One of the most interesting things about the Patriots defense three games into the 2012 season is how straight forward their personnel groupings have been. If you look back at the last couple years (2010, 2011) you’d find almost wholesale changes from week to week and even down to down.
But this year the Patriots have morphed into a lighter, nickel-front 4-3 base defense that is better equipped to defend the pass on all downs. The result is that while in 2010 and 2011 the Patriots were trending toward nearly two-thirds of the snaps in their sub-defense, this year the trend is going back down toward fifty percent (52.9).
Through three weeks we’ve seen minimal changes on defense. The only notable exception being Sterling Moore passing Ras-I Dowling on the depth chart at nickel corner. But outside of giving guys occasional rest what we’ve seen is:
In the nickel either Spikes or Hightower comes off and Moore comes on. In the dime Spikes, Hightower and Love are replaced by Moore, Tavon Wilson (money position), and Jermaine Cunningham (interior rusher). And that’s pretty much it.
As someone who has been tracking the Patriots defensive personnel and packages extensively over the past three seasons I can tell you it’s never been this straightforward and simple.
But Sunday night’s defensive performance was a nightmare, so could that prompt the first real significant changes to this simplified defensive approach? Unlike the Ravens, who like to take shots down the field, the Bills get the ball out in a hurry, so perhaps some tweaks are needed to better defend them.
Here are three possibilities as I see it:
1. Moore in for Arrington - Arrington was picked on early and often against the Ravens and perhaps he would excel if he could just focus on nickel back duties. Moore has had a knack for making plays and seems to be on the rise since the start of season. Maybe it’s time to give him a shot at starting on the outside.
2. Tracy White in at nickel linebacker - Spikes and Hightower have been rotating at this spot, but both really struggled in coverage against the Ravens. This could be where the Pats miss Dane Fletcher the most, and an area where everyone assumed Bobby Carpenter was going to help out before he got cut. The Pats threw White into this spot in the Super Bowl, along with a couple other times late last season. He’s not ideal, but against the quick-throwing Bills he could have a quickness and experience edge that could helpful.
3. Newly-signed Terrell McClain in for Cunningham at interior rusher - The interior pass rush was a position we talked a lot about this off-season and Cunningham was somewhat of a surprise to win the spot. So far Cunningham has one sack, and no QB hits or pressures despite showing some flash in the preseason. Perhaps McClain, who is known to have some get-upfield burst and is a more traditional inside pass rush presence, should get a shot. Against the Bills the Patriots must cause some interior disruption even if they don’t get to the quarterback. If there’s one area we could see some changes this week I think this is it. Perhaps even Trevor Scott getting a chance, or Brandon Deaderick if he can get healthy.