a running back. And maybe in the back of their mind, they realize better statistics can lead to big ol? contracts.
?I love the 4-3,? defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. ?I love it when [Belichick] just says to go get the ball, but it?s not [always] like that. Sometimes, we get a little bone here and there, and we have to make due. When we do get that bone, we have to take advantage of it because they?re not going to come often.?
Belichick has almost exclusively run a 3-4 scheme during his first nine years in New England, and that calls for his linemen to sacrifice their glory for the good of the team. Wilfork and company share the duty of eating up offensive linemen in order for the Patriots? linebackers and blitzing defensive backs to penetrate the backfield and lay the wood on the player with the ball.
The Patriots? defensive linemen ? highlighted by Wilfork, Richard Seymour, Ty Warren and Jarvis Green ? have often been the most talented unit on the roster, but it?s nearly impossible to reach that conclusion by measuring their statistics. It?s no secret Belichick has a special respect for his linemen, and they?re paid as such. They just might not always reap the same rewards as some of the linebackers.
Now, with the 4-3 ? which Belichick heavily employed in their preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles, but not as often against the Cincinnati Bengals ? the defensive linemen have a chance to fight off their blockers and advance to the backfield, much like the front line of an army.
?As a defensive lineman, we always like [having] the big guys on the field,? Seymour said. ?We have the versatility to play in a lot of different fronts, a lot of different packages. Whatever is going to give our team the edge ? if we can do some different things on defense to help us out with that process, whether it?s 3-4, 4-3, whatever gives us the best chance to win, that?s what we?re going to do.?
The Patriots ranked 14th in the NFL last season with 31 sacks, but they?ve already recorded six in two preseason games, with two coming from linemen Myron Pryor and Stephen Williams. The linemen actually combined to register 16 1/2 sacks in 2008, and Seymour tied a career high with eight quarterback takedowns. Of course, sacks aren?t the be-all-end-all statistic the team is trying to achieve, as any defense would be happy to pressure a quarterback and force an interception or incompletion.
?Sacks can be overrated,? Seymour said. ?It?s about getting pressure on the passer and taking care of your responsibilities first. There?s a time and a place for everything. If it calls for us to penetrate and get in the backfield, then that?s what we?ll do.?
The linebackers, on the other hand, aren?t as ecstatic as the linemen over their opportunities in the 4-3. It?s not like they?re pouting in the corner of the locker room or anything, but the linebackers are forced to read the offense at a quicker rate in the 4-3 because their responsibilities can hinge on a number of different options. Plus, there is a little bit of a role reversal when the defensive base changes.
?It?s a little bit easier,? Jerod Mayo said about playing middle linebacker in a 3-4 instead of a 4-3. ?I don?t have to wrestle with those [offensive] linemen as much.?
Through two preseason games, it?s too early to tell if Belichick will favor one base over the other. He has a lot more bodies on the defensive line, especially with the recent addition of Derrick Burgess, so one factor could simply be about placing the 11 most talented players on the field at one time. With Belichick, though, it could always come down to situational football and which players match up best with the opponent.
If the defensive linemen have anything to say about it, they?ll be lobbying for the 4-3 like politicians before an election.
?We love it when we make plays, but at the same time, it?s not going to happen like that all the time,? Wilfork said. ?It?s preseason, and we have to take it for what it?s worth. It?s a great opportunity to go out there and showcase some things and work on some things fundamentally, get you ready for the season.
“We were pretty excited about it, but at the same time, we have to get more consistent up front. I think we will because we push each other to go in and work every day and practice hard. That?s going to benefit us. We understand what we have to do, and we?re willing to do it.?