Alignment and technique aside, it's about control

Email|Print| Text size + By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / January 18, 2008

FOXBOROUGH - The NFL has 32 flavors of defensive line play, and it didn't take long for Ty Warren to decide which best suits the Patriots.

He chose vanilla, because the job description is most basic.

Playing up front in the Patriots' 3-4 alignment is, first and foremost, about an instant collision with an opposing offensive lineman. Rock him back. Don't let him create forward movement.

On the surface it seems like a simple task, but when done right the vanilla assignment can lead to explosive results.

"It might be hard to tell what we do, so maybe the best way to say it is that we're like a bomb that goes in and just blows everything up," Warren said. "And all everyone sees is the result, all the rubble."

Any successful defense must take control of the line of scrimmage, but the style in which it accomplishes that varies. That topic has come up between Warren and his fellow defensive linemen, who last year awarded a championship wrestling belt to the player who had a standout performance (the belt is currently in storage, but could be brought back).

They look around the league and compare what they do with what other linemen are executing in their respective systems. What they've learned is that each team seems to have its own niche.

The Colts, for example, line up with smaller, quicker players in a 4-3 set and penetrate up the field with the hopes of overwhelming foes with pressure.

The Chargers, on the other hand, play a 3-4 alignment that features bigger, sturdier players like the Patriots, although they are more likely to slant and rush up the field.

Others, like the Steelers, play a 3-4 that features zone blitzes in which linemen sometimes drop back into coverage.

Warren explained that the Patriots' style is more about linemen holding their ground, often against two players. Only after winning that battle can they think about rushing up the field.

"For us, we're always trying to jack people up," Warren said. "It's not about rushing up the field. We have to play something in the hole, and be responsible, or at least have awareness, for two gaps. It's not letting them get any movement on you and allowing the linebackers to scrape in the holes where they might be open."

Only two other teams, the Jets and Browns, truly play that style. Those clubs have adopted the Patriots' system because their head coaches, Eric Mangini and Romeo Crennel, came from New England.

Linemen used in that scheme must have special attributes.

"Being able to be physically strong enough to hold up on the line of scrimmage, I think that's got to be No. 1," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "I think it always starts with being strong enough to play on the line against double-team blocks and big people."

One sequence from the Patriots' 31-20 victory over the Jaguars last Saturday highlighted how the team's line play is particularly challenging.

On the Jaguars' opening series, Warren felt he missed an opportunity for a big play, partially because he initially held his ground at the line of scrimmage to play the run, and couldn't get started fast enough to rush quarterback David Garrard.

"With our scheme, a big part is how fast you can recognize whether it's a run or a pass, and that's why teams like to play-action us a lot," said Warren, who is in his fifth season. "We're programmed to play the run and there can be a slight hesitation. If that happens and the guy is open quick, they'll hit him."

This is what Warren felt happened on the Jaguars' opening possession, in which they marched 80 yards for a touchdown and Garrard utilized play-action three times.

Another issue was sorting things out with outside linebacker Mike Vrabel, as both line up on the same side. On one play in the opening drive, Vrabel came around Warren on a pass rush, but both players were more easily blocked because the Jaguars were sliding protection to that side of the field.

"We got together on the sideline and decided that the next time that shows up, we would handle it differently," Warren explained. "Vrabel said it wasn't worth him coming around me, because someone would be waiting for him because they were sliding to the side. We just decided we'd try to go through our guys."

And when the situation presented itself on the next drive, Warren delivered one of the biggest plays of the game, powering through right guard Maurice Williams to strip-sack Garrard. The Patriots recovered and scored on the ensuing possession to go up 14-7.

They never trailed again.

"That's the dilemma sometimes that might be hard to understand in this system," Warren said. "If the style was just to get up the field, I might have made the play the first time they showed the way they did. But we made the adjustment and got it the next time."

While the play was a result of Warren blasting through Williams after diagnosing a pass, it also was reflective of an astute in-game adjustment with Vrabel.

When preparing to face the Patriots, coaches must account for the strength of the defensive line, which includes the 6-foot-5-inch, 300-pound Warren at left end, 6-2, 325-pound Vince Wilfork at nose tackle, and the 6-6, 310-pound Richard Seymour at right end. Top reserve Jarvis Green (6-3, 285) comes on in pass-rush situations, his primary role to create pressure (he finished the season with 6 1/2 sacks).

"I think those guys are developed really well, they are coached well," said Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. "You watch them through time play the schemes and techniques that their coaches want them to do, and no matter what that is, those guys develop as players."

Statistically, the numbers don't have much sizzle - Warren finished with 83 tackles and four sacks, Wilfork amassed 70 tackles and two sacks, while Seymour, in nine games, had 30 tackles and 1 1/2 sacks.

But Bratkowski indicated that when facing the Patriots' defensive line, it's not as much about the statistics, it's about their ability to control the line and plug all holes.

"They're going to be where they're supposed to be when the play is run, which means you really have to be very crisp as an offense," he said. "They're going to hit the gaps where they're supposed to be. They're not going to make mistakes."

Bratkowski also cited the flexibility of the linemen to morph into a 4-3 alignment when necessary.

The Patriots' line can be boiled down to this - rock the opposition back with decisive force. Warren has come to appreciate the no-frills, vanilla style.

"I love the scheme, and have nothing against it," he said. "I feel like it puts you in a better place, a better position to play the run, than if you were slanted all the time and people had angles on you.

"Really, there is nothing glamorous about it. We do the dirty work."

Amalie Benjamin of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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