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Precious little insight on defense

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By Greg A. Bedard
August 12, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH – As expected, the great unveiling of the new Patriots defense was a soft opening.

Can’t give away the farm on the first night.

Not when nine players on the two-deep depth chart were watching the Patriots defeat the Jacksonville Jaguars, 47-12, in the exhibition opener.

Those relegated to spectators, just like the paying faithful at Gillette Stadium: Vince Wilfork, Albert Haynesworth, Mike Wright, Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Devin McCourty, Shaun Ellis, Andre Carter, and Myron Pryor.

The 16 scouts on hand from other teams - which seems like an unusually high number – expected to see little. But most of them came away with some interesting observations.

According to some scouts that have watched the Patriots for some time, they showed in the game and during warm-ups - which teams tend to use as practice during the preseason - the expected trend away from the vanilla 3-4 defense they played last year, and a trend toward a 4-3 “under’’ defense.

There were some elements of that scheme, like the strong-side linebacker over the tight end. Other elements, such as the nose tackle playing on the weakside of the center, were different.

So it was more of a hint by the Patriots than anything else. But some scouts seemed to buy it.

“I expect things to really move to the 4-3 under when they have guys like Wilfork and Haynesworth in there,’’ one veteran scout said. “I would bet you’re going to see Wilfork more on the nose with Haynesworth as the weakside tackle. That will allow him to just go after the quarterback. And you can keep Haynesworth happy that way.’’

The 4-3 under defense is known as a sound scheme against the run, and it puts players in the best positions to make plays, a staple of any Bill Belichick scheme.

Against the Jaguars, the Patriots lined up with Darryl Richard on the nose, which is where Wilfork would play. Richard had a sack against the Jaguars in much the same fashion Wilfork has been dominating Patriots practices.

Kyle Love was in the tackle position where most of the pass rush would come – think Haynesworth turned loose – and Eric Moore was the strong-side end. He has to be strong against the run, and he has been. Moore has also shown a flair for pass rushing, and had a quarterback hit against Jaguars starter Blaine Gabbert.

Jermaine Cunningham would likely be the weak side defensive end, which is a premier pass rushing spot. He chipped in a sack of Gabbert when he shed a weak block by tight end Zach Miller.

It remains to be seen what the Patriots will do with their linebackers.

Last night, Dane Fletcher was flying all over the field as the middle linebacker. He registered a quarterback hit and three tackles for losses against the run. That would seem to be a position made for Spikes.

The Patriots will likely keep people guessing where Mayo will line up right up until the Monday night opener in Miami.

He’s stout against the run, but do you want him to have to carry a tight end all the way down the field in coverage? Maybe that job should go to Gary Guyton. But Guyton will have to hold up against the run, which is not his specialty. Against the Jaguars, Rob Ninkovich was the strong-side linebacker.

Perhaps Mayo will be the playmaking weak-side linebacker, where he would be protected by the linemen in front of him.

The Texans, among other teams, ran the 4-3 under last season with stellar DeMeco Ryans in the middle, Brian Cushing as the strong-side linebacker, and Zac Diles on the weak side. Mario Williams had 8 1/2 sacks in 13 games as the weak-side end.

What the scouts also noted was how the Patriots just let their linemen loose to go upfield, which is quite a departure from their traditional two-gap scheme.

That led to some large gaps in the defense line as the Jaguars ripped off runs of 7, 16, and 8 yards on their first drive of the game.

The Patriots did clamp down after that, but Love and Richard aren’t exactly Wilfork and Haynesworth up front, either.

What the 4-3 under also gives the Patriots is versatility. In essence it’s a hybrid scheme, and they showed elements of the 3-4 on a few occasions when Cunningham or Ninkovich stood up in a two-point stance to throw in a wrinkle.

“What I saw was a scheme that is going to be very versatile, which is something Bill believes in,” said former Patriots fullback Heath Evans, who was on hand as the sideline reporter for the NFL Network. “It’s different than what they’ve run the past few years, but Bill is still staying true to what he believes in, which is adaptability to both his players, their strengths, and the opponent. The Patriots could be a 4-3 against some teams, but a 3-4 in others. What he’s doing is trying to put the guys in the best position to make plays.’’

That includes wholesale substitutions on the line on third down. Mark Anderson and Ninkovich, who showed off his positional flexibility, were the ends. Steve Williams and Kade Weston were the tackles. All four have been among the better pass rushers in training camp.

When the regulars get back, imagine a third-down line of Ninkovich, Ellis, Pryor, and Andre Carter. Or dream up another combination.

Most of the top secondary players were on the field against the Jaguars, as Darius Butler and Kyle Arrington started at corner with Leigh Bodden coming on in nickel, and Patrick Chung and Brandon Meriweather at safety.

The Patriots were very vanilla in the back end as they played mostly Cover-2 (two-deep safeties) and Cover-3 (cornerbacks and the free safety divide the field into thirds). The Patriots will definitely mix things up more as the season approaches with more man coverage, but the scheme does fit their strengths. It allows Chung to roam to either jump a pass route, or help in run support. Meriweather would be allowed to protect the back end.

The Patriots may have only been testing the waters on defense against the Jaguars, but there are hints at what is to come. Considering the talent that was relegated to the sideline, it more of a tease than anything else.

Can’t wait to see the finished product.

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

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