Each year the Patriots defensive schemes slowly evolve over the course of the year and each year is unique. I always pray that people can get past the simplistic 3-4 vs. 4-3 debate which is archaic and meaningless now.
The Patriots trend of heavily using sub defense continued this season, as did their evolution to incorporating more Cover-2 Zone as the season progressed. The line between defensive ends and outside linebackers continues to blur, while the importance of having three good safeties and three good corners has become more imperative.
Here’s a look at some of the formations the Patriots utilized in the Super Bowl and what they might be able to tell us about their offseason plan of attack.
We begin with the 3-3-5 Nickel, which now we’d consider their run stopping package, especially when it’s of the three safety, two cornerback variety as shown above. They will also use a 4-2-5 Nickel. The Patriots ability to snuff out the run with this front, due in large part to Alan Branch and Malcom Brown’s ability to control their blockers and “build the wall” by two-gapping, is really what made them so good.
Trey Flowers’ role in this front is truly under-appreciated because he’s able to play inside at just 6’2″, 270 pounds. He’s able to do so because of phenomenal technique (hey, that’s his nickname!) and long arms. He was constantly able to hold his ground, separate and make plays against players with far more size.
Here we have the same front, but the personnel has changed, with Van Noy entering the game at middle linebacker, Hightower shifting down to outside linebacker and Flowers switching sides with Brown. Once again, Branch is the key in the middle, playing zero technique, or heads up over the center.
This version gives them a little more coverage capability with Van Noy in the middle and a little more physicality on the edge with Hightower.
Finally here’s a look at a pass rush front (this was Hightower’s strip sack) which really demonstrates the problems the front can cause. Hightower, Ninkovich, Flowers (shifting inside), Branch and Long are the pass rushers, but really any of them could rush or take a pass drop. Same goes for Van Noy, though he was primarily a coverage player after he arrived.
Branch, though not a traditional sub rusher, was effective all season running stunts inside with the pass rushers. His role was more of a wrecking ball, trying to occupy multiple offensive linemen while freeing up the faster guys to attack the quarterback.
There are a couple big takeaways here that will really influence free agency this offseason.
The first is that Alan Branch was a critical part of the defense. He’s just so big he’s able to control the middle of the offensive line allowing everyone else to make big plays. Re-signing him while also scouting prospects with similar builds is a big key to stopping the run with a six-man box.
The second is that the defensive ends and linebackers exist on a spectrum now and smarts with versatility are imperative. Ninkovich, Sheard and Long could all drop into coverage just as easily as rush the quarterback. Hightower and McClellan can play both middle or outside linebacker. Flowers is the only one who consistently played with a hand down in the 3-3-5 package, but even he took some coverage drops at times this season.
The old Patriots 3-4 was so clear cut. I was amazed even more by it after watching some of Super Bowl 42 last weekend. They were essentially in two packages, their 3-4 base, or a nickel package where Bruschi came off and the nickel corner came on. That was it.
Now everyone around Branch and Brown does a little of everything. Some like Van Noy and Roberts are a little more one-dimensional, but the rest can be used for pretty much anything — on the line or off it. We saw the effects of this in the Super Bowl, where Freeman failed to recognize Hightower as a blitzer coming off the edge for a key sack.
Branch and Hightower are critical to re-sign to maintain this kind of versatile defense. Those kind of players are so hard to find.
I’m not so sure about Long and Sheard. They were asked to move outside their comfort zone by taking more coverage drops this season. Could the Patriots look to upgrade those rotational spots with a little more athleticism? It could be a way to round out the defense a bit more effectively.
I love having so many rotational players for the front. Usually injuries eat up that depth, but not this year. Consider just two years ago when Chandler Jones and Nikovich had to play every snap. Re-stocking that depth if Sheard and Long don’t return is imperative.
The scheme is not restrictive though, it’s open to maximize the skillset of whoever the Patriots bring in, no matter where they fall on the defensive end/linebacker spectrum. It used to be that “hybrid” was differentiated from whether or not the edge player had their hand in the dirt. Now nearly all the Patriots front seven players are hybrids, in a true amoeba defense that not only attacks the offense with the Patriots’ trademark physicality, but with disguise that is near-impossible to discern.