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Belichick signaling a defensive shift

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  August 4, 2011 01:40 PM

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Coaches aren't philosophers, not in the sense of Nietzsche or Plato. They're about Xs and Os, not existentialism. But they have philosophies and they are loathe to stray from them, especially when they've been proven successful.

For most of his career Bill Belichick has been associated with the 3-4 defense. Yes, I know, I know the Patriots used a 4-3 defense against the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI and have done so from time to time. But saying that makes the Patriots a 4-3 team or Belichick a 4-3 coach is like saying recycling cans makes you head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

That's why the most interesting storyline of training camp isn't the arrival of Tweet-a-holic wide receiver Chad Ochocinco or the re-education of indolent defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth or the rush to the regular season created by the lockout. It's the mounting evidence that Belichick is moving to a 4-3 defense.

The trade for Haynesworth, the "different direction" comments from Ty Warren as he bid Foxborough adieu, workouts for 4-3 defensive linemen Tommie Harris and Raheem Brock, and investigating a trade for disgruntled Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora: It all points to a shift in defensive philosophy.

Belichick abandoning the base 3-4 for a 4-3 or 3-4/4-3 hybrid is a little like Bill Gates swapping all his Windows-running PCs for Apple computers. Or a BMW engineer riding to work in a Mercedes Benz. It's also a tacit admission of what's become increasingly apparent the last few seasons. The old way of playing defense wasn't/isn't working, at least not well enough to hang another Super Bowl banner inside Gillette Stadium.

We know the Patriots will score points -- lots of them. That won't be an issue as long as Tom Brady is the quarterback. But can Belichick hold up his end of the bargain on the other side of the ball?

The results were mixed last season. The defense forced 38 turnovers, led the league in interceptions with 25 and allowed 19.8 points per game. However, it was 30th in the league against the pass, dead last in third-down defense, and 25th overall in total defense, surrendering 366.5 yards per game, the highest number any Belichick head-coached team has ever posted.

The popular theory regarding the Patriots' defense is that it's a bend-but-don't break approach. Yards allowed are just an unsightly, but largely innocuous, side effect of the system. Nothing to see here.

But of the five seasons under Belichick in which the Patriots have finished 20th or lower in yards allowed on defense, the only one in which they won the Super Bowl was the Cinderella season of 2001 (24th). In the other four -- 2000 (20th), 2002 (23d), 2005 (26th) and last year (25th) -- they won a total of one playoff game.

With more time than usual to study and dissect his defense this offseason, Belichick may have concluded that his bend-but-don't-break 3-4 was indeed broken. That instead of a tune-up it needed an overhaul. Judging by the Patriots' last four playoff demises it's hard to argue.

In 2006, the Patriots built a 21-6 halftime lead in the AFC Championship Game against the Indianapolis Colts only to see the Colts score 32 points in the second half, including the winning touchdown with a minute left. We all know how the 2007 season ended in Super Bowl XLII.

In the 2009 playoffs, Ray Rice took the first play from scrimmage and raced 83 yards for a tone-setting touchdown as the Patriots endured a 33-14 beatdown by the Baltimore Ravens. Last season, the Patriots tasted the agony of defeat (or was it da feet) at the hands of Rex Ryan and the New York Jets. The game, during which the Patriots had zero sacks or quarterback hits, was 14-11 New York at the start of the fourth quarter before the Jets took the E-Z Pass to the end zone, going 75 yards in five plays on their way to a 28-21 victory.

It is the last two system failures in particular that likely prompted the defensive guru to re-do his defense.

But the current state of the roster played a role as well. Any good coach knows you have to mold your system to your players and not the other way around. The playmakers in a 3-4 are often the outside linebackers. That's also the position the Patriots are the weakest at.

Belichick is quite picky about his outside 'backers -- you would be too when Lawrence Taylor is your standard -- and the team has passed on players like Clay Matthews and LaMarr Woodley in recent years. With the success of the Patriots, Steelers, and now Packers there is more demand from copy-cat teams than there is supply of 3-4 players across the league.

Migrating to the 4-3 also makes sense because it allows Belichick to maximize the ability of his two best front-seven players -- nose tackle Vince Wilfork and middle linebacker Jerod Mayo. In the 3-4, Wilfork is most often battling two blockers and trying to hold his ground before making a play. Mayo, who led the NFL in tackles last season, has to grapple with guards inside.

In a 4-3, Wilfork can do what he did in college at the University of Miami, which is shoot gaps, get in the backfield and blow up plays. Mayo could move to weakside outside linebacker in a 4-3, leaving bruising Brandon Spikes to man the middle. That would allow Mayo to play more in space and use his athleticism and instincts to be a sideline-to-sideline menace.

The move could also help get the most out of second year outside linebacker/defensive end Jermaine Cunningham, who freed from the second-guessing that comes with the transition to 3-4 outside 'backer, could blossom.

As Nietzsche once said, "A thinker sees his own actions as experiments and questions -- as attempts to find out something. Success and failure are for him answers above all."

Belichick is football's ultimate thinker, and it looks like he thinks it's time to tinker.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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