New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is the first to admit when he makes a mistake or when he incorrectly evaluates a situation. When Belichick was asked to explain the evolution of the 3-4 defense, he revealed how his scouting report of edge defender Chris Long has changed over the course of 2016.
“When you have a 3-4 then you really have two options with the ends,” Belichick said. “You can do kind of what Pittsburgh does and move them inside and play your outside linebackers as defensive ends in sub, which right now, sub is over 60 percent of the league. Or you can, if you have the right guy, you can pick an undersized five-technique and move him out. Say a guy like Chris Long, or [Texans ED Jadeveon Clowney] would probably fall into that category, not that he’s undersized, but like relative to [Texans DL J.J. Watt] he’s undersized. So those are your choices.
“If the guy is a little bit of a lighter five-technique, you move him outside in sub. If he’s a little bigger five-technique, then you move him in. I would say for the most part, those guys usually get moved inside as opposed to moving out and the outside linebackers are really in the ‘ins’ in the sub looks for the most part. But if you have a unique guy or a special guy, then that would be the way to handle it.”
Early in Belichick’s tenure with the Patriots, the New England 3-4 defense featured the likes of 6’6, 310-pound Richard Seymour and 6’5, 300-pound Ty Warren at defensive end. As the league started to dial up more passing plays, Belichick modified the defense so one of the end positions was played by a traditional 4-3 defensive end like Chandler Jones or Jabaal Sheard or Trey Flowers or Chris Long.
Belichick explains that a team like the Steelers would take their three defensive linemen and move the ends inside (taking the nose tackle off the field) and play the outside linebackers like defensive ends in nickel packages. This relies on having four linebackers able to play every snap.
Other teams, like the Patriots and Texans, play a lighter 3-4 defensive end, and ask just one of their edge players to step up to the line, with Flowers or Long kicking outside, with one of the linebackers coming off the field in favor of an extra defensive back. This strategy relies on having versatile defensive lineman.
In Belichick’s opinion, Long is a perfect fit for the Patriots defense.
“Well that’s what he is,” Belichick said about Long playing the five-technique. “That’s what he is. You’ve got to be strong enough to handle [double teams at] the five-technique, unless you play on the weak side all the time, which if they use two tight ends or flip the tight ends you have to deal with it anyway, some teams will play five-technique.
“A tight-inside five-technique is a bigger guy and an open-side five-technique is probably a little lighter, a little more athletic, faster guy, that kind of thing. You get them both on the field if that’s what they want to do if they can’t move that guy or they don’t want to move that guy to outside linebacker. Those guys can play outside linebacker in a running game; it’s really not a problem. The problem is in the passing game. If you have a defensive end playing outside linebacker, then it’s probably going to limit some of the things that you can do.”
Belichick is describing Long as the “open-side five-technique” and one that can play outside linebacker against the run, but could struggle against the pass. This seems to be an evolution of Belichick’s analysis of Long over the course of the season.
Back in August, Belichick was analyzing the difference of stand-up linebackers like Shea McClellin and defensive ends like Jabaal Sheard and claimed, “I would say Chris is the type of player that would fall somewhere in the middle. I wouldn't put him with McClellin, but I wouldn't put him with Sheard, but he's somewhere in the middle there of we could use him in more coverage situations than some other guys.”
It makes sense that Belichick’s opinion of Long would change over the course of the season as the coach saw the player in action. Long started for much of the season, but was demoted in the midseason shake-up for poor production. Long had previously been asked to cover running backs and tight ends in the flat, but it seems like that usage has decreased over the second half of the year as stand-up linebackers like McClellin and Kyle Van Noy have assumed those responsibilities.
Long has been one of the Patriots most effective pass rushers this season, often forcing the quarterback to move around in the pocket, but Belichick no longer views him as a player that can play as much of a coverage role as he had earlier in the year.