As the NFL turns to a passing-dependent league, teams will looks to develop their defenses to handle passing-oriented offenses. Over the past couple of years, it has become increasingly common to see teams play five defensive backs in order to cover three receivers on the field. I shot a couple questions at Pro Football Focus's Mike Clay and asked him to compare the production of the three main defensive alternatives that feature five defensive backs: 2-4-5, 3-3-5, and 4-2-5.
The Patriots have primarily operated with the 3-3-5 and the 4-2-5, while teams like the Green Bay Packers have had success in the 2-4-5. Clay was able to put out the rankings of those three formations.
Pass Defense (YPA):
1. 4-2-5: 7.3
2. 2-4-5: 7.5
3. 3-3-5: 8.1
Run Defense (YPC):
1. 2-4-5: 4.7
2. 4-2-5: 4.9
3. 3-3-5: 5.1
So how can the Patriots use these numbers? Teams will play formations that fit the personnel. It's clear that the 3-3-5 formation is the least effective, so the Patriots must find players that can play in either the 4-2 or the 2-4 front. Or, even better, they can find players who can do both.
The Patriots have been trying to find replacements for Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest for the longest time, leading to a revolving door at the outside linebacker position. Rob Ninkovich has helped effectively replace Vrabel, so the team is left searching for a bookend on the other side. Due to the effectiveness of the 2-4 and the 4-2 fronts, the Patriots must find a player who can both put his hand into the dirt as a defensive end for passing downs, while also being able to stand-up to sniff out running plays.
What this also means is that the need for two stalwart defensive tackles increase, as they can hold the line together. Vince Wilfork fits the bill very nicely- but who is the other player? If Ron Brace shows anything on the field, he has the body size to be that player. Kyle Love might be too small, which prevents the Patriots from effectively playing a two-man front. So do the Patriots continue to look for another defensive tackle to place next to Wilfork?
In order to adjust to the 2-4 and the 4-2 fronts, the Patriots will need another DE/OLB player, as well as another hefty NT-sized DT (and it's gravy if they can kick out to play defensive end in the base 3-4 defense). Will they do it? Can they do it? I believe it's possible.
First rounders Michael Brockers (6'6, 322) and Dontari Poe (6'4, 346), as well as 2nd or 3rd rounder Alameda Ta'amu (6'3, 348) could play the defensive tackle role, while Brockers has the "gravy" ability of potentially playing defensive end. They have the size to hold the point against offensive lines and allow linebackers to make plays in both the two-man and the four-man front.
First and second rounders Nick Perry (6'3, 270), Andre Branch (6'4, 260), Vinny Curry (6'3, 265), and Chandler Jones (6'5, 265) have the size, speed, and change-of-direction ability to develop into solid OLB/DE prospects. There are numerous players in the draft with the potential ability to play standing up, as well as with their hand in the dirt.
If the Patriots wish to improve their defense, they'll have to find a way to improve their third down package, which involves scrapping the 3-3-5 formation. By drafting players with the versatility to excel in multiple formations, the Patriots could take the first step in vastly improving their defensive performance.