Q: Specifically on third down, I don’t know how much you researched it, but if you did in the offseason, what stood out to you?

RN: We’ve got to get off the field. That’s huge. Some of the third-and-long situations, we weren’t able to get off the field. I know third-and-long screens hurt us last year, too, so specifically that play and the third-and-long situation as a whole, we’ve got to do a better job. Obviously, everything is working together, so coverage-rush, rush-coverage all works together. That’s just one area that we definitely need to work on this year.

The Patriots have a perfect personnel mix. Young veterans either entering or in their prime – Chandler Jones, Donta Hightower, Devin McCourty, Rob Ninkovich, Kyle Arrington, Brandon Browner and Mayo. Back-nine veterans with guile and talent – Wilfork and Kelly. Experienced young depth – Seaver Siliga, Chris Jones, Joe Vellano, Logan Ryan, Jamie Collins and Duron Harmon. One of the league’s best defenders in Revis. A head coach who made his legend as a defensive mastermind. There is no logical reason to think the Patriots defense will be the sore spot its been for the past five seasons.

With the tools in place to be a more pressure-oriented defense as opposed to reactive, the Patriots can change their MO and change their stripes from being a team reliant on Tom Brady to save them and one that sets him up to merely get the wins in the barn. That will be the biggest switch of all.

Good read for those out there like me who really enjoy scheme reads. I think the one thing I’d add to this is that essentially nickel is the new base defense. If you’re talking about 3-4 or 4-3, an outdated conversation regardless, you’re really only referring to a team’s run-stopping defense.

The Patriots have been in the so called “base” around 36% of the time the last four seasons. The “sub” package, with five or more defensive backs? 61% of the snaps.

With this in mind, the interesting evolution to look at is away from nose tackles and run-stuffing middle linebackers (hi Brandon Spikes) and toward designated pass rushing defensive ends and slot cornerbacks. These are essentially starters now.

This is also what made/makes Vince Wilfork so special. He can two-gap as a zero-technique nose tackle, but he’s also quick enough to be a traditional one-gap defensive tackle. It’s also why Dominique Easley is now worth a first-round pick in the Patriots’ eyes, whereas in the mid-2000’s he wouldn’t have been.

Another player who is a modern defensive specimen is Jamie Collins, who has outside linebacker size but can run like a safety. In these new hybrid defensive fronts, the ideal players are hybrid defenders and I’d bet we’ll see the Patriots trying to acquire more and more of them.

how does the defense this year compare to the ones that won those super bowls going into the season (assume everyone is healthy)
Anonymous

I guess we’ll find out, but on paper they seem to be the best defense they’ve fielded in an offseason since those days. I think the main difference is that you take some of the versatility and talent that the dynasty defenses had in their linebacking corps and put that into the cornerbacks.

It’s a different style of defense required these days. So if you put the dynasty front seven up against this front seven I don’t think the talent level is quite where it was when they peaked in 2004. 

What’s most interesting is that I’ve always subscribed to trying to re-build a similar front seven to get this defense back to where it needs to be. But this offseason the focus went to the defensive backs instead of investing in a third pass rusher like Julius Peppers, Demarcus Ware or Jared Allen.

The depth at linebacker is razor thin right now. Compare that to when you had Bruschi/Phifer/Johnson/Vrabel/Colvin/McGinest. Granted we’re comparing 3-4 to 4-3, but even with Ninkovich/Chandler classified as LBs with Mayo/Hightower/Collins, there’s still a noticeable dropoff.

I still believe this is the most reliable way to build a defense, with a great and deep front seven. What I took from the dynasty defense was that it didn’t really matter if you had the deepest and most talented secondary - if your front seven was consistently causing problems for the quarterback anyone could essentially do the coverage job.

Sure, they were much better off, and nearly impenetrable, when it was Ty Law and Tyrone Pool back there, but they did win a Super Bowl with rookie Asante Samuel and Randall Gay as well.

Now we’ll see if the reverse is true. Chandler and Ninkovich and whoever else is getting snaps at defensive end are good, but none are pure pass rushers. I have great hope for Easley, but he can’t do it all alone. We’ll probably see plenty of Chris Jones as well on the inside to get pressure.

So can the Pats talented array of cornerbacks stay healthy and productive all season long and buy the pass rush that extra second? Most especially in the playoffs when everything is on the line? That’s probably the biggest question facing the defense as a group this season.

we normally don't see the patriots blitz often if at all in games. with at least 3 corners that can play man should we expect a little more blitzing(not every play but more then we normally are accustomed to) this year
Anonymous

It’s an interesting question that will be something to really monitor this season because BB has never had the quality of corners on paper that he has right now.

One thing about defense though is that you never want to have to blitz. You want to get pressure with four. Of course that’s easier said that done. And really, the mainstream definition of a blitz is sending more than four guys, but some would tell you a real blitz is only when defensive backs are getting sent, which we saw occasionally with Arrington and Ryan last season.

Belichick is and will likely always be a fairly conservative defensive coach and it’s hard to argue with the results. But now that his theoretically has multiple corners who can man-up receivers and take them out of the equation, does he start sending more blitzes? Certainly seems like there’s a good chance.

But if I was a betting man I’d bet his blitz rate remains nearly unchanged.

Here’s the percentages of blitzes from last season. While some of it is dependent on how the games unfolded, the Pats are unlikely to ever blitz more than 30% of the snaps.

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Good read, even if there isn’t a single mention of the Patriots, one the originators of the multiple front defense. As I’ve been saying for years, 3-4 vs. 4-3 is just semantics now, those vanilla defenses are just too easy for modern offenses to pick apart. Now you need a combination of athletes and space-eaters, moving around the front and not giving away their intention. Who’s blitzing? Who’s two-gapping? Who’s dropping? It gives the offense a ton to think about rather than the old straight-up 3-4 where it will be the same thing down after down.

Good tidbit:

Q: As far as the safety position goes for the Patriots, how much do you guys value having two guys that have distinct responsibilities – maybe that traditional free versus strong safety position? Is that important or do we make too much out of that?

NC: I think having versatile players that can do multiple things is important and how you deploy those players. Ultimately you try to play to a player’s strengths so whatever a player does well you try to put them in a position schematically where they can utilize those skills. We’ve had corners that have played safety, safeties that have played safety. That position, there are a lot of things that go into it. There’s a space game, there’s a tackling game, there’s instinctiveness, ball skills, all those types of things, they are applicable not only to the safety position but the corner position as well. Some corners actually look like safeties, some safeties look like corners. I think the defensive back group in general, having the degree of position versatility is certainly helpful, especially when you’re playing certain teams on a week to week basis, it doesn’t force you to make wholesale changes – ‘Well, if this guy is in the game, we have to put this guy in the game.’ Having guys that are multiple that might be utilized in multiple roles, there is certainly value in that.

We have to get off the field on third downs better. I think we had too many third-and-longs converted. That’s another thing that hurts you, when it’s third-and-15 and they run a screen and they get the first down. That comes down to assignments, guys running after the ball, running lanes where you’re at, it all works together.

Ninkovich: Long story not a happy ending - New England Patriots Blog - ESPN Boston

Been hitting on this theme recently in the last week - getting off the field on third down, there’s no defense in the NFL that has been worse over the last four seasons. It’s a critical area and one that could make an instant impact if improved.

Bang. That. Drum.

Expect the Pats to lock down someone like Will Smith after the draft, but the true question might be whether or not Buchanan or some rookie or even Bequette can develop into a legitimate pass rush specialist.