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Do your job

Belichick specializes in positioning his role players

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / January 16, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH — Wilfork. Mayo. McCourty.

Those are the names you know. They are the players the Patriots depend on defensively. They are the backbone.

They also happen to be the only defensive players to start all 16 games this season.

There are a lot of teams around the NFL that can say something similar because of injuries. But it’s not why the Patriots have done it.

For the most part, the Patriots are shuffling players among eight positions at an unprecedented rate because it’s The Patriots Way.

And because they have to.

The Patriots entered this season knowing they had shortcomings on defense. Less-than-fruitful drafts from 2006-08 left a large gap in talent between the exiting veterans who led the Patriots to three Super Bowl titles and the bumper crop of the past two draft classes.

Truth be told, this wasn’t supposed to be the year. A 14-2 run through the regular season has even surprised those inside One Patriot Place. This run is gravy. The Patriots, with two draft picks in each of the first three rounds in April’s draft, were supposed to hit next year or the year after to start another dynasty.

But today’s game against the Jets may be the first victory on the way to another Super Bowl title. If the Patriots do win it, it won’t be just because of Tom Brady’s finest season ever (considering his supporting cast and stark in-season change in offensive philosophy after the Randy Moss trade).

It will be because coach Bill Belichick and his defensive assistants have wrung out every last ounce of talent and effort among their 25 defensive players.

Twelve players for five positions. (And that’s not even counting the defensive line, where the rotation is as deep and varied as any.)

If the Patriots win the Super Bowl in February, you could call them Dynasty’s Dozen.

This is when the run would start. These players carrying out their seemingly bit parts to near perfection will be a big reason why.

Taking it to a new level Specialization on both sides of the ball took hold as Belichick was starting his coaching career with the Baltimore Colts in 1975. Rosters expanded from 40 to 47 players in ’73 because of the threat of the World Football League. It took until ’93 for rosters to get to the present size (53, and 45 active on game day). That’s when specialization grew five-fold.

“You saw more of it against the different offensive systems with three receivers, four receivers, the run and shoot,’’ Belichick said. “You have a lot of different offensive systems that the defenses have to react to. I think that’s what you see more of, is when the offense has multiple tight ends — Joe Gibbs’ type of offenses in the 80’s — or the multiple receivers — the Mouse Davises and June Joneses and things like that — and you have to try to match up to those kind of different skill players and that causes you to have more groupings.’’

Every team has become specialized on defense. You have specific personnel for goal line situations, to line up against multiple receivers (nickel-and-dime packages), and specific players with narrow responsibilities (situational pass rushers and coverage).

But what the Patriots have done this season has taken it to a new level, even if Belichick, as is his way, doesn’t want to acknowledge it.

“You go back to the ’01 Super Bowl and we’re playing with seven defensive backs,’’ Belichick said. “I don’t really know that it’s a big evolution.’’

Others disagree.

“I don’t see other teams doing that, no,’’ said an AFC pro personnel executive. “Not to the extent the Patriots do it.’’

Like many other teams, New England has a platoon at inside linebacker because one is better against the run (Brandon Spikes) and the other is better in coverage (Gary Guyton).

And nearly every team rotates outside linebackers/ends depending on the situation. But the Patriots use four players — five if you rightly count end Eric Moore, who has taken the snaps of outside linebackers in the nickel — for the two positions: Tully Banta-Cain, Jermaine Cunningham, Rob Ninkovich, and Dane Fletcher. You add even more if you count the snaps played at rush end by cornerback Kyle Arrington.

Darius Butler, who was benched after beginning the season as a starter, has carved out a niche playing nickel/dime against specific matchups. He has even taken snaps from Arrington the past month.

And at safety, four players — Brandon Meriweather, Patrick Chung, James Sanders, and Jarrad Page — have played in bunches of late. Meriweather, who was selected for the Pro Bowl, seems to have regained his spot as the dominant starter, but it could change depending on the matchup.

How varied are the Patriots? Not once have they started the same defensive lineup in back-to-back games. And Fletcher is the lone member of the dozen not to start at least one game this season.

There are usually two explanations for such intense specialization on defense. Either there’s too much talent and you’re trying to make everyone happy, or you’re trying to make up for a talent deficiency by chopping up the responsibilities for each position.

“I think it’s a combination of a lot of things,’’ Belichick said. “First of all it comes with what you’re facing, what you have to defend. We don’t defend the same thing every week. We defend scrambling quarterbacks, we defend pocket quarterbacks, different personnel groupings. I think that’s part of it. Sometimes injuries play a part of it — who’s available and who can do what — and then sometimes you have strengths and weaknesses that you’re either trying to exploit or diminish.’’

Said the personnel executive, “I think they do it because they put their players in the best situations to perform and utilize their talents and I think that’s the key thing that Bill Belichick does. If he knows that Spikes isn’t a great cover guy, he makes sure he never puts him in coverage. So I think it’s a great way to utilize your personnel by knowing it and putting them in situations to succeed.

“I wouldn’t say [the Patriots lack overall talent]. I would just say he uses their talents to the best and whatever deficiencies they have, he tries to keep from getting them exposed. Everybody’s got deficiencies, he’s just a very good guy to adapt a scheme to utilize everybody and cover up their deficiencies.’’

Defining their strengths Around the league, the Belichick trait that impresses the most is adaptability. So many coaches are married to a scheme or style of play and if a player doesn’t fit, he doesn’t last long.

“Belichick has a framework but he molds it to fit his players,’’ said an AFC assistant coach. “If a player has some skill and plays hard, Belichick will find a way to use him. It’s that way on offense and defense for them. You’d be surprised, but it’s not like that everywhere.’’

It starts early. Belichick tries to assess strengths and weaknesses and identifying how a player can be used as soon as he hits the practice field.

“I think it varies. And I don’t think it’s the same,’’ Belichick said when asked how long the process takes. “I think sometimes it takes a player a while to get to the point where his performance is more consistent. Sometimes guys start off pretty consistent from Day 1, the Jerod Mayos of the world. There are guys that it takes a little longer for them to develop that.’’

Once the role is determined, Belichick and his lieutenants, especially de facto coordinator Matt Patricia, figure out how to utilize each player against that specific opponent, down to the individual matchups.

“It depends on the team we’re playing,’’ Ninkovich said. “If a team is a heavily run or pass team, it’s going to be different. There’s a lot to it. Yeah, sometimes you really don’t know what the game plan’s going to be like but whatever it turns out to be, you just roll with it.’’

Belichick is famous for keeping things simple for his players — one to three keys for each of them each game — even though it looks complicated from the outside. Certainly, the hope is it looks that way to the opponent, especially the quarterback.

“We try to keep a lot of continuity with each player even though sometimes it may look a little different for him, hopefully,’’ Belichick said. “Every Wednesday we don’t want him walking in there saying, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got to learn a whole new defense this week.’ We say, ‘It’s OK, here’s all the things you’re going to do this week. It’s going to be a little bit different but it’s things that you’ve been doing and you’re comfortable with.’ So that’s the way we try to present it. We don’t try to have 20 new things going on this week.’’

Practice is where the plan is put in place. Situational football — the cornerstone of the Patriot Way — is practiced and rehearsed so it’s second nature by kickoff.

“Our job really is just to go out and practice and see everything we need to see and learn what the opponent is going to be doing out there this week and just be ready,’’ Page said. “Because you don’t know how much you’re going to play, you don’t know what situations you’ll be in on, you don’t know what situations you’ll be out on. Just get ready to play when it’s your time.

“The easy part is going there and playing. The hard part is the studying and getting ready for the opponent.’’

This approach wouldn’t fly on every team or with every player. Players want to play. It’s what they were born to do and what got them to this level.

Whether it’s by bluntly applied force or specific acquisitions, the Patriots have found several players — young ones this time around, not veterans willing to do anything for a Super Bowl title — content to play their role for the good of the team.

That’s the Patriot Way.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard.

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