The Patriots combined a stellar run-stuffing Defense in the early 2000s with a relatively young and inexperienced Tom Brady at Quarterback to capture three Super Bowls in just four seasons. Yet the Patriots in recent years have been known more for their Offensive prowess. However, Head Coach Bill Belichick has slowly been rebuilding a championship calibre Defense as he has have looked to replace his stars of the 2000s with the current generation of versatile Patriots.
The Rebuild: Out with the old
Between 2003 to 2007, New England was ranked in the top four every season in terms of points allowed (the only blip being 2005). During this five year span they were also a top 10 team against the run as the NFL boasted Running Backs like Fred Taylor, Ricky Williams, Jamal Lewis, Marshall Faulk, Clinton Portis, Jerome Bettis, Curtis Martin and of course LaDainian Tomlinson.
Yet from 2007 onwards it appears that the Patriots shifted their attention from building a stout Defense to a high scoring Offence. In the past nine seasons the Patriots have boasted the highest scoring Offence three-times, the third highest four times and with Brady at QB their lowest ever rating was 2009 where they finished 6th as he came back from injury. Even in 2008 where Matt Cassell started at Quarterback the Patriots dropped to only 8th.
2007 saw a shift in emphasis and the arrival of Wide Receivers Randy Moss and Wes Welker and a high-scoring Patriots Offence that went 16-0 and lit the rest of the League up. Following the 2008 season the Patriots lost some of their long time starters on Defence with Linebackers Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi, Safety Rodney Harrison and Defensive End/ Tackle Richard Seymour. They had previously lost their long time Cornerbacks Asante Samuel in 2007 who stepped in for Ty Law and their Hall of Fame Linebacker/ Defensive End Willie McGinest who left the team following the 2005 season. The only core player of the Patriots Defence who remained was Nose Tackle Vince Wilfork, however, he too left the team in 2014.
The Rebuild: In with the new
It is clear that New England has been slowly rebuilding its Defence since the 2012 season following their defeat to the Giants in the Super Bowl the season before. New England despite boasting the best Offence in the League for the previous five years had failed to win a Super Bowl as they fell short against the New York Giants in both 2007 and 2011. Head Coach Bill Belichick had the pieces in place on Offence or so he thought with the young but promising and extremely talented Tight End duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and the young Receiver Julian Edelman who looked to have progressed enough to replace the aging Wes Welker. The Patriots also had two young but talented Tackles in Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder who Belichick clearly felt confident in being long-term franchise Tackles to help protect Brady.
From the 2012 Draft up to this year’s draft, the Patriots have drafted Defensive players 58% of the time. Within the first three rounds, when franchises look to draft game-changing talent, this figure reaches an outstanding 77%. In 2012 the Patriots took 4 defensive players with their first 4 selections followed by 3 out of 4 in 2013. 2015 saw an exodus of talent on Defense as the Patriots lost players they had signed on short-term deals to win the Super Bowl in 2014 (CB Darrelle Revis; CB Brandon Browner, LB Akeem Ayers, LB Jerod Mayo; and Patriots legend and future Hall of Famer NT Vince Wilfork).
Every one of New England’s first draft pick since 2012 has been a Defensive player. 2012 the Patriots took the Linebacking duo of Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower in the first round. In 2013 the Patriots took Linebacker Jamie Collins while in 2014 they took Defensive Tackle Dominque Easley in the first round. This was followed by the selection of another Defensive Tackle in the first round in 2015 with Malcolm Brown before this years draft selection which saw the Patriots take Cornerback Cyrus Jones in the second round.
The Patriots 2016 starters on Defense have largely been built according to the Patriots ‘model’ of the mid 2000s. The Patriots played a 3-4 Defense during Belichick’s early reign, but changed and since 2011 have adopted a 4-3 system. Despite this change the Patriots still draft similar players who have the traits of being versatile, mentally tough, self-critical and able to handle criticism and learn from their mistakes. Not much is known about Belichick’s drafting techniques but what is known is that during the brief meetings Belichick gets with prospects, he sits them down and shows them over and over mistakes that prospects made in college and asks them what went wrong and how they would change it in the future.
The Patriots have maintained their tradition of being extremely strong as Linebacker while having versatile players along the front seven who can mix it up in terms of dropping into coverage while others blitz (the “Zone Blitz”). So let us meet the 2016 New England Patriots Defensive unit and see if Belichick’s rebuild has worked five years on.
The Defensive Line
The Patriot’s 4-3 Defense uses Defensive End’s who set the edge and funnel the run game inside while going to work on the outside in order to generate a pass rush. Chandler Jones was an exceptional pass rusher at Defensive End, however, he was traded this offseason to the Cardinals for Guard Jonathon Cooper. The Patriots feel confident enough in their 2015 free agent signing Jabaal Sheard to replace Jones as despite Sheard playing only 65% of snaps in 13 regular-season games in 2015, he racked up eight sacks, four forced fumbles (second on team), eight quarterback hits (tied for third), 16 pressures (second) and 11 run stuffs (first). Sheard is also able to set the edge much better than Jones and therefore on obvious run plays will be able to funnel Running Backs inside where the Patriots will have Linebackers waiting. Rob Ninkovich is great against the run and can also drop back into coverage to confuse opposing Quarterbacks and Offensive Linemen. The Patriots are much deeper at Defensive End in 2016 as Chris Long is an elite Defensive End when healthy and has shown in the past that he can put up 13.0/ 11.5 sack seasons. The Patriots also have their 2015 fourth round selection Trey Flowers who despite missing nearly all of 2015 has Defensive Co-ordinator Matt Patricia gushing over his talent.
The Patriots made a shock move this past offseason as they released 2014 first round pick Dominique Easley in April, yet in his place have signed veteran Defensive Tackle Terrance Knighton this past offseason who will provide depth and when on the field has the size and power to be a dominant presence inside. Knighton can help generate a pass rush inside by drawing the attention of both Guards and Centers thus leaving blitzing Linebackers gaps to shoot through and allowing Defensive End’s one on one match ups in obvious passing downs. Malcolm Brown was taken in the first round in 2015 and is a huge interior linemen built in a similar mould to Patriots legend Vince Wilfork and will be tasked with stuffing the run in 2016. The Patriots will most likely start Alan Branch alongside Brown with Knighton working in rotation as Belichick likes to mix up his Defensive Line to keep Defenses guessing. The Patriots also brought in veterans Markus Kuhn and Frank Kearse who are both plus 300lbers and will look to control the line of scrimmage allowing Linebackers to make plays in the backfield.
This is undoubtedly New England’s strongest area on Defense and the Patriots have a history of great Linebackers. Nick Buoniconti (1962-68), Steve Nelson (1974-87), Andre Tippet (1982-93), then the trio of versatile Linebackers who helped New England win three Super Bowls in the early 2000s Tedy Bruschi (1996-2008, dubbed by Belichick in 2009 as the “perfect player”), Willie McGinest (1994-2005) and the exemplar of the versatility Belichick preaches Mike Vrabel (2001-2008, who some times lined up on Offense).
The Patriots also had one of the greatest Linebacker of all time, Junior Seau, come out of retirement to anchor the Defense from 2006-2009. In recent years the Patriots have followed the Willie McGinest mould of DE/ LB hybrids with Chandler Jones (who left the team this offseason) and Rob Ninkovich.
Yet the current crop of Patriots is exceptionally talented as outside of Carolina, the Patriots are competing with the Broncos and Packers for second place in terms of unit strength. Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower are one of the best Linebacking tandems in the NFL as Collins is a freak athlete at Outside Linebacker who has the speed and power to get home quickly and wreck opposing Offense’s game plan. Lining up next to him in the inside is Dont’a Hightower who is a tone setter at Inside Linebacker and blows up run plays as the Patriots use their Ends to set the edge and funnel running plays inside. Collins will likely line up as a Strongside Linebacker in 2016 with Hightower in his usual position at the Inside spot.
The Weakside Linebacker position might fall to Jonathan Freeny who filled in last year when Collins and Hightower were injured and proved to be an able starter. Although the Patriots recently signed Shea McClellin (Chicago’s 19th overall pick in 2012) who can play both inside and stuff the run as well as outside and be a disruptive blitzer on passing downs. The Weakside battle will be interesting to keep and eye on throughout the preseason and I believe that McClellin might just win out come week 1.
The Patriots love Swiss army knifes on Defense and one of the key traits Bill Belichick looks for in players is versatility. Kamu Grugier-Hill is 6 foot 2, 215lbs and runs a 4.4. He looks more like a Wide Receiver than a Linebacker but during training camp has taken second team snaps at Middle Linebacker. At College he was a hybrid Linebacker/ Safety who could play the run and also line up against opposing Tight Ends and Running Backs and stay with them stride for stride down the field. The Patriots took Grugier-Hill in the sixth round in 2016 and although he will primarily be a special teams player in 2016, he is a name to keep an eye on in the future as Belichick will look to use him similar to how he deploys Hightower, Collins and Ninkovich where they interchange in order to keep Offenses guessing on who is blitzing and who is dropping into coverage.
New England took a big risk in 2015 as coming off a Super Bowl win they refused to pay short-term free agents Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner and instead gambled on undrafted rookie Malcolm Butler who had made the Super Bowl winning goal line interception. The gamble hit and Butler made his first Pro Bowl in his sophomore year in 2015 as he started all 16 games, registered 15 passes defended to go along with two interceptions. Butler’s partner Logan Ryan also had an impressive 2015 season and is pencilled to start on the perimeter. In 2015 Ryan registered a team leading four interceptions and broke up 10 more passes. He allowed a passer rating of only 79.9 (the best among Patriots cornerbacks). Ryan and Butler are both able corners and are one of the better duos in the NFL despite their small stature. Both stand at 5 foot 11 (about average in the league) and Butler weighs 190lbs while Ryan is slightly heavier at 195lbs.
The Patriots do not appear to be following the trend set by the Seahawks, which the rest of the League is desperate to replicate. While around the NFL corners appear to be getting taller, New England still deploys smaller, athletic corners in the mould of Asante Samuel and Ty Law (the Patriots two key corners during the early to mid 2000s). Justin Coleman will most likely occupy the no.3 role and play in the slot while Jonathon Jones, Cre’Von LeBlanc and V’Angelo Bentley will all fight for roster spots. The Patriots also drafted CB Cyrus Jones from Alabama in the second round of this years draft and there is a lot of promise surrounding the rookie Corner who many in Foxborough feel will be pushing for a starting role in the not so distant future.
The Patriots have two Safeties in Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty who are both 29 and entering their prime. Chung is a physical Strong Safety who can come down in the box and help defend against the run, while also covering opposing Tight Ends in the passing game. McCourty is a field general in the backfield and a ball hawk when he is not playing in man coverage. The Patriots secondary is full of playmakers and if the front end with the Patriots dominant front seven can help out the backend, then the Patriots should be a top-5 team in sacks and interceptions in 2016.
This Patriots team is younger and more athletic than the unit which ranked 10th last season in points allowed and 17th against the pass. The team ranked 9th against the run and the Patriots have looked to build on this as they have brought in thicker Defensive Tackles and strong Defensive Ends to provide depth along the Line. Linebacking duo Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower have improved every year they have been in the league and will both have able Linebackers to line up alongside them at the Weakside spot as they will look to sure up New England’s run Defense but also add sacks and help generate an elite pass rush.
This Patriots Defense is incredibly young as CB Cyrus Jones and DT Malcolm Brown are both 22; CB Logan Ryan is 25; CB Malcolm Butler, LB Dont’a Hightower and LB Jamie Collins are all 26; DE Jabaal Sheard is 27 while Safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung are entering the prime of their careers at 29 years old. The unit has undoubtedly got more athletic and it is important to remember that this was the top scoring Defense through week 11 last season before injuries started to decimate the front seven. The Patriots front seven is extremely dominant and they have playmakers in the secondary. Defensive Co-Ordinator Matt Patricia will most likely be a Head Coach in 2017 and alongside Head Coach Bill Belichick has a bunch of extremely versatile and ultra talented players who through disguises and misconceptions pose opposing Offensive Line’s problems every snap. It is the images of seeing Rob Ninkovich rush from the edge and then drop back into coverage while Linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower appear to be lined up in man coverage yet shoot the gap and fool opposing linemen that makes this group so dangerous.
The Patriots will be a dominant Defense and as history shows, when the Patriots manage to rank 6th or above in points allowed they make the Super Bowl. The Defense will be relied on through the first four weeks as Jimmy Garoppolo will handle the load for New England’s Offence yet if New England manages to at least split these four games they will most likely go on to have home field advantage throughout the play offs.
Is this a scary Defense that Bill Belichick has assembled in New England? Yes.
Has the rebuild project he started on Defense since 2012 worked? We will wait and see in 2016.