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The Patriots and converted edge defenders playing linebacker

Bill Belichick’s linebacking corps is full of players that are converted edge defenders from college. Explaining the significance of why Belichick has gone that route in order to find his linebackers.

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Bill Belichick will be immortalized as one of the greatest coaches and defensive masterminds to ever grace the NFL. Belichick’s two most notable stops in his career, a defensive coordinator for the New York Giants in the late 1980s and the head coach for the Patriots since 2000, have one thing in common. That one thing is great linebacker play. The Patriots head coach seems to have a knack for finding and developing talent at the position, but he may be onto discovering a new trend and that’s taking college edge rushers and moving them off the ball to linebacker.

The main defensive scheme that Belichick developed in New York was the 3-4 base defense. The purpose of the 3-4 alignment was to disguise the 4th rusher to catch the offense off guard. In that defensive alignment, all four linebackers have to be able to be a credible threat as a rusher and dropping into coverage. If the offense can’t identify who was rushing and who was dropping on a given play, that forces the quarterback to hold onto the ball longer, creating opportunities for the defense to make a big play. Belichick has always gone with a game plan style defense, which requires versatile linebackers that can execute multiple assignments. One week it may be blitzing a lot and playing the edge, the next it could be dropping into coverage a lot.

The Giants linebackers in the 1980s featured Lawrence Taylor, Carl Banks, Harry Carsons, and Gary Reasons. Taylor and Carsons are NFL Hall of Famers and that defense won a pair of Super Bowls in 1986 and 1990. The Patriots defense of 2003-2007 adopted a similar mold, although none of the linebackers on that defense are future Hall of Famers. The Patriots featured Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi, Ted Johnson and Roman Phifer. Johnson was the only true linebacker of that group, with the other three players mentioned being college defensive ends. The Patriots had also signed Rosevelt Colvin, although whatever role they imagined never happened because of a career-altering hip injury suffered in his second game with the team. The common theme for the Patriots linebackers in the 2000s was they were converted edge defenders that were a bit undersized but had great movement skills in space.

Fast-forward to 2016 and Belichick has taken this a step forward. With offenses playing more in space, the 3-4 has become somewhat obsolete as a base down since teams aren’t running as often as they used to. Instead Belichick has opted to go with a 2-5 base. The 2-5 is a variation of the 4-3 defense that has the two edge defenders standing up instead of starting in a 3-point stance. That defense subs out a defensive tackle and subs in an extra linebacker. The Patriots first featured that style of defense in Super Bowl XXXIX, which confused the Eagles enough to force three critical interceptions in a Patriots 24-21 win. Now it’s gone in vogue in New England, especially when considering the type of talent they’ve acquired in the last calendar year.

The 2-5 does allow for some positional and alignment flexibility as the Patriots can run both either a 4-3 or 3-4 alignment (it’s more of a 4-3 variation than 3-4) out of it depending on the matchup. The defense requires 5 players that are a credible threat to rush or drop. In the college game, linebackers are getting smaller and being asked to cover and play more of a sideline to sideline role so that’s made finding linebackers a bit tougher for this style of defense. That’s forced Belichick to become more creative in finding the right type of players to fit this scheme. Recently the Patriots have gone for smaller, athletic college edge rushers that likely don’t hold up as a three down player as a pure edge rusher but can move well in space and cover a bit. The Patriots current roster features Jonathan Freeny, Jamie Collins, Shea McClellin, and the recently acquired Barkevious Mingo as players that fit the mold.

The Patriots 2-5 alignment in 2016 will feature two down lineman with a rotation of Malcom Brown, Alan Branch, Terrance Knighton, Vincent Valentine, and maybe Markus Kuhn although outside of Brown and Valentine the position is hard to project. Those guys will be responsible for taking away run lanes and allowing the linebackers to fill the holes. This formation has a bigger impact in the passing game as the Patriots can send as few as 3 and as many as 7 without having to alter the defensive formation. Combine that with a zones in the middle of the field and the Patriots have a chance to create confusion for the opposing quarterback and create opportunities for turnovers if the QB makes a bad read or holds onto the ball too long.

The one drawback from this defense is that it can be run on a bit, especially if the linebackers patrolling the edge aren’t executing their assignments properly. Like any other scheme, it will not work if the right players are not in the right places which becomes a problem if the team sustains enough injuries like they did last year. If the defense is able to stay healthy and the players are executing, it can be a frustrating defense to contend with for the opposing quarterback. For the New England Patriots, this team has the potential to be a Top 10 defense in both yards and points allowed, possibly Top 5 in the latter.