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Can the Patriots change their defensive front in 2016- and does it even matter?

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The Patriots have a chance to throw the league a change-up. Will they?

The New England Patriots have always been chameleons on defense, changing base defenses on an annual basis in order to maximize the skill sets of the players on the roster. The Patriots made a point of adding leviathans on the defensive line, with Terrance Knighton and Vincent Valentine teaming up with incumbent starters Malcom Brown and Alan Branch. All four of these players have a history of taking on double teams, so I wondered if the Patriots might want to operate in a 3-man defensive front as a throwback to the start of the Patriots dynasty.

And it would make some sense. Knighton is a great nose tackle, while Brown, Branch, and Valentine can press the edges of the offensive line to collapse the pocket. Other free agent signings like defensive tackles Markus Kuhn and Frank Kearse could join the rotation, while head coach Bill Belichick has never been afraid of playing an edge defender like Chandler Jones at the 5-technique.

A 3-man defensive line would allow the Patriots to mix-and-match their second level as they see fit, while keeping with the Patriots desire to have a base defense with five defensive backs on the field. The Patriots used five defensive backs on 60% of the snaps in 2015, a higher rate than they used six (20%) or four (16%).

The Patriots could emulate how the Cowboys and Ravens used DeMarcus Ware and Terrell Suggs, respectively, with Jabaal Sheard technically serving as a 3-4 outside linebacker, but really playing a 4-3 defensive end. This would mean the Patriots were playing in their standard 4-2 defensive front. My concern is that the third defensive tackle isn’t as good of a player as the second edge defender or third stand-up linebacker.

Potential 3-man front for the Patriots

We have Chung responsible for the top tight end in the formation, while Sheard controls the left edge. Hightower helps in the middle, while Collins watches the right edge.

Where does Rob Ninkovich fit into this base? What about the investments in Shea McClellin and Chris Long and Trey Flowers and Geneo Grissom? I wouldn’t be surprised if the above formation saw more play in 2016 than it did in prior years, but I would be shocked if this became the base.

The Patriots could also play with three versatile stand-up linebackers, with any of Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Rob Ninkovich, and Shea McClellin all capable of playing in the open field and on the edge.

Potential 3-man front for the Patriots

The issue with this formation is that it effectively eliminates the edge defenders on the roster from the base defense, unless Belichick would play Sheard as a five technique on the line.

I ran through the Patriots usage of defensive tackles in 2015 and it turns out that they used three defensive tackles on a mere 4% of snaps. I don’t think a 3-man front really fits with the team goals and personnel on defense.

Instead, I think the Patriots will continue with their standard 2 defensive tackle, 2 edge defender, and 2 linebacker defensive front and Belichick will let the analysts define it however they see fit.

A hybrid defensive front the Patriots could feature in 2016

The Patriots used the 2-2-2 (read: ED-DT-LB) front on 47% of snaps in 2015, which was by far the most common. The 2-2-3 (12%) and the 3-1-2 (10%) were the only other fronts to see 10% of the defensive snaps.

Players like Ninkovich and McClellin provide flexibility on the edge because they can play both defensive end and linebacker, while Sheard is more limited since he can only play the edge. The flexibility will allow the Patriots to move from a 4-2 to a 3-3 fairly seamlessly.

Of course, words are wind to Belichick and the 3- or 4-man front distinction is nothing but a media fabrication to help explain football to the common folk.

"Honestly, I think that's something that is a media fabrication,” Belichick said about defining defensive fronts back in 2011, via ESPN. “There are a lot of different alignments out there. You see 4-3 teams use odd spacing. You see 3-4 teams use even spacing. You have 11 players, you can put them in various positions. Whether you want to put it on the pre-game depth chart as one thing or another, I think is a little bit overrated.

"You play different fronts, you play different spacing, and you teach the techniques of your defense. That is what consistent, techniques that are taught in different defensive systems, whether those teams go from three-man line to a four-man line, or a four-man line to an odd spacing line, or overs to unders, or unders to overs, or over-wides, whatever you want to call it...

"It's pretty straight-forward really ... It's more the teaching, techniques and fundamentals you teach your defensive players, more than it is the 4-3, 3-4 lineup that is so important to put on the flip card."

And two years later, Belichick was singing the same tune, via NESN.

“Guys have to play on the end of the line of scrimmage — whatever you want to call them, linebackers, defensive ends, crash-ins, whatever term they have — guys have to play inside of the outside guy on the line of scrimmage and they’re some version of 5-technique, 4-technique, cutback players, however you want to call it,” Belichick said of the defense. “So I don’t think the spacing is — it’s important, I’m not saying that, but I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. We play an even front, we play an off front. I’m sure Philadelphia will do the same thing, even having not seen them. I’m sure that we’ll see an even front from them before it’s all over. I don’t think it’s that big of a deal.”

It’s more important to determine whether a player is two-gapping or penetrating, spying a running back or dropping into coverage, pushing the pocket or setting the edge, and combining all of these variables into one defensive package that limits vulnerabilities.

It doesn’t matter if we classify the defense as a 4-2 or a 2-4 or a 3-3. Each player will have their role and every weakness will be protected.

How would you coach up the Patriots defense?