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Patriots Defense Gets a Reboot

FOXBORO, MA - AUGUST 11:  Vince Wilfork has plenty to smile about. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
FOXBORO, MA - AUGUST 11: Vince Wilfork has plenty to smile about. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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True to his word, Bill Belichick used all three ways of adding players to improve the Patriots this offseason; draft, trades, and free agency. In the draft he took a number of talented young players to solidify the team’s core for the future. Via trades he brought in two undeniably skilled, high-profile personalities with tumultuous pasts to add some spice and shake things up. Through free agency he acquired or re-signed numerous veterans to lend experience and versatility to what was a relatively young squad, particularly on defense. How these new players will blend with the team and how it all shakes out on the field is yet to be seen, but on paper it looks like a talented, hungry group that should be very competitive and a lot of fun to watch.

Defensively in 2010 the Patriots were good a keeping teams from scoring, but too often allowed drives to be extended by failing to get a crucial third down stop. In an effort to change things up and generate more pressure, Belichick brought in defensive line players Albert Haynesworth, Shaun Elllis, Mark Anderson and Andre Carter, and also re-signed Gerard Warren. Ty Warren, 3-4 defensive end extraordinaire was released, as was top outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain. In training camp, New England has been using mainly four-man fronts, and it appears they intend to make the 4-3 formation a staple of their approach. The veterans signed seem to be well suited to that strategy, but also have the versatility to revert to a 3-4 formation if needed.

Albert Haynesworth (6’6", 335) is the most exciting addition. After signing a massive contract in 2009, he was a disappointment last season in Washington where he did not get along with the coaching staff, and reportedly refused to play as a 3-4 nose tackle. At times in his career he has been unblockable as an interior rusher, and one of the best DTs in the business. Last season Vince Wilfork (6’2", 325) demanded frequent double-teams, and even then was able to push linemen back into the pocket and make life difficult for opposing quarterbacks. Wilfork was doing his job as the nose tackle, but the players around him were rarely able to take advantage of the extra attention he drew. On a four-man line with Haynesworth next to him it should be a different story. Albert specializes in blowing up blockers and forcing his way into the backfield to disrupt passing and running plays alike. When at his best, he also requires two blockers to slow him down. He can be ferocious and unrelenting, playing right to the whistle, and sometimes beyond, evidenced by his inexcusable 2006 head stomp on Cowboy’s center Andre Gurode, who was helmetless at the time. His lack of motivation last season was obvious and disappointing, but he seems to want to erase those bad memories. Lined up with Wilfork, they are an interior lineman’s nightmare. It would be virtually impossible to double-team both, and unwise not to double one, which presents a serious problem for offensive coordinators when they prepare their blocking schemes.

With the two interior defenders likely drawing three linemen, that leaves both outside rushers single-covered unless a tight end or running back is kept in for added protection. Enter Andre Carter, Shaun Ellis and Mark Anderson. All three players have notched double-digit sacks in their careers playing end in a 4-3 defense.

Carter (6’4", 257) is a powerful player who is strong against the run and has a variety of moves to get after the passer. He is on the back side of his career, and was used sparingly (only 5 starts) last season in Washington’s 3-4 scheme where he was forced to play the unfamiliar OLB position. Yet he is only two years removed from a stellar 2009 campaign where he totaled 62 tackles (48 solo), 11 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and 4 passes defended. Like Haynesworth, he will be going back to doing what he does best – attacking the quarterback. Carter is a consummate football professional who Belichick recently complimented on being a "smart guy" who "plays well" and has "a real good motor." High praise in Belichick-speak.

Ellis (6’5", 290) comes from the Jets where he manned the difficult 3-4 defensive end position, but also has experience as a 4-3 end. Ellis is not exactly the sack machine he once was (23.5 combined sacks in 2003 and 2004 playing in Herm Edwards’ 4-3 scheme), but is very stout against the run, and can sometimes beat his blocker to apply pressure as well. He gives the Patriots the option of lining up at end in either a three-man or four-man front which will be helpful if Belichick wants to switch up on the fly without substituting. Ellis is a player who has had success against New England in the past, notably in last year’s playoff loss to the Jets where he had two early sacks and a pair of key rushing stops in the second half. He was not brought in just to stick it to the New York, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to take a weapon from your rivals, especially when it leaves them with little depth at the DE position.

The re-signing of Gerard Warren (6’4", 325) also adds depth to multiple positions. Last year he mainly lined up at end next to Wilfork and played surprisingly well considering it was his first experience in a 3-4 defense. He had some success as an interior rusher in sub packages as well. Before joining the Patriots last season he was used as a DT on a four-man line. Warren is not an especially explosive rusher (his highest season total of 5.5 sacks came in 2003 with Cleveland), but he is a smart, disciplined lineman who can stop the run and generate occasional pressure.

Mark Anderson (6’4", 255) comes from Chicago where he had a tremendous rookie season (12 sacks, 4 forced fumbles) but has not been as productive since. Anderson’s game is mainly speed-based, and he is not as much of a run-stopping force. His playing time will likely come as a situational rusher charged with bursting off the line to get in the face of the quarterback as quickly as possible. He is a nice compliment to the slower and more powerful ends like Ellis and Warren.

On a four-man line with Wilfork and Haynesworth drawing extra attention in the middle, the new edge rushers, along with returning players Jermaine Cunningham and Eric Moore will have every opportunity to beat their man and get to the QB. They may even have more time to do so if veteran cornerback Leigh Bodden returns to the impressive form he showed in 2009 and the secondary is able to do a better job in coverage. This seems likely as opposite corner Devin McCourty and safety Pat Chung should continue to progress after their excellent performances last season. With the capable Kyle Arrington and highly touted rookie Ras-I Dowling in the mix, the secondary appears to be much better than in 2010.

The other safety position is the only potential weak link. Brandon Meriweather has been up and down, and New England recently added James Ihedigbo, which could be a sign they are considering replacing him. The reliable James Sanders is an in-house option, but he has been held out of practice for injury reasons for the bulk of training camp. Sergio Brown is a possibility as well, but he has very little game experience outside of special teams contributions.

At linebacker the Patriots definitely have the personnel to play in either a 3-4 or 4-3. Rob Ninkovich has enough versatility to play the run, rush, and cover, and Gary Guyton’s speed and coverage abilities are assets in a 4-3 formation. Jerod Mayo is one of the best linebackers in the game, and fellow MLBs Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher both showed promise at times last year. The 2010 squad was a young one and many players were learning their roles on the fly. While they will again be adjusting to new concepts, the addition of numerous veterans should make the 2011 defense more savvy. Ellis and Carter especially strike me as contributors not only on the field but also in the locker room, teaching the greener defenders how to carry themselves as professionals. Neither has won a Super Bowl, and that hunger for a championship can be contagious.

There is of course a possibility that some of these additions will not make the final roster. If they do, it will mean a few of the young defensive linemen the Patriots drafted in recent years such as Myron Pryor, Brandon Deaderick, Kade Weston and Ron Brace could be cut. Cornerbacks Darius Butler and Jonathan Wilhite are also on notice. Regardless of who survives, New England will have a lot of options along the defensive line, making them more difficult to prepare for, and unpredictable on the field. I doubt there will be much deviation from the over-arching "bend-but-don’t-break" philosophy that focuses on generating turnovers and limiting big plays, but the 2011 Patriots defense will be more aggressive, and capable of throwing curveballs at quarterbacks by changing formations at a moment’s notice.

That is if they even line up at all. Imagine the Patriots 1-5-5 "Prowl" formation with Haynesworth as the down lineman and a combination of ends, linebackers, and backs swarming around him without broadcasting who and how many will be sprinting at the passer, or from what direction. It would be enough to rattle an experienced QB, let alone a young signal caller whose preparation was limited by the NFL lockout. When quarterbacks and receivers have less time to prepare for the season together, sometimes that instinctual connection a QB relies on in the face of the blitz is not quite there. If the secondary is alert they can take advantage of the poor throws and misreads that come with increased pressure.

The stability of the Patriots franchise should make the shortened offseason less of an issue, and allow them take advantage of other teams that are not as well prepared. Tom Brady already has a great understanding with Wes Welker and Deion Branch, and virtually all the offensive starters are returning. Chad Ochocinco adds a nice option as an outside receiver, and once he and Brady are on the same page he should see a lot of passes his way. With the veteran offense leading the charge and the revamped defense generating more pressure and improving in coverage, I expect big things from New England this season.