The Patriots have lost linebacker Jerod Mayo for the season. Defensive end Chandler Jones is out for an indefinite period of time (hopefully for a couple more weeks, but who knows at this point). Defensive tackle Sealver Siliga should be out for the next few weeks, too.
In response, the Patriots have made a considerable number of midseason moves. New England traded for linebackers Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas, and signed defensive lineman Alan Branch. The team had a need to bolster their defensive front seven and that's exactly what the front office did.
But how do these pieces come together to provide a unit that can compete against the best teams in the league? The secondary will be fine with All Pro caliber players Devin McCourty and Darrelle Revis, while safety Pat Chung has elevated his level of play and cornerback Brandon Browner looks like the real deal in his two games back from suspension. It's a matter of creating an elite front seven.
The Patriots play 40% of the time in their base defense and 60% of the time in their sub-package with extra defensive backs. It's important to create two line-ups, one for each defensive set. How would you built your defense? Factor in that certain players are injured. Add your thoughts in the comments. Here's mine below:
Consider the Patriots fielding McCourty, Chung, Revis, and Browner as the defensive backs.
The Patriots need to field a team that is both stout against the run, athletic enough to defend the pass, and multiple enough to confuse the opposing defense.
The best players available on the defensive line are Vince Wilfork, Dominique Easley, and Rob Ninkovich. The Patriots best depth appears to be the beefy interior linemen who can also help out as a 3-4 defensive end. This includes the newly signed Alan Branch, Casey Walker, and Chris Jones. The best defensive line should take advantage of these abilities:
Rob Ninkovich should align at the 7-tech, wider to the outside of the left tackle, in the spot traditionally held by Chandler Jones. Nink is a pass rusher and should be able to hold his own against the run attack. Yes, he's slipped off his play this season, but he's the best option the team has at the position.
Dominique Easley should align at the 3-tech, between the left tackle and guard. This is a penetrating position and it allows him to attack the quarterback. Easley's versatility should work well with Ninkovich as Easley can move anywhere on the line to make it easier for Ninkovich to make noise in the backfield.
Vince Wilfork should align at the 1-tech, between the center and the right guard. Walker has been playing the nose for the past few weeks, but teams have continuously gashed the Patriots up the middle of the field. Moving Wilfork back to the center will allow the Patriots to better hold the point against the run.
Alan Branch should align as the 5-tech, outside the shoulder of the right tackle. Playing Wilfork at 3-4 defensive end allows the Patriots to corral opposing runs and funnel them into the middle of the field, which is why a stout run defender is needed for this 5-tech role. Walker and Jones won't be able to do this, and Siliga (who could do this) is recovering from an injury. Branch will have to ease into this role, but this is perfect for him after the bye week.
This hybrid front allows the Patriots to be stout against the run with three bigger bodies, but it also allows the team to feature Ninkovich in a pass rushing capacity. Additionally, the team can play both the one-gap and two-gap roles on the defensive line, to take advantage of the linemen and their skillsets. Nink and Easley will be able to focus on single gaps to disrupt the backfield, while Wilfork and Branch are better able to control their point of attack.
To add value, the Patriots can play three linebackers who can both cover and attack the run.
At middle linebacker, Dont'a Hightower is an easy choice. He's smart, he's a thumper against the run, and he's savvy enough against the pass to drop into the right zone. He can cover two gaps as a linebacker and is perfect as added support behind Wilfork and Easley.
At outside linebacker, Jamie Collins and Akeem Ayers present similar skillsets; Collins more athletic, Ayers more experienced. Having both flanking Hightower gives the Patriots plenty of options at defending the run and the pass, as well as defending in open space. It would make sense to have the more athletic Collins cleaning up behind Branch, while the experienced Ayers would be valuable reading offensive lanes behind Ninkovich and Easley.
When the Patriots are in a sub package, it means an extra defensive back comes on the field in order to add greater ability in the pass defense. This player will likely be Logan Ryan or Alfonzo Dennard (if the opposing team has three wide receivers), or Duron Harmon (if the offense adds an extra tight end). Expect the newly signed Casillas to contribute in some fashion, too.
The team can add a player in multiple ways; by taking off a linebacker and playing a 4-2 front; or by switching linemen and playing a 3-3 front. The former is better when pressure is needed (generally longer passing situations), while the latter is better when more coverage is needed (shorter passing situations).
It should be noted that the Patriots tend to rush just three when opposing offenses are in third-and-long situations. That said, this is my defense, so listen up Belichick.
Expect Browner, Revis, and McCourty to be on the field. Depending the distance to the sticks, it's possible the Patriots play a cover one, with McCourty as the lone safety. Look for Dennard or Ryan to come on the field to replace Pat Chung to provide better coverage ability. I would play Casillas in this nickel situation to add weight over an additional safety (like Harmon) and mobility to attack tight ends and running backs.
Technically this isn't a sub since Casillas is a linebacker. But he's the hybrid player that Bill Belichick loves to have.
The two linebackers will be Collins and Hightower, to let them roam in the zone coverage.
The defensive line should be Ayers, rookie Zach Moore, Easley, and Ninkovich. This grouping seems to generate plenty of pressure and they're quick enough to attack the backfield.
Browner, Revis, McCourty, Chung, and Ryan should all be on the field. Yes, Chung. Using this line-up in the short-yard situation, Chung should be able to keep the opposition in front of him, where he's the most comfortable in coverage; additionally he is a great run defender.
The three defensive linemen should be Moore, Easley, and Chris Jones in standard 5-tech, nose, 5-tech alignment. These are three pass rushers who have enough weight to stall a run play, but enough power and quickness to penetrate the pocket. This will give Wilfork and Branch a breather.
At linebacker, look for Collins, Hightower, and Ayers to roam the shallow portion of the field. All three are available to attack the pocket on a delayed blitz. All three are capable of defending in the zone. This trio gives the Patriots multiplicity when it comes to defending against the pass because opposing quarterbacks can't count on a player acting in a certain fashion (for an example, no one is concerned about Brandon Spikes in coverage).
All these alignments will best use the current talent on the team until Chandler Jones is able to return. He will, of course, shift the alignments back to a primary 4-man front, but the team should be able to make due while he's gone.