The biggest focus of my last five years of blogging about the Patriots has been Bill Belichick’s chance to rebuild his defense from scratch and with total authority. While Belichick deserves a great deal of credit for the Patriots defenses that won three Super Bowls, ultimately those defenses were not hand picked by him.
Sure, he took the draftees of the previous regime like Bruschi, McGinest and Milloy, along with a collection of castoffs from other teams like Vrabel, Phifer and Harrison, and put them in positions to succeed, but those years just proved his coaching genius. Those players were not going to play forever, and now Belichick has a chance to prove his scouting and development genius.
It’s rare that a coach has the kind of control and vision that he gets to construct a defense from scratch, but that’s exactly what Belichick began doing in 2008 with the selection of Jerod Mayo.
Thus, one of my most favorite times of year is the draft, especially when Belichick takes defensive players. So you can imagine my excitement after this year’s haul, and in fact it’s taken a few days for it all to actually sink in. It’s safe to say it left me speechless. Until now.
The Patriots struggles with pass defense over the past few seasons are well documented. It’s ironic that on the offensive side of the ball they were one of the teams leading the charge for the new pass-dominated NFL, but on the defensive side of the ball they’ve been continually lit up through the air.
I’ve often joked that I can’t imagine what it has looked like when Tom Brady went up against the Pats defense in practice, but quite frankly it was frustrating. Belichick knows football evolution, and usually he’s ahead of the curve, but on defense they just couldn’t seem to solve the problems that have haunted them for the last two seasons.
We can talk about how they still won a lot of games and didn’t allow a lot of points despite giving up a lot of yards and third down conversions, but the simple truth is this: The Patriots have not had a dominant defense since the dynasty years. They didn’t have a defense that could take over games. They didn’t have a defense that made quarterbacks uncomfortable. They made some big plays at times, got some key stops at times, but consistently week in and week out they were at best an average defense that needed more talent, specifically more game breakers in their front seven especially.
In that regard the 2012 draft was the one we were all waiting for. At least on paper. The Patriots traded up to take two front seven players and spent three more picks on defensive backs, leaving just a single offensive selection with their last pick.
As we’ve been saying this whole off-season the great 3-4 vs. 4-3 debate is moot. The nickel defense is the new base. If you cannot pressure the quarterback with four rushers in today’s NFL you are going to get torched. If you have trouble stopping the run well…you’ll probably still be able to outscore them so who cares. Pondering the 3-4 vs. 4-3 is like pondering what their goal line defense will look like. It really doesn’t matter.
This Patriots draft could be best summed up as “Defensive Diversity”. Every player they selected specifically for their defense can do a number of things, meaning the days of over-specialization are done. Remember 2010 where there would be whole-sale substitutions on defense whether they were playing pass or run? There will be no more of that.
First and foremost this will be a defense with a number of new players who can get after the passer, but also with enough athleticism to play in space, in zone or man-to-man, or anything else that Belichick wants to do to exploit an offense. It also means that opposing quarterbacks are going to have a lot harder time deciphering pre-snap what the Patriots defensive intentions are.
It’s impossible to predict how everything will flush out in training camp this summer. And even then we’ll still have no idea who will be where on a week to week basis. But there’s reason to be excited that the Pats not only replaced the 20 sacks they lost with Mark Anderson’s departure and Andre Carter’s uncertain future in the short term, but that they have diverse pass rush and coverage solutions lined up for the long term.
The Patriots have gotten off the “one year and done” cycle with pass rushers. They now have quite a few edge players that they can develop and nurture within the system, who also aren’t restricted to being one-trick ponies.
I’ve always had a long term view on the defensive rebuild. While it was somewhat of a surprise to get back to the Super Bowl in 2011, I think the real story to be told is how the major elements are in place for this to be a dominant defense until 2020.
And one day I think we’ll look back and see the 2012 draft as the one that was the final major piece in the second Patriots dynasty defense.
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