Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has adapted his schemes to match his personnel on offense and defense, time after time. On Thursday against the Redskins, he unveiled a potential shift that's been in the works for some time.
The Patriots opened the game in a 3-4 front (three defensive linemen, four linebackers), and they were in it for most of the game (despite varying personnel groups). They have been playing a 4-3 front (four defensive linemen, three linebackers) for the past three years.
Here is a look at their opening lineup in the front seven:
LE: Tommy Kelly
NT: Vince WIlfork
RE: Chris Jones
LOLB: Darius Fleming
LILB: James Anderson
RILB: Steve Beauharnais
ROLB: Michael Buchanan
This is not what the Week 1 version of the defense will look like. Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Jerod Mayo, Jamie Collins, and Dont'a Hightower were all scratched from the lineup for this preseason game. Those five could all fit in various ways in a 3-4 defense, but the beauty of a 3-4 defense is the different ways in which you can bring pressure or a blitz. That only works if your rushing defenders understand gaps and have enough athleticism to win in a phone booth if need be.
During Belichick's tenure, the Patriots have switched back and forth between a 3-4 and a 4-3 scheme several times. They have changed within the course of a season, and even within the course of a game. Perhaps a renewed emphasis on the 3-4 in the preseason could bring more of those kind of looks in the regular season.
In recent years, the Patriots have drafted athletic defenders in the front seven that fit a 4-3 defense, including Jones, Hightower, Collins, and 2014 first-round pick Dominique Easley. Each of those players could find a home (or multiple homes) in the 3-4.
Jones has played inside and outside in the Patriots' four-man lines, and Collins has played at all three levels of the defense (defensive line, linebacker, safety). Hightower may benefit the most from the switch, as he will likely be asked to play less in space than he was in the 4-3.
Easley played a mix of defensive tackle in a 4-3 and defensive end in a 3-4 while with the Florida Gators. His long frame and explosiveness give him the potential to have a game-changing impact on one end of the line if he is occupying multiple blockers.
All the talk of a base defense is sometimes overblown, though. The nickel defense has become the base defense for the Patriots. They put five defensive backs on the field more often than not for the past four years running. That won't change anytime soon with rules that help the passing game, and a rules emphasis this year that could once again favor aerial attacks.
Within the nickel construct, they vary between three linemen and three linebackers (3-3-5) and four linemen and two linebackers (4-2-5).
Hightower is still likely to be the guy that comes out of the game when the Patriots need to go to a nickel defense. He has been participating in 1-on-1 pass-rush drills in practice, but has the most limited skill set of the bunch on passing downs.
Belichick's roots are in the 3-4 defense. He switched to a 4-3 out of necessity in 2011, and has stuck with that scheme until now. He feels that, by teaching the fundamentals and keeping those things consistent all year, they can be more flexible.
"Honestly, I think that's something that is a media fabrication," he said of designated alignments in 2011, via Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston. "There are a lot of different alignments out there. You see 4-3 teams use odd spacing. You see 3-4 teams use even spacing. You have 11 players, you can put them in various positions. Whether you want to put it on the pre-game depth chart as one thing or another, I think is a little bit overrated."
For example, a 4-3 Under front could look like a base 3-4 with the defensive end simply lined up in a two-point stance rather than a three-point stance. That could be part of the mystery — for both opposing offenses and reporters alike.
Over the years, the Patriots have become so scheme versatile on defense, it's almost not even worth talking about what style they prefer as their "base" defense. It is safer to say that their base defense is whatever best suits any given situation.
This is not set in stone, and is only a glimpse of what may be to come. It's possible that the Patriots are only teaching the 3-4 now because players often have far more experience in a 4-3. That being said, the many manifestations of the Patriots defense will be worth tracking as we move through the preseason.