For the second season in a row, the New England Patriots have opted to enter the season with a perilously thin linebacker corps. Last season, a long term injury to Jerod Mayo and short term injuries to Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins revealed the risk the team took and Belichick was forced to acquire linebackers Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas in the middle of the season.
The only difference between last year's initial roster and this year's is Jonathan Freeney making the squad over Chris White. Most projections had James Morris making the team, and he's a likely practice squad candidate, and players like Rob Ninkovich have some experience standing up on defense.
Belichick has opted to fill the roster with edge defenders instead of interior players for a reason.
"The depth doesn't balance out perfectly, but at the same time, you have to have enough in everything to handle all those situations that you have to cover in the game," Bill Belichick said on Sunday. "Once you get past that point, however many players that is, the extra players if you will, some of them are depth, sometimes it's a younger player you feel like may develop in time that you don't want to expose. So, it could be a whole combination of a lot of different things, that's why I said in the end, you're just trying to keep the best players you feel like are the best ones for your team."
Ultimately, it seems like the rise of the nickel defense with just two linebackers has finally made its mark on the roster, with a third linebacker needed in only specific occasions. With Dont'a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, and Jamie Collins on the roster, and Jonathan Freeney as the special teams depth, Belichick deemed the situational football roster covered.
For Belichick, the best players he opted to flush his roster with all happen to play in the defensive front.
So what is the Patriots new strategy? The three primary linebackers all deserve time on the field, as do all of the various defensive linemen.
On the edge, Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, and Jabaal Sheard will be in a steady rotation on the edge, while players like Trey Flowers and Rufus Johnson starred in the preseason to earn some playing time of their own.
On the interior, Dominique Easley and Sealver Siliga look like the primary players, while first round pick Malcom Brown and veteran Alan Branch add extra beef for when the Patriots need a substitution.
There's no possible way to have all of the deserving players on the field at any given time, especially with a likely five defensive backs required in the secondary on nearly 75% of snaps.
In 2014's first game of the year, all three of Mayo, Hightower, and Collins played nearly every snap. This was not only the last time all three players were healthy, it was also an absolute disaster for the defense against the Dolphins. In order to keep all three players on the field, Rob Ninkovich was on the field less than 50% of the time.
We've highlighted in the past that the third defensive end is as much of a starter as the nickelback. The Patriots featured a 3-4 front are various stretches of the season when Chandler Jones was injured. If we look at the full season, an interesting snap count is revealed: the defensive tackle, edge defender, and linebacker position each finished the year with roughly the same amount of snaps.
The implication is that of the defense's roughly 1,300 snaps last season, the three different positional groups averaged roughly two players worth of snaps. This means that if three players are expected to have a sizable role at a position, they will average 66% of the possible snaps.
Belichick elected to play just Hightower and Collins for roughly 100% of the linebacker snaps once Mayo was injured. While that could be related to the fact that Deontae Skinner wasn't good enough to force either player to the bench, it aligns with how teams feature their linebackers as the quarterbacks of the defense. Whoever receives the green dot for sideline communication won't come off the field because teams are only allowed one active green dot helmet at any given time.
This is a wrench in the defensive rotation.
If Mayo returns as captain, does he receive the green dot? Or has Hightower earned that role with his fantastic performance last season? Or does Collins' versatility make him a universal lock? The first two linebackers are coming off of major surgeries, while Collins is the least consistent of the three. Because one of these linebackers will see 100% of the snaps, the others will have to split snaps in the nickel.
Unlike the defensive tackle or edge defender positions where the Patriots can have a healthy rotation throughout the game, New England's hands are fairly tied at linebacker and there isn't an easy solution. The benefit of both Mayo and Hightower having plenty of experience with the green dot means that the team won't have to rush either player back to the field from their injuries.
Belichick was right when he said that the team has enough players for each defensive scheme- but don't expect the scheme and plan for each linebacker to be known until midseason.