One of the main questions surrounding this next year's New England Patriots' defense is whether they will run primarily from a base 3-4 or 4-3 defense, given the selections of two defensive ends within their first four picks of the 2012 NFL Draft. As the team implemented a shift from Bill Belichick's usual 3-4 defense last season, fans would like to know whether or not Bill sees this team returning to his 3-4 roots or moving towards a 4-3 base that would adjust well into pass-rushing situations. In my opinion, the answer is yes.
To which base, you may ask? Well, that's the thing- I'm not sure that the Patriots are going to operate from one or the other in a traditional sense.
One thing we saw a lot of last year was a defensive end standing up in the presence of a tight end on their side, pressing the receiver in order to disrupt the timing of routes. Most times, Rob Ninkovich or Andre Carter filled this role.
Those two, along with Mark Anderson, were the only three players on the midseason roster (after Jermaine Cunningham went on Injured Reserve) that had the capability of switching between an outside linebacker role into a defensive end role, and vice versa, without taking away from their primary skillset. Andre Carter and Mark Anderson were more accustomed to a downed role, while Rob played better standing, and in space.
If the Patriots wanted to play 4-down package, especially when Brandon Spikes was injured, they would most often have to use a traditional 3-4 defensive end in the form of Shaun Ellis and Brandon Deaderick in the defensive end in the 4-3. While this put additional beef on the line, and made the Patriots stout against the run, it took athleticism away from the position.
I think the selections of Chandler Jones and Jake Bequette in the 2012 draft emphasized athleticism at the OLB/DE spot, while adding size and length.
This is why I believe it will be hard to pigeonhole this next years defense- I think that the Patriots will ultimately run packages where Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and Dont'a Hightower are the traditional linebackers, and Rob Ninkovich is able to play opposite of a defensive end with skills in space. Markell Carter, Bequette, Jones, and Cunningham are the depth at this position- personally, I think that Bequette will contribute the most at the position next year with Jones as the long-term option.
After the jump, I'll go into what I believe will be Jerod Mayo's role going forward.
I think it's easy to think that Belichick will utilize Hightower's versatility and size on the line, as he does have experience at defensive end and outside linebacker. I, myself, believed that immediately following the draft.
At my sister's wedding this past weekend, I had a conversation with my uncle, who is about as hardcore of a Patriots fan as you'll find, and he posed to my the interesting concept that Hightower and Spikes would be the inside 'backers next year, and Jerod Mayo will be allowed to play in space and freelance a bit. He referred back to the preseason game last year against Tampa Bay, where Mayo registered two sacks and seemed to have morphed from a steady tackling machine into a playmaking force. The only problem was the lack of depth at middle linebacker following the loss of Dane Fletcher early in the season- with the next best option being Gary Guyton, it was hard for Belichick to move Jerod from the defensive quarterback position and allow him to freelance as he had in the preseason.
This started making a lot of sense to me. To clog up the middle and stop any semblance of a rushing attack from their opponents, Belichick can utilize the mammoth Vince Wilfork and the rising star Kyle Love at defensive tackles, and back them up with two violent, hard-hitting inside linebackers in Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower. By doing so, he can sacrifice a little size at the defensive end position in exchange for athleticism.
If Bequette is the choice for the defensive end position opposite of Rob Ninkovich, he has the athleticism to drop into coverage if need be (his speed drills ranked among the top of defensive lineman) but he also has the size (6'5", 270 lbs) and the pass rushing skills to be an effective force from the three point stance. Mayo will most likely play the outside spot behind the larger defensive end, while Ninkovich will switch between linebacker and DE depending on the situation. By doing so, the Patriots will have a beefy middle that is almost impossible to run against, but also the versatility of Jerod Mayo and Rob Ninkovich to cover in the flat or blitz on any given down. You could almost refer to this as a 2-5. Health is always a concern, but if the Patriots stay healthy I think their base packages are going to be very impressive next year.