New England Patriots – Flexible Fronts

| August 15, 2011

Most coaches have systems, Bill Belichick has gameplans. Ever wondered why the Belichick coaching tree isn’t as large and blossoming as the Bill Walsh tree, the Bill Parcells tree, the Marty Schottenheimer tree? Every truly great coach in the NFL spawns a family of disciples that go forth and take the teachings of that great coach all over the league. Not so with Belichick, and it’s not for the want of trying. Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel, Josh McDaniels? All bombed as head coaches once they left the protective shadow of Foxboro.
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Maybe some of it is the micromanaging – the fact that Belichick likes to be in control – limiting the impact and experience these guys actually develop under him. The main issue is that he doesn’t have any set system that assistant coaches can learn, package up and take on the road with them to their new jobs. It’s a different story if you were an assistant of Tony Dungy’s. Dungy had a system. You could learn it, take it with you, install it at a new destination and succeed because the system was tried and tested. It worked, you just slotted players in.
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But Belichick changes his defense week to week, including sliding between 3-4 and 4-3 fronts when he sees it as necessary and beneficial to winning the game. There’s no system, he just does what works, what he knows will win that week – there’s no way for an assistant coach to take that with him on the road. It requires the knowledge, insight and experience that he alone has. He reacts to the challenge that is coming, rather than sticking to a cookie cutter system that can be overcome.
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I recently wrote a piece on NFL defenses and Hybrid schemes such as the Jets run, and deliberately steered clear of mentioning the Patriots because though they make use of both three- and four-man fronts, they rarely switch it up in-game the way the Jets do. Rather, they decide what front is best to attack the offense they face that week, and that’s what they run predominantly. They will change it up to an extent in sub-packages and with different personnel, but by and large, last season the Patriots were a 3-4 team. How about 2011?
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Sensing Change

The moment the Patriots released Ty Warren – perhaps the prototype 3-4 DE – I speculated over twitter that the Patriots might be shifting towards being a 4-3 team this season. The more players they have brought in, the more that seems to be a reality. Albert Haynesworth might be the most destructive 4-3 DT in the NFL, and we all know that Albert wants nothing to do with the 3-4.  He only talked to 4-3 teams when he was a free agent leaving Tennessee, and the move to the 3-4 in DC is what sparked all of the drama since.
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The Patriots got him for a steal, and the Haynesworth move alone wouldn’t necessarily have meant much, because Belichick is well capable of carving a 1-gap role for him regardless of the overall scheme, even if it meant a limited number of snaps, but what about Mark Anderson and Andre Carter? Carter was one of the best pure pass-rushing 4-3 DEs in football in 2009, but in 2010 he was badly miscast in the Redskins’ new 3-4. He simply wasn’t capable of generating the same burst off the ball when stood up in a two-point stance, he needed the coil to explode from that the three point stance provides. Mark Anderson is another 4-3 DE, albeit one a lot less dominant than Carter has been (with just a sack-gaudy rookie season to hold up for his career to date).
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New England has had a serious lack of pass-rush for a few seasons now, and they had to find pressure from somewhere, but the players they brought in are interestingly scheme specific (there have been reports that Carter was assured he would be used only as an edge rusher with his hand in the ground before signing). There are going to have to be a lot of four-man fronts in New England this season for these guys to be in their best position to succeed.
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But this is the New England Patriots, so you know they haven’t forced themselves into a corner, they’ve both retained and acquired players that are scheme diverse, and those guys allow them to change it up between three- and four-man lines. Mike Wright can play in both schemes, but is at his best as a pass-rushing interior force. Vince Wilfork is known as the prototype 3-4 NT, but he was moved around the D-line last season to find beneficial matchups and is well capable of manning the nose in a 4-3 front as well.
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The signing of Shaun Ellis was another big piece of that puzzle. Ellis had been a key cog to the Jets’ hybrid, capable of playing as both a 4-3 DE and DT, as well as a 3-4 DE. That kind of versatility allowed the Jets to seamlessly switch between the formations without changing personnel. The Patriots will likely adjust their personnel when they change between schemes, and won’t cycle through fronts constantly like the Jets do, but players like Ellis allow them to keep the potential to field either defensive front week to week.
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Sneak Peek

On Thursday night we got out first glimpse of what this new defense might look like, when the Patriots took on the Jaguars, and though the starters played only a couple of series and they had plenty of first choice defenders missing entirely, we saw some interesting formations. On the first drive they played very much a Vanilla 4-3. The D-line alignment was normal, but they over-shifted the SAM linebacker to sit outside the tight end near the line of scrimmage, making it look like a five-man front. On the second drive they were in the same alignment, except Jermaine Cunningham stood up to create a 1-gap 3-4, with the defensive line maintaining regular 4-3 alignment along the line of scrimmage. This is obviously too small a sample size to really get a handle on what they will be doing this season, but it confirms some of what we already suspected from their free agent moves.
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So what would the New England front seven look like in either front?
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  • tom

    Bill gets very agitated when the local media types here try to get him to put a label on his D. He got quite testy when someone asked him if he planned to have Mayo pass rush.

    From what I have read, Bill the mad scientist and his buddy Ernie Adams strategize about Offensive & Defensive schemes, salary cap, personnel traits & tendencies 24/7/365, so that the team is never static. In my opinion, it was easier in earlier years to find the hybrid guys for his original 3-4 schemes, but now there are more and more teams switching to a 3-4 and those guys are in shorter supply and it may be easier to find guys for his 4-3 scheme at this point in time, especially veterans with some gas still left in the tank.

    • Rodney Hart

      Bill Belichick gets irritated when anyone from the media tries to get him to elaborate on anything beyond his whether or not it was actually the Patriots that took the field that night. I is this quality about him that is probably both overrated and underrated at the same time.

      It can be a bit overrated, because it’s not like answering any one question would legitimately affect the Patriots chance to win. BUT, to Sam’s larger point, it is his absolute commitment to controlling every aspect of the team down to not elaborating one word beyond what is absolutely necessary to reporters that make the Patriots less about a system that can be replicated by the “Belichick Coaching Tree” and more about a coach who is obsessively focused on doing what he feels is best for the team.

      After having listened to the majority of Belichick press conferences (whether it’s post-game or post-practice) for the past decade, you begin to appreciate how much effort it must take to be as tight-lipped and focused as he is regardless of the emotion or outcome of a game. Though Belichick has philosophies and systems, his control and single-mindedness are less system-based and more predicated on the personality of the man controlling the strings.

  • snowman88

    To me it looks like the Pats are going to be running 4-3 over/under looks…both of those looks put five men on the line of scrimmage

  • tom

    One thing that I notice about him that is “systematic” is his ability and unwavering demand that players/coaches stick to concentrating to the job at hand. In this light he is relentless in eliminating all distractions to his players & coaches preparations for a game; that is why he gives little except when discussing past history of the game. In his mind, discussing roster moves, contracts, game strategy, etc with the media and/or fans does not help prepare his team for a game and he is not going to talk about it even to Roger Godell. It is what it is and if you don’t like it go talk to Rex Ryan.

  • tom

    Also, he is not married to any single plan or structure. If he thinks zero DL’s and 11 cover guys would win a game he would do that also. The one thing that amazes me that the offense will spread it out and throw a lot, counter to his time with NYGiants, but then again,they never had a QB like TBrady.

    • Rodney Hart

      Given the success that he has had with the offense spreading it out, it shouldn’t surprise too much given that he is like you said, focused on doing whatever it takes to give the Patriots their best opportunity to win.

      I think that it is important to note that there is room in the NFL for coaches with Rex Ryan’s style as well. There are players who respond well to Ryan’s style, and their success in the previous two years should be evidence that Belichick’s way isn’t the only way to succeed in the NFL. But, I think that Belichick’s unwillingness to talk to the media about anything, especially the players on the team, results in the Patriots being an organization that players hope to play for (think of Ochocinco’s “I’m in heaven” tweets).

      That isn’t to say players don’t want to play for other coaches like Rex Ryan, all of the Jets players have clearly responded to his style and he has elevated them to a place they haven’t been in a long time. But let’s say the Jets didn’t respond as well to Ryan’s Superbowl comments last year – or this year for that matter – I am sure there will be some players who will grow weary of constantly having to answer for their coach who writes checks that his players have to cash.