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On defense, the X’s and O’s are still sketchy

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / August 4, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH - The evolution of the Patriots defense rolls on.

Where it stops, nobody knows.

Are the Patriots still a 3-4 team? Will they be a 4-3? Does it even matter, with all the substitution packages teams play in today’s pass-happy NFL?

The answers are maybe, maybe, and not really.

There is a limit, for competitive reasons, on what can be reported from practice, but perhaps we can provide more answers when the Patriots suit up a week from tonight for their exhibition opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Gillette Stadium.

As far as actual evidence, everything is circumstantial at this point.

Take the roster. Right now, the Patriots have 13 defensive linemen. That’s a truckload for a 3-4 team, especially one that has averaged 6.7 defensive linemen on the season-opening 53-man roster the past three years.

That doesn’t even include guys such as Jermaine Cunningham, rookie Markell Carter, and undrafted free agents Clay Nurse, Aaron Lavarias, and Alex Silvestro, who are tweeners who can play end or outside linebacker.

When you look at the linebacking corps, it’s hard not to see in its present form that Brandon Spikes would fit as a run-stuffing middle linebacker, Jerod Mayo could play the strong side and the middle in sub packages, and some combination of Gary Guyton and Rob Ninkovich might be better suited on the weak side.

Then there is the player the Patriots acquired, Albert Haynesworth, and those they have taken glimpses at.

It’s no secret that Haynesworth has preferred and flourished in the 4-3 as opposed to the 3-4. And it would seem to be a waste of his talent, and that of nose tackle Vince Wilfork, if Haynesworth were stuck two-gapping at end in a 3-4.

Coach Bill Belichick is better than anyone in the league at using the skills of each player for the collective good. It has to be awfully tempting to pair Haynesworth and Wilfork in the middle of a four-man line on first and second downs. The Patriots, in effect, would be saying to the opponent, “Go ahead and run it.’’ Enjoy second- and third-and-long.

That just may be the plan to address the Patriots’ biggest weakness: third-down defense.

You don’t solve that problem by getting better on third down. That’s a popular misconception, and it leads to outcries to land a dominant pass rusher in free agency or via trade.

A guy who could get after the passer would certainly help. But if you want to improve your third-down defense, you do it by becoming more effective on first and second downs. The aim is to get the offense into as many third-and-longs as possible, which are converted at a lower percentage than, say, third and 5.

The Patriots found themselves in too many of the latter situations last year, which led to them allowing a league-high 47 percent conversion rate on third downs.

Plug in Wilfork and a game Haynesworth to the middle to improve on the first two downs, and watch the third-down conversion rate plummet.

The Patriots have worked out veterans Matt Roth and Raheem Brock, and we don’t think that will be the extent of their testing the waters on players who can play on the line.

Roth long has been a 3-4 outside linebacker, but he is up near 275 pounds now. And the former University of Iowa end started his pro career in the 3-4/4-3 hybrid scheme used by Belichick buddy Nick Saban in his short stay with the Miami Dolphins.

Brock, at 6 feet 4 inches and 274 pounds, is nearly the same size as Roth. He has played his previous nine years in 4-3 schemes, eight of them with the Indianapolis Colts.

New York Giants end Osi Umenyiora is a tantalizing name that may or may not be available to the Patriots.

The Giants had been allowing Umenyiora’s agent, Tony Agnone, to work out a trade, but the team wouldn’t come off its demand of a first-round pick in return and removed Umenyiora from the trading block. For now.

The Patriots did their “due diligence’’ on Umenyiora, but it likely didn’t get very far when the first-round pick was brought up, as well as Umenyiora’s desire for a final big contract that would pay him upward of $10 million per season.

“The fact is, in the business we are in, if you get injured, or they feel like you underperformed, they cut you without hesitation,’’ Umenyiora said in an e-mail to the Associated Press Monday. “But if you clearly outplay your contract, and ask for something to be done, you’re a bad guy and not a team player. It’s ridiculous.’’

A marriage between the Patriots and the two-time All-Pro end doesn’t seem to be in the cards, but things could deteriorate quickly between the Giants and Umenyiora. If that happens, anything is possible.

Umenyiora wouldn’t fit the Patriots’ usual acquisition pattern in that he hasn’t worn out his welcome elsewhere, and isn’t a reclamation project seeking a fresh start. And he wouldn’t be looking to take less money short-term to earn a big contract elsewhere. Umenyiora, who will be 30 in November, wants his big money now.

What the Patriots want now is to improve their defense. Whether that is with different personnel, a scheme change, or both, it doesn’t matter. At some point, Belichick is going to set the course for the season, and we’ll all get the answers we’re seeking. Hopefully for the Patriots, they’ll be the right ones.

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

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