Thursday Morning 3rd and Long: If I Had a Nickel

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - SEPTEMBER 12: Chad Ochocinco #85 of the New England Patriots looks on during a game against the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium on September 12, 2011 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

If there is any major weakness in the 2011 Patriots defense, it certainly is not with the defensive tackles. Albert Haynesworth, Vince Wilfork, Myron Pryor, and Kyle Love all played fantastic games last Monday night against the Miami Dolphins, and are proving to Patriots fans that New England has the personnel to run a very effective four man front.

Much has been said that Albert Haynesworth's play leaves something to be desired, and I suppose there is some credence to that theory as his stat line showed only two tackles, some minor pressures, and a few holding calls against Richie Incognito (arguably the best name in the NFL). Was anyone expecting Albert to come in and start manhandling people? Yes, he is a monstrous presence, but he has been out of truly competitive football (at least mentally) for close to two years, and played in a single preseason game. For the rotations Haynesworth had, he showed a lot of promise in our system, even filling in at nose tackle late in the contest.

I believe New England's tackles this year are being asked to be hybrid nose/ defensive tackles, occupying roles with both philosophies. In a standard 4-3, the defensive tackles would most commonly line up across from the opposing guards, and have a single gap they would fill. With a 3-4 system, you are asking the nose tackle to stand over the center and occupy the center/guard gaps. A defensive end in that system is over the tackle, and asked to monitor the gap outside the tackle (or between the tackle and tight end) and the guard/tackle gap. This is why nose tackles are usually thought to be more beefy- their primary job is to stand up to double team and basically be an immovable object on the line of scrimmage, allowing the linebackers to make plays on the two inside gaps and to monitor the edges of the offensive line.

If we consider that a standard offensive line package has 4 interior gaps and then the outside edges as a math problem, we begin to see a four man defensive front as a solution to that problem. Haynesworth, Wilfork, and even Kyle Love to some extent have the athleticism and size to be disruptive in one on one situations and require double teams. That means that if Vince and Albert are creating enough havoc in their areas, four offensive players might be required to stop them moving up the middle or standing the offensive line up at the point of scrimmage. At the same time, if #75 and #92 are positioned over the guards, it's possible they might be used as two gap defensive tackles, occupying all four interior lanes. That would allow our defensive ends to clean up the outside lanes or generate pressure from the outside without needing three linebackers to stop the run.

I'm not only a huge fan of Tedy Bruschi's time in Patriots laundry, but also of the tremendous insight he has regarding football analysis. One of my favorite pieces to read is 'Bruschi on Tap,' because the reader can obtain information from a perspective that we would not get from a normal football analyst or writer. A few weeks ago, he had a piece that outlined a possible reason for the switch to a four man defensive line as an easier way to transition from a base defense to a sub package, and this makes a ridiculous amount of sense. If a player is being asked to play one position primarily (i.e. 3-4 DL or NT), switching from this position to a sub package might make them less effective in the transition. Not only that, but the beefy personal required to run a successful 3-4 base is not the same personnel required to generate pressure in a 4-3. If the Patriots had a stockade of Vince Wilfork type talents, the transition would not be difficult because of how versatile he is. But the Patriots had Vince and a bevy of backups towards the end of the season, so asking that group to be proficient at both areas was a bit much.

I've said all of that to get to this little nugget, that most of you may have already realized- all of the reaction vs. attacking prose generated for the defensive philosophy shift was clearly done in my opinion to alter the effectiveness of the Patriot's nickel packages. There are a few variations of the nickle- 3-3-5, 4-2-5, and so on- but it seems to me that the package New England is building is specifically for the 4-2-5, and here's why: the philosophy of the NFL is changing. The dynamic of a 3 receiver set with a running back and a tight end, 5 wide sets, or 4 wide with a back is something that the Patriots are going to see more, and more, and more, and more because of New England's ability to put points on the board so early in games. You can say that teams have success attacking the Patriots with passing, but that is because with the exception of last year's game against Cleveland, no one had the chance to eat any clock with runs. To keep up with the aerial attack led by Tom Brady, teams last year were attempting a ridiculous amount of second half passing. The Patriots' run defense has been above average with the 3-4 mentality throughout the last few seasons, and the lead New England builds usually contributes to low rushing totals.

Richard Hill pointed out in his first quarter breakdown that it appeared the Patriots wanted to get the combination of Ras-I Dowling, Leigh Bodden, and Devin McCourty together on the field as much as possible, and I believe I know why.  Check out this article, which details New England's 2010 season and the effectiveness of the Patriots against various formations. New England's opponents ran plays out of a trip receiver formation 53% of the time, compared with 30% out of a two receiver package. The Patriots had a DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) of 23.1% against 3 wide receiver sets, which ranked 28th in the league. In layman's terms, opposing teams played out of the personnel grouping New England struggled with the most over half the time. The Patriots utilized a nickel defense for over half their snaps last season, a number that basically mirrors the amount of snaps they saw against a trip receiver formation.

Going back to what Bruschi said in his ‘On Tap' piece, it's easy to now understand the concept of moving towards a 4-downed-lineman based concept. In this way, the play of the line has limited adjustments to make, and the only substitution on passing downs needs to be a defensive back for a linebacker.

On to this game. All in all, it left me extremely excited for the potential of the 2011 New England Patriots. Our defense gave up massive chunks of yardage, but I'd attribute that to the limited repetitions our first string defensive secondary has had together. Ras-I Dowling and Leigh Bodden missed a good amount of the preseason, but both had more ups than downs against the Dolphins. It didn't hurt Miami that their playmakers were living up to that standard- fans can't be mad when an unknown tight end is making diving, one-handed catches or Brandon Marshall is turning like a dreidel while parallel to the ground to make a circus catch to stay in bounds. For those that think Devin McCourty had a bad night- rewatch the tape. First off, he's going against one of the toughest covers in the NFL. Marshall can hurt you as a deep threat, but has sure enough hands to catch the ball in traffic and enough durability to take the initial contact. Heck, he stiff-armed Jerod Mayo at one point, which is one thing you're not going to see very much of. If anything, McCourty is a ball hawk in every sense of the word. He nearly picked the ball off three times- one went narrowly through his hands, one bounced directly off his hands, and another was batted away by Patrick Chung. Trust in Devin's abilities; especially when you see Marshall have a 1400 yard season.

Patrick Chung is swiftly becoming my new favorite Patriot. He brings a great sense for the ball, shown by a few tackles he made to stop the run as it was passing Gary Guyton by. He had a tremendous sack, a statistic that Brandon Meriweather failed to record throughout the entire 2010 campaign. He also had a HUGE hit on Anthony Fasano, who was left crawling around for the next three minutes. Instead of the headhunter we've seen patrolling at safety for the last two seasons, this year fans got a glimpse of someone who was willing to play by the rules- a perfectly legal shoulder-to-chest tackle- but still have the intensity to deliver the big hit. I believe Chung is the answer to safety questions New England fans are asking. The only question will be who emerges as the starting safety next to Pat for the season.

A lot of people took offense to my previous words about Brandon Spikes, but it certainly can't be a good sign that he was a healthy scratch on Monday night.

The rest of the Patriots linebacking corps looks great though- Mayo was obviously the most consistent, but Dane Fletcher had a few nice run stops and Rob Ninkovich played a variety of roles in the victory. I've said before that I really enjoy how Rob plays; he can drop into coverage, plays solid against the run, and has enough size and strength to take on offensive tackles if used as a defensive end. His versatility will allow Bill Belichick to dial up multitudes of formations later in the season. Gary Guyton is inconsistent against the run, but seems to have the athletic ability to cover tight ends. Fasano made some grabs over Guyton, but Gary was never "burned" on a play. He was, however, consistently taken out of the running game.

Nate Solder's play is a huge topic this week. He "syrupped" Cameron Wake on a few occasions and was rarely out of his element. With Sebastian Vollmer back at practice this week, I wonder if Solder will be kept out of the starting lineup. Or maybe Matt Light moves to center instead? I'm very interested to see if Dan Connolly will remain the starting center, but the results against Miami speak for themselves- he's at least an adequate, if not above-average replacement. My only worry is how badly he was dominated by Ndamukong Suh; If he was dominated by the athletic yet relatively light Suh, how would Dan perform against the massive nose tackles he'd be facing?

I've spoken to a few people about the relative absence of BenJarvus Green-Ellis against Miami, but as long as the Patriots are getting 100 rushing yards and a rushing TD why does anyone care where it's coming from? The efficiency of our running attack should scare a lot of opponents; the fact that BenJarvus and Danny Woodhead were both able to average 4.9 yards/carry says a lot about their abilities. Woodhead has a freaky ability to see cut-back lanes and is always a danger to break off large runs. BenJarvus, on the other hand, always hits the assigned gap hard and gains positive yardage. For someone who isn't considered an overly large running back, he seems to have no problem pushing piles or driving through the initial contact. On his touchdown run, Green-Ellis seemed to display a freakish amount of balance, as he took a first hit and then maintained a 45 degree angle to the group before diving into the endzone.

It would seem that one of the Patriots' most effective personnel packages on offense is going to be a two tight end, two receiver, and single back formation. The presence of the tight ends makes the running game a bigger threat- specifically when you have Rob Gronkowski on the field. Aaron Hernandez is a great blocked in his own right, but he's nowhere near the intimidating presence Gronkowski is on the line. The fact that Rob might be New England's premier red zone threat, as well as a crushing blocker will keep defenses guessing throughout the course of the season.

I'm a huge fan of Chad Ochocinco, who seems to be having a tough time adjusting to the complex Patriots system. However, he still had a fantastic catch to prolong New England's last drive in the first half, a catch he made is his fingertips while keeping his toes in bounds. When evaluating his play, you obviously have to take into account the bonehead illegal formation call, but other than that he wasn't having an awful night. Bill Belichick simply liked the formation of 2 receivers with 2 tight ends, and Welker and Branch fit that system better because of their familiarity. What does everyone make of Tedy Bruschi's rant on Ochocinco needing to get more in his playbook? I'm not sure if it's fair criticism after only the first game of the year. Bruschi is a beloved Patriot figure, but he has to understand that HE is the one creating the media distraction, not Chad's fawning tweet about how good the Patriots' offense performed.

Next week: New England has their home opener against the San Diego Super Chargers, in a matchup that should be a dynamic test for the 2011 Patriots. Vincent Jackson is an amazing talent that should give our corners fits, and Gary Guyton will have another huge test trying to limit Antonio Gates' receptions. The Chargers have been a team that everyone has been predicting to turn a corner over the last few seasons, and this year is no different. Mike Tolbert is coming off an amazing week, where he was as dangerous in the passing game as he was running the ball. If Tolbert keeps that up, the Chargers offense is as potent as the Patriots, and their defense is no slouch either. The Chargers have all of the physical tools, but they always commit mental errors, especially on special teams. Look for Belichick to try to exploit their weaknesses in that area, and also attack Rivers early and often to try to disrupt Rivers getting to his receivers. If the Chargers gain any steam, it should be a long night for the Patriots.

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