The Patriots find themselves at a crossroads of sorts. What direction do they want their defense to head? The unit, despite all of the strengths, still struggled to prevent yardage gains and was historically unable to get off the field on third down. The defense couldn't generate consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks, even though there was definite improvement over last year, because so much of the defense was dedicated to supporting the young secondary. The loss of Richard Seymour has been obvious as the team couldn't stop the run and posted the second worse run defense since 2002 (only 2009 was worse against the run- the first season without Seymour).
The defensive backfield looks to be set for the next couple years, with young players like James Sanders, Brandon Meriweather, Pat Chung, Kyle Arrington, Devin McCourty and Darius Butler, as well as veteran Leigh Bodden, manning the secondary for the next few seasons. The front seven, however, has a lot of potential for change. The middle of the field is set with Vince Wilfork and the middle linebackers Jerod Mayo, Gary Guyton, Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher holding the spot for the next half decade. The outside is less certain.
Jermaine Cunningham and Eric Moore have shown potential as pass rushing and run-edge-setting outside linebackers. Rob Ninkovich has shown that he can drop into coverage. Tully Banta-Cain is a question mark. However, none of the outside linebackers are dominant enough to reach the quarterback at any snap of the ball, no matter who they're lined up against. Each linebacker has a distinct weakness that prevents them from staying on the field for three downs, which allows opposing teams to scheme against their inabilities.
The defensive ends have even more question marks. It seems as if Ron Brace, Ty Warren and Brandon Deaderick all have a similar style of play, where the set the containment, yet cannot reach the quarterback. Kyle Love is more of a nose tackle, while Myron Pryor and Mike Wright are better defensive tackles in the sub packages. Gerard Warren showed his capability of reaching the quarterback, but is getting old and the Patriots need a younger player to replace his skills. Basically, when the Patriots are up late in the game and opposing teams are throwing the ball, the Patriots want to be able to drop 8 players back into coverage. However, the Patriots defensive line, for its great ability to play containment, lacks the pass rushing threat and allows the opposing quarterback to sit in the pocket and make throws with plenty of time.
The point is that the Patriots have a lot of opportunities for this defense. Let's take a look after the jump.
There are three defensive fronts that the Patriots could possibly emulate- and all three defenses belong in the AFC. Oh, fun fact, they were the three other teams that made the AFC Final Four. The Pittsburgh Steelers, the New York Jets and the Baltimore Ravens. Let's take a look at each of the defenses.
The defensive line's goal is to open up big lanes for the linebackers to get through. While the defensive line can reach the quarterback, the main focus is to allow the linebackers to make the plays. The linebackers and linemen generate a lot of fast pressure, which allows Troy Polamalu to make decisions and plays in the secondary. The interior linebackers make all the tackles to stop the run, while the outside linebackers get the quarterback. This is a linebacker-centric defense.
Strength Players: Linebackers, Safeties - The linebackers make all the plays by the line of scrimmage and the safeties make all the plays in the secondary.
Role Players: Cornerbacks, Linemen - The cornerbacks allow the safeties to make plays, while the linemen let the linebackers make plays.
The defensive front 3 are able to make tackles on their own against the run, however they don't really get to the quarterback- which amplifies the Patriots' need for an upgrade on the interior line since the Jets were able to reach Tom Brady up the middle. The linebackers and secondary are brought in to generate pressure, while the line focuses on stopping the run. The linebackers watch the rushing lanes, but they also focus on standing in passing lanes since the linemen can stop the run on their own, allowing additional players to drop into coverage.
Strength Players: Linemen, Cornerbacks - The cornerbacks have to be able to rush the quarterback, but they also shut down the backfield, while the linemen make plays on the line of scrimmage.
Role Players: Linebackers, Safeties - Both the linebackers and safeties have a "mop-up" role, where they make the tackles that the linemen and the cornerbacks miss, respectively.
The stud linemen open up lanes so the inside and outside linebackers can generate pressure and make plays. So much strength and consistent pressure from the defensive front seven allows for a variety of defensive looks to confuse the quarterback and to stop the run. A stud safety, Ed Reed, covers up a deep portion of the field to take away any deep passes, as the front seven creates a lot of pressure and forces bad throws. However, the rest of the secondary is weak.
Strength Players: Linemen, Linebackers, Ed Reed - The front seven stop anything near the line of scrimmage, as well as any quick screen passes and Reed takes away the deep pass.
Role Players: Cornerbacks, Safety - The cornerbacks just need to stay close enough to the receiver to allow the pressure to reach the quarterback and the safety makes any missed tackle.
The Patriots have the following strengths: Cornerbacks, Vince Wilfork, Inside Linebacker.
The Patriots have the following role players: Safety, Defensive End, Outside Linebacker.
While I believe that the Patriots are happy and set with the safeties being role players, there is a lot of room for improvement at defensive end and outside linebacker. The most similar team is the New York Jets, except that the Jets have a stronger defensive line and, as of now, have stronger cornerbacks. However, the Patriots could be interested in creating a run stopping, quick pressure defense like the Steelers, in order to stop the run-based offenses of the Jets, Dolphins and Bills. I do think that the Ravens' strong front seven defense can be eliminated as a potential model for the Patriots defense purely because of the difference in personnel on both teams.
I propose a current Patriots/Jets/Steelers hybrid defense for the Patriots. While the "bend-don't-break" defense works for an opportunistic defense, a defensive model that relies on turnovers and a high powered offense isn't conducive for a Patriots deep run into the playoffs when they face defenses that can shut down the offense. The Patriots need to create a "don't-bend-don't-break" defense. Easy, right?
I think the Patriots should take the following qualities from the teams:
Linebacker Pressure from the Steelers.
Run Stopping Linemen from the Jets.
Opportunistic Secondary from the Patriots.
This means that the Patriots secondary is fine the way it is. The linemen, however, need to be drafted to stop the run. This means that I believe that Ron Brace, Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork, with Brandon Deaderick off the bench, represent the perfect defensive line for the Patriots since Brace-Wilfork-Warren all command double teams, which would both open up lanes for the linebackers to make plays, but also give the Patriots three players who can hold their ground at the line of scrimmage and can make tackles for no gain.
Should the Patriots remain complacent with their defensive line? It depends on how much they like Deaderick- and by the suspension, I'm not thinking they like him too much. The Patriots could draft a beefy defensive end (6-3+, 300+ lbs) like Muhammad Wilkerson, who can handle double teams, but there are very few of those candidates in the draft. Players like Cameron Heyward and Allen Bailey are more penetrators than containers that this defensive line calls for, and they might not be able to hold the point of attack against NFL linemen. Cam Jordan may also be too light, although he plays a similar style to Ty Warren.
Looking at the linebackers, it seemed like the Patriots were on the right track with inside linebackers as Gary Guyton was asked to rush the quarterback on delays. However, the outside linebacker position leaves a lot to be desired. The Patriots, if they follow the "Jets D-Line" approach with Warren-Wilfork-Brace and have two middle linebackers watching lanes, would have the A Gaps, B Gaps, C Gaps, and D Gaps covered. However, there is no pressure being generated in this situation. The outside linebackers need to be that pressure and that means they need to be able to beat the blocking of tight ends and running backs. Yes, players like Ryan Kerrigan, Aldon Smith and Robert Quinn would be excellent/monsters in this defense. So would players like Jeremy Beal, Sam Acho, Justin Houston and Jabaal Sheard. Basically, the Patriots need a player with a better finishing move to complement Jermaine Cunningham at outside linebacker.
So where does this idea leave us? It makes me pretty happy about the state of our defense. It also makes me, yes, I'll admit it, a little more willing to us the 17th pick on Robert Quinn or Aldon Smith if they're available. I believe that the defensive front of Brace-Wilfork-Warren will be able to stop the run at the line of scrimmage, even if they aren't able to generate much pressure. I also believe that the front three will be able to open lanes for the linebackers to make plays in the passing game by generating a lot of pressure. The outside linebacker that is drafted must have a closing step to reach the quarterback as Jermaine Cunningham will most likely line up on the strong side, against the opposing tight end.
Looking at the draft, I could support the following first three rounds:
17. Elite Pass Rushing OLB (Smith, Quinn, Kerrigan)
28. OL (Sherrod, Costanzo, Carimi, Solder, Smith, Pouncey, Hudson, Wisniewski)
33. Muhammad Wilkerson
60. Alternative Pass Rushing OLB (Beal, Acho, Sheard)
74. RB (Todman, Murray, Vereen)
92. OL (Ijalana, Moffitt, Barksdale, Love)
I believe that this new defense would allow the Patriots to still prevent the big play, and also prevent the small play. The "bend-don't-break" defense works well when the team is far ahead, but struggles when behind or tied. This new "don't-bend-don't-break" defense will get the defense off the field on third down, and also create more opportunities for game changing plays by the defense.
What do you think of this new hybrid defense?