Position is clearly versatile

Defensive front has many looks

By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / October 28, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — They have become a group of interchangeable parts, no one wedded to one position.

And, to hear Bill Belichick tell it, that is by design.

“It’s a very flexible group,’’ the Patriots coach said yesterday when asked about the different defensive line combinations he has deployed this season. “Those guys have a lot of versatility. They’ve played different positions in training camp.

“By playing another position, they understand how that affects their position and what responsibilities the position next to them has, and that probably helps them a little bit.

“It gives us depth and gives us some flexibility in terms of where we want to deploy those guys on different packages or different calls.’’

The Patriots gave a glimpse of that flexibility when they opened the season against the Bengals in a 4-3 base defense, a departure from their traditional 3-4 scheme. Ron Brace, who was inactive for the first time this season last week at San Diego, started at left end; Vince Wilfork, who perhaps has emerged as the most versatile player of the bunch, started at left tackle; My ron Pryor, who has yet to make another start this season, started at right tackle; and Mike Wright started at right end.

The following week, in a 28-14 loss to the Jets, the Patriots reverted to their 3-4 scheme, with Gerard Warren starting at left end, Wilfork at his traditional nose tackle spot, and Brace at right end.

In the 3-4, the Patriots have had four players start at left end, three start at the nose, and four start at right end, giving opposing offensive lineman little to go on in terms of tendencies.

“I think it’s pretty common for an offensive lineman to have to block several different guys in a game,’’ Belichick said. “A lot of teams rotate kind of a first group and a second group, or they take their outside guys and move them inside and sub and bring somebody else in. So that’s fairly common to have to block three or four different guys over the course of a game.’’

It matters little where a player lines up in the Patriots’ defensive front; the objective remains the same.

“You’ve still got to defeat the blocker in front of you, so however you do it, it’s good,’’ said rookie Brandon Deaderick, who was inactive for the first three games of the season before he made his NFL debut at Miami, then made his first career start at left end against the Ravens.

Deaderick, a 6-foot-4-inch, 305-pounder who was a seventh-round selection out of Alabama, has his locker between veterans Warren and Wilfork, which has allowed him to soak up their knowledge.

“I’ve learned a lot from them,’’ Deaderick said. “They’ve showed me a lot of things to help me to try and improve my game.’’

If Deaderick has learned anything from Wilfork, it’s the value of being versatile.

“Any time you draft a player, that’s something you have to take into consideration,’’ Belichick said. “If the player can only play one position, whatever that one position is, then you’re sinking or swimming on that one spot.

“Whereas if a player can do more than that, there’s probably a pretty good sense that — assuming the level of play is good — that you’ll be able to utilize him somewhere, depending on what else you have.’’

In Wilfork’s case this season, that has meant different assignments up and down the line.

“Vince is a really versatile guy,’’ Belichick said. “He’s smart. He line stunts and understands protections and pass rushes, and reads plays very quickly — blocking schemes. He’s excellent at all of that and provides great leadership for the other guys on the line.

“I think that’s really the mark of an outstanding player — a guy who can elevate the play of the other players around him, either with what he’s doing or in doing things that help other guys and give them better opportunities.

“He’s unselfish about that. There are a lot of plays that get made that he is a big factor in causing the play, even though he’s not the final guy who makes the tackle and gets the credit.’’

After starting at nose tackle in the first three games the Patriots used the 3-4, Wilfork started against Miami at left end, then switched to right end against the Ravens, and was there again last week against the Chargers. On the team’s unofficial depth chart for Sunday’s game against the Vikings, Wilfork is listed at nose tackle.

“It speaks a ton on Vince,’’ Warren said. “You don’t see too many [guys] being able to play a traditional nose guard and then play defensive end in the NFL, so that just lets you know how special a guy Vince is. For the coaches to have faith in moving different guys around like that, to create different matchups, it says a lot.’’

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