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Patriots cook up schemes

Defense will have numerous looks

Bill Belichick can adjust his defense to fit the personnel. Bill Belichick can adjust his defense to fit the personnel. (Jim Davis/ Globe Staff)
By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / August 15, 2009

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While the focus in the Patriots’ exhibition opener Thursday night was on the offense and the return of quarterback Tom Brady, what took place - or didn’t take place - on the other side of the ball was just as interesting.

By coach Bill Belichick’s admission, the Patriots hardly played any 3-4 defense in their 27-25 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, instead almost exclusively employing a 4-3.

“It was all four-man fronts, really,’’ said Belichick after the game.

It’s dangerous to make judgments based on preseason play, but Belichick may have provided a window into his answer for one of the team’s biggest question marks - outside linebacker. All offseason, fans have been asking how the team plans to replace Mike Vrabel, who was traded to the Chiefs. Vrabel was a versatile player who was an ideal fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker because he was adept at stopping the run, rushing the passer, and dropping into coverage.

Without an ideal replacement in-house, the Patriots might solve the problem by mixing in 4-3 fronts to take advantage of the pass-rushing ability of Derrick Burgess and Tully Banta-Cain, neither of whom is strong in coverage or against the run as a 3-4 outside linebacker.

Proof of Belichick’s coaching acumen, he isn’t trying to force his players to fit his preferred scheme, but rather tailoring his scheme to fit the players.

The Patriots might play more of a hybrid this season to maximize the talents of the defensive line, which is one of the team’s deepest units, with Vince Wilfork, Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, Jarvis Green, Mike Wright, and rookie Ron Brace.

“I think we tried out a bunch of combinations of guys and it went pretty well,’’ said Seymour, who played end and tackle in the 4-3. “I think that we will show different guys up front this season with the 4-3 and sometimes the 3-4. We will want to mix it up. I think when we do that we give ourselves a better chance to win.’’

Belichick didn’t want anyone jumping to conclusions about his plans, citing the fact that the Patriots have played multiple schemes over the years, adjusting to the opponent.

“We’ve played 4-3 and 3-4 and nickel and dime and a lot of things around here in various percentages or ratios over the years,’’ he said. “What’s common is the fundamental techniques that are within those defensive schemes, and the flexibility comes from the versatility of the players and, to a certain extent, game-planning and the opponents that we play.’’

Playing the 4-3 is not as much of a philosophical shift as it may seem. There are different types of 4-3 alignments.

A 4-3 under alignment looks very similar to a 3-4, with five men on the line of scrimmage. The most noticeable difference is that a weakside (away from the tight end) edge player such as Banta-Cain is down in a three-point stance as a defensive end, lined up off the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle, as opposed to standing up at outside linebacker. The strongside linebacker also is on the line, off the outside shoulder of the tight end.

In the 4-3 over, three defensive linemen shift toward the strong side, lining up over the center, guard, and tackle. The weakside defensive end lines up over the weakside offensive tackle and the strongside linebacker lines up over the tight end.

Belichick said the Patriots employed some over/under principles against Philadelphia.

“We used our 4-3 package. We set it different ways,’’ he said. “I guess technically we sometimes were to the tight end and sometimes we were away from the tight end on the strength. We mixed in a little over and a little under and some nickel-type fronts. We had three or four different 4-3 type of alignments.’’

The preseason is a time for not only implementation, but experimentation. So, it’s possible the Patriots were only practicing the 4-3 for the handful of games that, in Belichick’s mind, the team will need it. When the season starts, the Patriots’ defense could be back to its familiar 3-4.

Belichick likes to keep opposing teams guessing. Ultimately, he wants his defense to be able to take on multiple forms.

“We definitely haven’t determined anything right now,’’ said Belichick. “We’re just teaching our defense and teaching the techniques, which no matter what defense we play those techniques will apply to it at all the positions. We’ll continue to do that and as we face our opponents during the regular season we’ll game-plan it on a weekly basis to what we feel like will give us the best opportunity for that particular game.

“That’s really what our approach is, but again that includes our personnel, their personnel, schemes, depth. There are a lot of factors there in the decision-making process, but the big thing for us is to have the flexibility to be able to do what we need to do to be competitive against the teams that we see.’’

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