The Boston Celtics have pretty famously made a shift to positionless basketball. Why have they done that? Well, there are a ton of articles explaining it — this is a good one, for example — but let me sum it up for you: the league is changing, and instead of five positions, there are really only three. They recognized that the most important thing is to have versatile players, who can guard multiple positions, but also do multiple things offensively.
Now, the New England Patriots may be doing a similar thing on the defensive side of the ball. After all, NFL offenses are changing too, and the Patriots have to adapt to keep up as well.
Think about the quarterbacks the team will be facing this season, Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, Kyler Murray, Russell Wilson, Jimmy Garoppolo, Josh Allen, and Tua Tagovailoa. The prototypical pro football quarterback looks very different these days, and the offense is built around his ability to move in and out of the pocket. There are more run-pass option plays (RPOs) than ever before, and those QBs are a threat to take off and beat you with their feet as well as with their arm.
Gone are the days when a defense could field playesr with limited athleticism but who were smart enough to be in the right spot anyways. New-era quarterbacks like the ones listed above, meanwhile, sometimes seem to do their best work on broken plays. As a result, NFL defenses need guys who are not just smart enough to be in the correct position, but also have the athletic skillset to make a play when the script breaks down and the QB decides to take off or improvise.
It is not just broken plays either, of course: offenses have always been about trying to create mismatches, and perhaps no one has done that better than the Baltimore Ravens last season.
Every play called by Baltimore offensive coordinator Greg Roman could be a run by up to three different players, or a designed pass. Roman’s use of tight ends in the aerial game was unique as well: you never knew whether the Ravens were running or passing, as they could successfully execute a run out of their 23-personnel package (two running backs, three tight ends, zero wide receivers) but also have the necessary playmakers on the field to pull off a big passing play.
So, how do you stop this offensive approach? You need players physical enough to take on blocks and stop the run, and athletic enough to cover down field — not to mention chase down someone like Baltimore quarterback and reigning league MVP Lamar Jackson. To stop an offense that is different than anything the league has seen before, it is going to take a defense different than anything the league seen before.
To build that defense, you need to target players that are athletic and maybe given the “tweener”-label because they do not excel at one prototypical defensive position — something the New England Patriots over the course of the 2020 offseason.
They started in free agency: linebacker Brandon Copeland can cover deep in Cover 2 schemes, but also put his hand in the dirt to rush the passer and stop the run; Adrian Phillips is a safety/linebacker-hybrid, who never excelled at either position but has to ability to occasionally play both. In the draft, the Patriots later targeted Kyle Dugger, a safety with outstanding athleticism but also the physicality to play in the box, in Round Two. They later also selected Josh Uche, who is an athletic pass rusher that can run with guys in space and is willing to work on being more stout against the run.
Tweeners may have always had a negative connotation at the NFL level, because teams look at them as not having a specific position. However, it is possible this type of player has now become more important than ever to stop the new-age offenses built around RPO concepts and athletically superior quarterbacks running the show. If that is the case, it appears that, as usual, Bill Belichick and the Patriots may just be ahead of the curve.
Pat is a host of The Patriot Nation Podcast
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