It's an opportune time for Banta-Cain, Green
Defensive lineman Jarvis Green (97) has mostly been a backup, but he may be in a position to crack the starting lineup. (Globe Staff Photo / Jonathan Wiggs)
FOXBOROUGH -- If Bill Belichick played the lottery, he probably wouldn't be a same-number-every-week guy.
Belichick likes his team to have various possibilities. He's not shy about mixing and matching, searching for a winning combination.
What unfolded on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium yesterday morning was a good example of Belichick's approach. Three days after the Patriots' run defense was gashed in their exhibition opener against the Falcons -- surrendering 196 yards on 33 carries (5.9-yard average) -- the unit had taken on two new looks.
In the 3-4 alignment, Tully Banta-Cain was inserted at outside linebacker. That moved Mike Vrabel from outside linebacker to inside linebacker, where he replaced Don Davis.
The team also worked in a 4-3 set at various times, taking Banta-Cain off the field and adding defensive lineman Jarvis Green.
``You know how Coach is as far as changing stuff up," said Green, who saw his most extensive practice action since the opening weekend of camp. ``Whatever he puts up, we have to be ready for it."
Yesterday was a chance for Banta-Cain and Green to prove they can be part of a winning combination on run defense, which has been part of the Patriots' winning formula over the last three seasons. The team limited opponents to 3.6 yards per carry in 2003, then 3.9 in 2004, and 3.6 last season, all top-eight NFL rankings.
The 6-foot-2-inch, 250-pound Banta-Cain, who enters his fourth season and is perhaps best known for temporarily losing his 2003 Super Bowl ring, hasn't been a regular part of those defenses. He has played in 38 regular-season games, but hasn't registered a start while contributing mostly on special teams.
Belichick said Banta-Cain has made strides over the last two weeks, potentially expanding his role.
``I think this has been Tully's best camp. It's also the one where he's probably gotten the most opportunity in a couple of years," said Belichick, noting that Banta-Cain was working behind established outside linebackers Willie McGinest, Rosevelt Colvin, and Vrabel for much of the last three years. ``I think he can help us. He's got a number of things that he does well."
Banta-Cain, who turns 26 Aug. 28, flashed a few of those things Friday night. He overpowered Falcons backup left tackle Frank Omiyale for a second-quarter sack, and earlier in the game he protected the perimeter of the field on a T.J. Duckett run, fighting off a block from tight end Dwayne Blakley to slow Duckett's progress on a 2-yard gain.
In a nutshell, those are the two elements the Patriots are looking for from their outside linebackers: creating havoc in the pass rush and setting the edge on running plays.
On top of that, Belichick cited Banta-Cain's instincts on a pass play in which he was in coverage. The play went for a 14-yard gain over the middle to Blakley.
``I thought that was one of the best plays of the game that [Banta-Cain] made and it wasn't even his man," Belichick said. ``The way the play unfolded, he kind of saw there wasn't anybody else there where there should have been, and he just hung with him and I'm sure it looked like to anybody watching the play that he got beat on the play. He was pretty competitive, he was right there to make a play on the tackle. Even though the guy made the catch and all that, I thought it was a really heads-up play on his part."
Banta-Cain, a seventh-round pick in 2003 out of California, realizes this marks his best chance to break through. As a rookie, he got off to a slow start because of injury, opening the season on the physically unable to perform list. He played 11 games that season, then appeared in all 19 his second year, primarily on special teams. Injuries hampered Banta-Cain again early in 2005, as his leg was nicked up in the preseason finale. He missed the first three regular-season games but appeared in the final 15.
``My first three years have been about patience, developing, and watching how it's supposed to be done from the guys here who have experience," said Banta-Cain, who played defensive end in college and has totaled 22 tackles and three sacks as a pro. ``This year is about using everything I've learned and the patience that's built up to explode on the scene. I'm going to get opportunities, and this is my year to really take advantage of them."
The same could be true for the 6-foot-3-inch, 285-pound Green. Entering his fifth NFL season, Green primarily has been a backup, appearing in 70 games and pinch hitting as a starter in 20 of them.
If the team were to switch to a 4-3 defense, however, Green would likely be a starter at end, where he has the quickness to get to the sideline. Those skills make him a bit different from his fellow linemen, a group that includes bigger players like Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, and Vince Wilfork.
Asked what unique offerings he brings to the defensive line, Green said he's fine with being a modern-day version of former Celtics John Havlicek or Frank Ramsey.
``Another guy off the bench, as far as the sixth man," said the 27-year-old Green, who has totaled 146 tackles and 15 sacks over the last four seasons (playoffs included). ``I bring different skills, different qualities. I'm not a starter, but I play just as much as the other guys."
Green, who had a nagging shoulder problem last season, has been brought along slowly in training camp. He participated in the team's first four practices, then missed the next 12 before returning for light duty last Wednesday. Yesterday marked his most extensive work with the top defense.
Belichick was happy to have Green back, as it offered a chance to try a new combination.
``Jarvis has played across the board for us -- he's played on the guard, he's played on the tackle, he's played out on a tight end and in a wider position," Belichick said. ``I think he has good position flexibility and is a smart guy who understands the different techniques and responsibilities at those spots. He's someone who has some versatility for us, and that can be a big plus."
A big plus that reflects the Patriots' general philosophy: The more options the better, when in pursuit of that winning combination.