Last week we reported that the Patriots were grouping Shea McClellin with the edge defenders instead of with the stand-up linebackers. This was noteworthy because the common perception of McClellin was that he'd serve as depth and insurance at linebacker with Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins.
There was a chance- and there still is- that McClellin was working with the edge defenders because that's what camp is for. Head coach Bill Belichick loves to use this time to cast a wide net and see what players are capable of doing. Maybe McClellin is still destined to be a stand-up linebacker.
According to this picture from June 7th's mandatory minicamp, McClellin (#58, behind Rob Ninkovich in the picture) is still working with edge defenders. And now I'm curious.
NESN's Doug Kyed noted that NInkovich was asked to drop into coverage "a bit more than usual," which I think is an important note when trying to figure out the role for both Ninkovich and McClellin.
What if Belichick is coming up with a new style of defense to take advantage of the versatility of Ninkovich and McClellin? We know that the Patriots love to run a hybrid 3- and 4-man front with single- and two-gap responsibilities. What if we're going to witness the next evolution?
The Patriots spent over 80% of their time with five or more defensive backs on the field last season and there's no reason to believe that 2016 holds anything different on that front. The same applies for the Patriots usage of Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower as the only two linebackers on the field. The Patriots used safety Patrick Chung as a jackknife player to bridge the secondary and the linebacker positions and act as both.
What if Ninkovich and McClellin will be asked to bridge the defensive line and linebacker positions?
I'll note that this is pure speculation, but here's my idea.
The Patriots have invested in longer and taller defensive tackles to possibly take advantage of the change in the chop block rule. Players like Alan Branch and Terrance Knighton have a history as two-gap defenders, while sophomore Malcom Brown showed plenty of promise last year. Rookie Vincent Valentine is a physical freak that was at his best when asked to eat space in college.
Edge defenders Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long are better suited for a 4-man front as a defensive end, while unproven players like Trey Flowers and Rufus Johnson fall into the same camp. Asking these players to drop into coverage would be a nice wrinkle, but it would be asking players to play outside of their optimal function. That said, Belichick often asked Chandler Jones to serve as a traditional 3-4 defensive end and it's likely Sheard will adopt this role.
Over the past few seasons, the Patriots have generally asked the defensive front four to operate in a relatively vanilla fashion: rush the passer or set the edge against the run. Rarely did we see the players drop back into coverage.
But over the same time frame, we've seen release times of quarterbacks decrease. Teams can't rely on the pass rush impacting the play before the quarterback releases the football- just ask the opponents of the Patriots.
So what if the Patriots start asking Ninkovich and McClellin to drop back into shallow coverage more, to help eliminate the quick slant pass to slot receivers? What if these players are no longer married to the defensive end position, but instead are allowed to play what would traditionally be the 3-4 outside linebacker function?
Either Sheard or Long can cover the left tackle and the C gap, while Malcom Brown or Terrance Knighton can two-gap the A and B gaps next to them. Alan Branch or Vincent Valentine can two-gap the B and C gaps on the other side of the formation, while Dont'a Hightower can watch the remaining A gap, while Jamie Collins has clean-up duty.
Ninkovich and McClellin can either help against the right tackle, or be asked to drop back and eliminate the quick passes.
If Belichick can ask Ninkovich, McClellin, and Chung to play multiple positions, then there are no limits to the defensive formations with the same personnel.
Running down? The Patriots can play a 4-3-4 defense with Ninkovich on the defensive line and Chung at linebacker.
Passing down? Ninkovich can drop into coverage with Chung in a 3-4-4 or 3-3-5 set, with Sheard, Brown, and Branch on the defensive line.
Not sure? Ninkovich can remain on the line and Chung can drop into coverage in a 4-2-5 alignment to have all of the bases covered.
This is a gross oversimplification of the possibilities and strengths, but I'm excited to see if Ninkovich and McClellin can serve a similar multiple role as Chung to keep opposing offenses off-balance.