Typically, the Patriots play any number of alignments on their defensive front, subjective to the opponent and situation. However, the most frequent lines the Patriots tend to employ are three and four man fronts.
However, each front is also subject to opponent and situation, as the Patriots employ a more standard 3-man front in the base 3-4 (players who can play a 2-gap role, eating space to stop the run but who can rush the passer when they see that play developing into a passing play). However we often saw the Patriots revert to a 3-3-5 formation on some third downs in 2010, requiring the three down linemen to rush the passer.
When the Patriots switch to a 4-man line (this is the most common 3rd down formation for the Patriots where they would often switch to a 4-2-5 formation), these four players are required to rush the passer and collapse the pocket. However, again in some games in 2010 (particularly against the Vikings), the Patriots came out in a ‘heavy' 4-man line on early downs, to stop the run but also to leave 5 defensive backs to stop the passing game.
After this week's addition of defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth (together with the release of Marcus Stroud), this has somewhat shaken up the Patriots defensive line depth but has also created some exciting flexibility with our linemen.
So, what does all this mean for the Patriots defense?
Strong Run Defense
You have to believe that Haynesworth will get a very serious look at the RDE spot in the base package. Yes, he wants to rush the passer and that WILL be his primary role. But, he is simply too talented to be a one trick pony for this team as he can simply absorb two and sometimes three blockers - imagine what that could do for our run defense (ranked 32nd in the league when opponents ran at the RDE spot). Hopefully, the promise of a potential championship can motivate him to understanding the importance of 2-gapping on early downs - creating 3rd and long situations where he can then be unleashed. In the base I can envision Haynesworth rotating with Ron Brace between 1st and 2nd downs but he will be on the field for 3rd downs.
Furthermore, if the Patriots want to change up to a heavy 4-man line on early downs, the addition of Haynesworth can give the Patriots some real options here, as Albert can revert to his natural DT position in a line which could potentially weigh close to 1.5 tonnes!
As a starting line in the base 3-4, the line will likely be:
Haynesworth - Wilfork - Warren
NB: Ron Brace will rotate in with Haynesworth and Warren as the primary run support and we know that Mike Wright can do the job in a pinch, but ideally, Wright is off the field until 3rd down. I think the Patriots will keep Kyle Love on the roster as Vince's backup and also given his knack for disrupting the QB - if he can improve as a 2-gap NT, he will be a terrific rotational player. Finally, we've all seen a glimpse of the potential that Brandon Deaderick possesses (everyone remembers the stop of Adrian Peterson on the goal line to end the half vs the Vikings). Given his potential and low salary, he also makes the team as a rotational player for the base defense.
As a starting line in the ‘heavy' four man line:
Brace - Haynesworth - Wilfork - Warren
NB: This is a very big line for the Patriots, and although it probably won't be used that often, it could be a very useful tool against some of the better running teams we face this year and could allow Bill to be creative on the back end. Again, Wright, Deaderick and Love would be top backup options for the Patriots in this formation.
Run Defense Summary
These are just two of the most obvious run-stopping lines the Patriots could employ on early downs but it's clear to see - the Patriots of 2011 should be very difficult to run on. In the base defense, each player can handle the double team with ease and this should also allow Brandon Spikes to flourish in shedding limited blocks and making the tackle. In the sub-package run stopping front, I can't see many offensive lines which could hold up against that front! If our OLB's can set a solid edge, I would expect the Patriots to be very high in the end of year rankings for run defense.
Improved Pass Rush
On his day, Haynesworth is every bit the dominant defensive player that Haloti Ngata is. The impact he can have on this team from a pass rushing perspective can be immeasurable - the guy can simply destroy the pocket and take on two and sometimes three offensive linemen in the process, both of which create opportunities for other players. When you couple this with the fact the Patriots should field one of the stronger secondaries in the league in 2011, which should give our pass rushers more time, it's clear to see how the Haynesworth addition could be devastating for opponents.
Even in the base defense (outlined above) on early downs, although their primary objective is to eat up blockers and stop the run, this unit has more than enough power to collapse a pocket once it becomes clear the play is no longer a running play.
As indicated above, in sub-packages, the Patriots typically go with 3 or 4 man lines to rush the passer (although they will occasionally throw in 2, 1 or even zero down linemen - here I'm concentrating on the most frequent packages). In sub-packages, the Patriots could certainly have some exciting options available.
Pass rushing 3 man line:
Wright - Haynesworth - Deaderick
NB: This package would allow each of these players to play to their strengths - pin their ears back and get after the QB in a one gap role. Wright is a terrific pass rusher, as is Haynesworth and Deaderick can certainly make noise in the backfield, although his role in this package could be claimed by Ron Brace. I also think it could be worth exploring bringing back Gerard Warren specifically for this role, as he proved a very good pass rushing lineman as well as solid locker room presence in 20110.
Pass Rushing 4 man line:
Cunningham - Wright - Haynesworth - Moore
NB: This is the line-up I will be most intrigued to see, as it is the most common formation for this team on 3rd down, where the Partiots defense was ranked 32nd in the league in 2010. Wright and Haynesworth we know can rush the passer and collapse the pocket. Eric Moore showed lots of promise in this system at the end of 2010, where he notched a couple of sacks and forced a few fumbles - he should benefit hugely next to Haynesworth. Jermaine Cunningham showed lots of promise also in 2010, and will be counted upon to up his sack total in 2011.
Pass Rush Summary
Whilst I am more confident of our run stopping formations than pass rushing formation at this point in time, it is clear to see how adding Albert Haynesworth will affect this team - immediately it gives us more credibility as a pass rushing unit and given the fact he requires at least two blockers, it should free up our other defensive linemen who will be expected to win their one-on-one matchups to disrupt an opponent's passing attack.
Final Roster Depth for Defensive Line
Despite the fact that in 2010, the Patriots were short of defensive linemen towards the end of the season, I get the feeling that Bill will still only carry eight defensive linemen again to open the 2011 season. There are other areas of the roster which may need to carry additional players this year (TE, S, RB, WR) so I think 8 will be the number for the defensive line. With that in mind, I would project the final 8 to be:
**Of the current players on the roster Myron Pryor would have the inside track on the final roster spot for the defensive line, given his production in sub-packages and his relatively cheap contract. However, if there were any room under the cap, the Patriots may explore bringing back Gerard Warren.