Throughout the 2009 preseason Patriots fans and observers were surprised to see the team playing more of a 4-3 base defense, and this was even before Richard Seymour, a prototypical 3-4 defensive end, was traded. Bill Belichick has been using a 3-4 base defense long before the trend took over the NFL in the last five years, so this marked an interesting switch in philosophy.
Injuries and inexperience forced the Patriots back to the 3-4 defense in 2009. Of course Belichick has always run multiple fronts and in reality, you're only going to be in your base defense around fifty percent of the time so we don't want to make this seem like it's some kind of revolution. In fact, Albert Breer reported today that the Pats have still been running a majority of 3-4 defense in camp thus far. But with potential 3-4 OLB Shawn Crable cut and mini-camp's 3-4 OLB starter Derrick Burgess contemplating retirement might it be time for the Patriots to make a significant shift in base defense this year?
My thoughts after the jump...
When you look at the Patriots dynasty defense of the early 00's you see a roster filled with 3-4 defense prototypes. Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel had the length and ability in coverage/setting the edge that are necessary to be Outside Linebackers in the scheme. The roster had large, two gap defensive lineman who specialized in holding up blocks allowing Tedy Bruschi, Ted Johnson and Roman Phifer to make plays all over the field.
Now when you look at the current Patriots defensive roster you see a team that looks far more suited to play the 4-3 defense. Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork and Ron Brace remain ideal 3-4 defensive lineman, but Mike Wright, Damione Lewis, Gerard Warren and Myron Pryor all seem to fit a 4-3 scheme a lot better. Lewis and Gerard Warren both played in the 4-3 defense last year, with Lewis consistently getting pressure on the quarterback from that scheme.
The linebacking corps looks even more 4-3 friendly. In a 3-4 scheme it will be hard to get enough snaps for all four talented young inside linebackers Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Gary Guyton and Tyrone McKenzie. But in a 4-3 scheme you could use almost any combination of those talented young linebackers on the field at any given time.
There was an interesting thread on the PatsFans.com message board that popped up today discussing this very question. I don't want to make it out to be a huge shift in philosophy, just simply a way that schematically the 2010 Patriots can play more to their strengths, especially in a two-gap 4-3. I asked the highly respected Chris Brown of SmartFootball.com about the switch last season and here's what he had to say.
Consider these two lineups, and you tell me which looks like it takes better advantage of the Patriots personnel:
T. Warren - Wilfork - G. Warren
Ninkovich/Woods - Mayo - Guyton/Spikes - Banta-Cain
T. Warren- Wilfork - Lewis - Banta-Cain
Mayo - Spikes/McKenzie - Guyton/Ninkovich (really BB could mix and match LBs however he wanted, they are that versatile)
The depth and ability to rotate appears far easier in a 4-3 scheme. Mayo and McKenzie look like they could play any of the 4-3 linebacker positions (McKenzie played all of them in college), and Mike Wright, Myron Pryor and Gerard Warren could all play numerous spots on the line.
You could also use Jermaine Cunningham (or Burgess if he doesn't retire) as a sub for Banta-Cain making it a far easier transition for the rookie since he would not have pass coverage responsibility. This 4-3 lineup looks like a lightning-fast one that can generate pass rush from the down lineman, or from blitzing linebackers.
When you look for a 3-4 OLB prototype only Pierre Woods looks anything close to Vrabel or McGinest physically, and we all know he's not the player either of those legends were. The rest are a collection of six-foot-two/six-foot-three 'backers who can run like the wind, but none are ideal to take on tackles who are six-foot-six with monstrous wingspans.
We know that Bill Belichick will never say goodbye to the 3-4 defense entirely and will continue to use it to teach defense in the early days of camp, but if nothing else, Belichick is known for putting his players in the best position to succeed. For 2010 that just might be the 4-3 defense.