In their week 15 victory over the Denver Broncos, the New England Patriots made a key adjustment near the end of the first quarter that helped them ultimately come back, then win in convincing fashion over Denver: They switched to the 3-4 base defense.
As the Pittsburgh Steelers showed us this past weekend, it isn't wise to stick eight or nine defenders in the box when defending Tim Tebow and the Broncos' offense as Tebow proved he could beat one-on-one press man coverage on his deep throws.
But that doesn't mean that, as a defense, you can't play in your base defense. In fact, the Patriots were in their base defense for most of the first three quarters of the Broncos game three weeks ago, and I expect them to play out of the base a lot this weekend.
That being said, what base defense will the Patriots deploy against the Broncos?
When Pro Bowl defensive end Andre Carter first went down with a season ending quadriceps injury against the Broncos three weeks ago, I predicted that the Patriots would switch to the 3-4. They did, but only for about three quarters of football. Against the Dolphins and Bills in the two subsequent weeks, the Patriots consistently worked out of the 4-3 base (although, in reality, they were in sub-packages the majority of the time).
Mark Anderson came in as a pass rusher in sub-packages, but the Patriots starting defensive line in the 4-3consisted of Brandon Deaderick and Shaun Ellis at the ends, and Kyle Love and Vince Wilfork at the defensive tackle spots.
So what base defense should the Patriots run on Saturday night against the Broncos?
Personally, I think that the Patriots should mix and match their fronts a bit, but trend a little bit more towards the 3-4. The thing is, the Patriots 4-3 isn't your traditional 4-3. Their defensive linemen have some 2-gap responsibility, which is why you usually don't see Mark Anderson on the field in the base defense.
Rob Ninkovich usually lines up outside of the defensive end in the 4-3, and will rush the passer about 40% of the time. In fact, Ninkovich, who started at both LOLB and ROLB in the Patriots' 3-4 in 2010, has rushed the passer at a more frequent rate this year in the 4-3 than he did as an outside linebacker in the 3-4 in 2010.
The benefits, in my opinion, of running the 3-4 against a team like the Broncos is that you get to have bigger defensive linemen on the field, while keeping a more pure pass rusher, such as Mark Anderson, on the field all the time. In a 3-4, the Patriots can run a "big" front of Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, and Gerard Warren / Ron Brace. Rob Ninkovich is the LOLB and Mark Anderson the ROLB with Jerod Mayo the WILB and Brandon Spikes or Dane Fletcher the SILB. The Patriots have more run stuffing capability, but can also disguise their pass rush between Anderson and Ninkovich.
I made the point yesterday that the Patriots need to have Mark Anderson (their best pass rusher since Andre Carter went down for the year with a quadriceps injury in week 15) on the field as much as possible against the Broncos. His speed rush was too much for Ryan Clady to handle. If the Patriots run the 4-3, they will have a more difficult time stopping the Broncos running attack as the sole responsibility to set the edge will fall on Anderson if the Patriots do indeed want to keep him on the field.
I think the Patriots should be in attack mode at times, and I think, as we've seen this year, the 4-3 defense allows for the Patriots to do just that. Therefore, I propose that the Patriots best solution Saturday will be to mix and match the 4-3 and 3-4 as much as possible.
Lets not forget, Tim Tebow is a young quarterback who still has yet to start a full 16 games in the NFL. Throwing different schemes out there could serve to confuse Tebow. Of course, I think the Patriots will be in the sub-defense around half the time, but throwing in a steady dose of 3-4 could serve to help the Patriots.