Next one in the series (and coming towards the end!): Linebackers. The heart and soul of the Belichick Patriots defence, and the position where such Patriots luminaries as Tedy Bruschi, Ted Johnson, Roman Phifer, Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest (well, most of the time), and Roosevelt Colvin earned their bread, butter, and Superbowl Rings.
Look at those names and you can instantly picture various gamechanging plays that led to those Superbowls - Mike Vrabel sacking Kurt Warner to put the Rams outside field goal range in the 2001 Superbowl; another Vrabel sack causing Jake Delhomme to cough up a fumble on the Panthers 20 in the 2003 Superbowl; Bruschi's 2004 divisional round heroics by forcing a fumble from Dominic Rhodes on the Pats 39; Roosevelt Colvin forcing a fumble from Jerome Bettis and having fellow linebacker Mike Vrabel recovering it in the AFCCC in 2004.
And look at those names - Vrabel, Bruschi, Colvin - and you see a list of players that aren't on the Patriots roster in 2010. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the 2009 Pats LB stable - while decent - hardly struck fear into the hearts of opposition Offensive Co-ordinators like the '03-'04 incarnations would have.
Just that lack of marquee players? No, it's not solely the lack of recognised names that's causing the problems with the defence as of late. I hate to shamelessly plug my own material, but in the very first of the stories from this series from a couple of months ago, I put my finger on what I believe the main problem is - the type of linebackers involved in the 2009 campaign, in contrast to the '03-04 stables. In short, my argument went like this:
I suggest instead that the success of the early Belichick defences was predicated upon their strong, versatile, 3-down linebacker corps - names like McGinest, Bruschi, Phifer, Johnson, Colvin, Vrabel spring to mind. That's not particularly controversial. But when I pondered why that previous success wasn't replicated by the 2009 Pats Linebacker corps, I came to a conclusion that I've never seen mentioned anywhere else - it's because the 2009 LBs weren't 3-down guys. I could be wrong, but I have three reasons why I think it's critical that they weren't.
Those three reasons, and my list of who has the ability to fix them, after the jump...
The first problem I identified takes into consideration the way Belichick uses the 3-4. Belichick's scheme is not a blitz-heavy 3-4 like that of the Ravens or Jets; instead, Belichick relies a lot more on disguise and deception. And that deception means you need three down players, because:
...having 3-down players allow you to disguise your plays - on one play, Tedy Bruschi might have bull-rushed inside, Willie McGinest might cover the flat, Ted Johnson drops back, and Mike Vrabel might blitz outside. Or they might all sit back in coverage. Or they might all blitz. We didn’t know. The opposition sure didn’t know.
In other words, the opposition QB or Co-ordinator couldn't just look at the defensive package of 3-down linebackers and know what the defence was doing - any of those linebackers could be pass-rushing, dropping into coverage, sliding into the flat, anything. That allowed Belichick to dictate terms to the opposition, not the other way around - he controlled the misdirection and therefore the flow of the game without having to sub guys on and off to do it. If he needed a big play, he could risk it and call a blitz with his base package of players; if he wanted to keep bend-but-don't-break, the normal coverage will do. It's because of that passive-aggresive bipolar nature that so many big plays were generated in the linebacking corps; half of them were game-changing picks, the other half sacks causing fumbles, and all done by the same guys.
In 2009, however, if you saw Tully Banta-Cain out there, you knew it was a pass-rush; if you saw Adalius Thomas on the field, the Pats are preparing to defend the run. No surprise, whatsoever. And worse still, not only was there that lack of surprise, but the way certain players were tagged with rigid roles meant the opposition could game-plan to take them out of the game - you know who's coming (Tully Banta-Cain, usually). No disguise = no pass-rush.
That rigid player-to-role association was a killer. This plays out in the statistics of the Superbowl years:
The years the Pats did well, there tended to be a higher number of players with 3+ sacks - 6 in 2001, 8 in 2004, 6 in 2007. That suggests that almost everyone in the front 7 was at some point used to [pass-rush] - rather confusing for an opposition QB.
Problems with the 2009 LBs? Very much so - the roles of players were limited because they weren't called upon to both pass-rush and run-defend. That made them predictable, and predictability makes you dead:
This is shown in the stats - the number of players with 3+ sacks? A paltry 4. And dropping into coverage is part of it, right? Zero interceptions by Pats linebackers in 2009. Zero. Bruschi got 11 all by himself during his career. It’s no coincidence that the two best non-Brady Quarterbacks around - Manning and Brees - annihilated the defence: they knew exactly what every guy on the field was doing because the D was easy to read.
The solution? This suggests to me two things - whoever the Pats take have to have the physical abilities to do a little of everything. That means his OLBs should be as close to his 6'4", 250lb, 4.70 40 time as is possible, because if they're too small they aren't able to do all the things required of them. And if they can't do that, they're 2-down guys, and that means the Pats are back to where they started. They have to be physically capable of doing everything, or Manning or Brees will pick on them by exploiting their weaknesses.
As Belichick himself said in his pre-draft conference:
"I think when you draft a player like that, you understand that you’re drafting a player that’s shorter than average for his position or he’s slower than average for his position, or he has longer arms than average for his position," he added. "That’s not the final grade on the player, but it’s something you recognize. When you get a player at that position that’s going to be amongst the fastest players at his position in the league. Or its going to be below average at his position. So we identify that with a player.
"But we do have a standard for every position. Absolutely. So when the scout goes to grade a player, he’s either average in height, above average in height or whatever it happens to be."
Those weaknesses that drop players down the draft board for Belichick also make them enticing targets for the top QBs. Too slow? I'll give Reggie Bush a flat to run around you. Too short? Dallas Clark will sit on you from now on. Poor pass-coverage? I'll jam Pierre Garcon through that hole for a TD, thanks. Best way to eliminate the danger is eliminate the physical issues entirely, and get the players that fit the physical mould.
In practical terms, I believe it drops a few otherwise good prospects right down the Patriots draft board (perhaps even off the board). Casualties include Brandon Graham, Sean Weatherspoon, Navorro Bowman, Darryl Washington and Jason Worilds (3-4 inches too short to be Pats OLBs: it's too difficult to free themselves from TEs and set the edge against the run. That's a big consideration when the Pats face guys like Ronnie Brown, LaDanian Tomlinson, Leon Washington and Fred Jackson twice a year, every year)
It also suggests Weatherspoon, Bowman, Washington, Worilds, Norwood, and Thaddeus Gibson are too light to play OLB as they'll get manhandled by the divisions TEs too easily. These guys project as Pats-style ILB only, if at all.
That leaves names like Jerry Hughes, Sergio Kindle, Ricky Sapp and Koa Misi in contention for OLB spots, while Norwood, Weatherspoon and Bowman would probably project as ILBs in the Pats 3-4 if they were taken.
The second problem with the lack of 3-down linebackers - susceptibility to the no-huddle. As I put it in my previous article:
The second problem is what it doesn't prevent the opposition Offence from doing. In 2009, not only were the opposition QBs not deceived by the D packages, but they could actually take advantage of the Pats' need to sub pass-rushers on and off. Teams with no-huddle or quick-read offences - the Bills, the Broncos, the Colts, the Dolphins, the Saints - are practically built to kill you when you're slowly subbing guys back on and off the field. Having three-down Linebackers prevents that vulnerability precisely because they don't need to be subbed off.
The no-huddle isn't kind on gusy who only have pass-rush skills - it's too easy for them to get worn down if they're pass-rushing all the time, so they shouldn't. That means they should be at the very least be capable pass-defenders, either to get picks or at the very least interrupt passing lanes. They have to be able to read the QB to some extent, as well as having good situational awareness and ability to spot, read and react to passing routes on the fly. That comes with experience, and that may count against players like Jason Pierre-Paul, Everson Griffen, Carlos Dunlap and Derrick Morgan, who've never had to line up at OLB or defend passing routes in coverage before. Brandon Graham also probably doesn't cut it, either - 29.5 sacks in college, but only 3 pass-breakups, suggesting he's not a pass-deflection hound.
Guys who do pass the requisite pass-defence test are Sergio Kindle, who played OLB in college, Jerry Hughes, whose college system had him dropping into coverage from DE fairly often, and Koa Misi, who was a standout in a College system where his predecessor (2009 second round pick Paul Kruger) successful made the transition from college 4-3 DE to NFL 3-4 OLB with the Ravens. Ricky Sapp is another DE/OLB conversion who impressed scouts with his position-based skills, showing good flexibility and agility in sticking to receiver routes, which is unexpected of a college DE.
Finally, the third problem I saw with the lack of 3-down LBs - roster spots
The dearth of 3-down linebackers means you have to fill the roster with so many part-timers and situational players that a lot of crucial roster spots are taken up. There were up to 10 bit-part Linebackers on the roster; in the Superbowl years the total snaps went to only 4 or 5 or 6 starting-quality guy
For every roster spot taken up with a one- or two-down part-time linebacker, you can't have those roster spot bubble guys that might be your next big thing. Tom Brady only made the Pats in 2000 because they carried an extra roster spot for QBs - a total of four, which was unusual. They also had less roster spots on that 2000 team dedicated to Linebackers than the 2009 team did; just imagine how differently the history of the Pats would have been if they'd had to cut their fourth QB (Brady) in order to cover a linebacker who was only good for two-downs, and not three?
The roster spot issue might lend itself to selecting players who will also contribute in special teams; and Hoodie loves his special teams. Bigger, faster, more explosive is the name of the game in core special teamers - Gary Guyton earned his stripes there before he made his way onto the starting lineup, and he's a 6'4", 240lb freak that runs a 4.47 40. Everson Griffen, Carlos Dunlap, Jason Pierre-Paul, Sergio Kindle, Jerry Hughes, Ricky Sapp, Koa Misi and Jason Worilds all offer an intriguing mix of size, mass and speed that would appeal to Belichick in special teams.
Given all that, I'd lean towards either Sergio Kindle, Koa Misi or Jerry Hughes, with an outside chance of Griffen or Dunlap being a surprise OLB choice (they'd have to drop significantly for it to happen, though). Basically, those guys fit the mould; the rest don't. While it's always possible for another ridiculously productive undersized guy like Elvis Dumervil being in the draft crop, the odds are against it - smaller guys just don't quite fit the ideal 3-4 OLB mould because they're washed out of blocks and are liabilities against the run. I expect at least one, maybe two OLBs in the first two rounds of the draft, and given that, it's a duel between Kindle, Misi, Sapp, Hughes, Griffen and Dunlap for those spots. I'd lean towards DE being addressed in the first round, with second round picks on Hughes and Misi, but that's all dependant on who is on the board.
Another caveat - if Kindle *does* drop into the second round, all bets are off. The extra day of the draft means that Hoodie can make all the post-first-round manoeuvreing he likes, so he can use the entire night to figure out how to trade up to the top of the 2nd to secure Kindle if he wishes.
But! Your thoughts? I would put a poll, but I suspect most of these are double-barrelled answers, as there are several LB slots to fill (Adalius Thomas is surely out of town, right? Maybe?). Comment away.