I feel obligated to post any defensive scheme article even if it’s kind of missing the forest for the trees. When I started writing about football it was the defensive schematics that really interested me. Watching how Bill Belichick would rebuild his defense post-2007 was a huge impetus for me to follow and study the team.

Now, seven years later, I feel like I have a pretty good handle on what Belichick does on defense. Around 2011 I realized that 3-4 or 4-3 is not really that big of a deal.

Here’s the simple facts…

1. From 2000 to 2009 the Patriots spent a good chunk of their defensive snaps in the Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4 defense. This 3-4 is a “read-and-react” defense, where the front three “build a wall” by two-gapping and allow the linebackers to make plays. (There are 3-4s like Wade Phillips’ and Dick LeBeau’s that are more “attacking”.)

2. As the game evolved, and passing offenses became more prevalent, the amount of time the Patriots spent in the 3-4 decreased. The pure Fairbanks-Bullough version of it slowly became a specialty package to stop the run. Since 2010 the Patriots are in “sub” defense, with five or more DBs, around 60-65% of the time.

In 2011, due to the lockout, there was limited time to teach the 3-4 defense, so Belichick just used the nickel front (which of course looks like a 4-3) as his teaching defense since that is what they would be in a majority of the snaps anyway.

3. However, the 3-4 remains Belichick’s teaching defense. So it’s what the Pats run in the preseason and training camp to help teach communication and responsibilities. The preseason defensive game plan is as vanilla as it can get, so seeing them in a 3-4 in the summer means little as to what we’re going to get in the fall.

4. The Pats will still run a 3-4 defense but it bears little resemblance to the Fairbanks-Bullough version. Instead of the three down linemen two-gapping, we now have a combination of guys playing single and double gaps. Read this article for more on this.

5. This current “base” defense (which really makes no sense now that we’re really talking only 30-40% of the snaps) is more of a 2-5. This is an effort to get more athletes on the field to stop the pass, instead of big bodies to build a wall and stop the run.

What matters most is gap responsibility, so whether you want to call Ninkovich and Chandler outside linebackers or defensive ends, it doesn’t really make a difference. They are end of the line players and their job remains basically the same whether they’re rushing the passer or dropping into coverage.

The ability to morph between fronts is where the Pats give themselves and advantage.

The game has evolved and so has Bill Belichick’s defense. What has been missing in my estimation is explosive one-gapping defensive tackles like Easley and Jerel Worthy. They had DT’s one-gapping, but often times they were more nose tackle-ish like Wilfork and Kyle Love or defensive end-ish like Tommy Kelly, Brandon Deaderick and Gerard Warren.

Now the Patriots defense has the personnel to literally play any front, or combination of fronts. Believe me when I say this is the first time they’ve EVER had this kind of flexibility. So there’s some truth to the linked Herald to the article.

But still wondering about the 3-4/4-3 debate is an extreme simplification about a minority of the defensive snaps.

Not really a Pats read but one of those schematic writeups that I just can’t keep my posting finger off of. Look, I’ve been saying nickel is the new base for almost two years. For the Pats, it has been.

Once again there’s all this talk that the Pats are “going back to the 3-4”. It really doesn’t matter. Why? Because first of all, the 3-4 is Belichick’s teaching defense. The exception was 2011 when, due to the lock out, he just taught the nickel front to expedite matters.

How much will the Pats actually be in a 3-4 defense this season? Not much. Maybe just on early downs against teams that rely heavily on the run. So really, there’s not a whole lot of substance to the “what will the Pats run-stopping front be?”

It’s like all of a sudden Ninkovich goes from having his hand in the dirt to standing up and a great deal of fans think it’s something monumental. And by the way, the 3-4 the Pats teach early on is not the 3-4 they’d play in a game. That’s more of the 2-5, but that’s a post for another time. Just compare the size of Richard Seymour to the current defensive ends when they’re in the 3-4 and you’ll have a lot of your answer.

The better, and more interesting question is what their subpackages look like, these are the packages they’ll be in 60-70 percent of the snaps. How does Logan Ryan and the safeties fit in? Who will be the pure pass rush package?

That’s why this article is really good.

New England’s defense once again utilized a lot of odd-man fronts against Washington. That 34 look had Vince Wilfork over the nose with Tommy Kelly at left end and either Chris Jones or Will Smith on the right. The linebackers included Jerod Mayo and Jamie Collins on the inside with Dont’a Hightower and Rob Ninkovich on the outside. Chandler Jones actually saw time at both end and linebacker in these segments. The same, in other groups, was true for rookie Zach Moore.

The defensive front fielded a line that included Rob Ninkovich, Smith, Chris Jones and Chandler Jones at one point. That could certainly be an interesting group of pass rushers to throw at an offensive line.

Ninkovich has taken a lot of reps standing on two feet in various sets and schemes to open camp. He does a lot of bumping and re-routing in those looks.

Innnnnteresting. Still can’t wait to see how Easley is integrated into these pass rush fronts.

Edelman shining, Hall of Fame drill and more Patriots Day 5 camp blogservations

Memmmmories…. How long ago does it seem when the Patriots had one of the absolute dominant defenses of the NFL? I don’t know how this group is going to come together. Sure, on paper, it looks like it could be great, but we all know how quickly injuries can derail things. Hopefully it all comes together like we think it could.

From an article I wrote for B/R this offseason, here are what I see as the biggest things the Pats defense needs to improve.

From an article I wrote for B/R this offseason, here are what I see as the biggest things the Pats defense needs to improve.

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.