Curran: On defense, it's how -- not what -- Pats play

191543.jpg

Curran: On defense, it's how -- not what -- Pats play

By Tom E. Curran
CSNNE.com Patriots Insider Follow @tomecurran

FOXBORO It was as if hed been lying in the reeds waiting for this moment.

When Bill Belichick heard a question Thursday that asked about his affinity for the 3-4 defense the reliable, predictable, disciplined one that focuses on building a defensive wall that offenses cant (or shouldnt) penetrate he pounced quickly.

Why has he always been a 3-4 practitioner?

At the Browns we played a 4-3, countered Belichick, poking hole No. 1 in the assertion that its his preferred defensive alignment.

OK. Other than the Browns, youve normally utilized a 3-4 . . .

We won two Super Bowls playing a 4-3, Belichick parried. In 01 and 04. Second half of the 01 season, we played 4-3 after Bryan Cox and Ted Johnson got hurt.

Yes, the Patriots did do that. They opened the Super Bowl against the Eagles at the end of the 2004 season in a 4-3. And, in 2001, they switched after a regular-season loss to the Rams to playing a 4-3 with Tedy Bruschi at the middle linebacker spot.

But the 3-4 has been his preferred alignment as a defensive coach, has it not?

In all honesty, most people thought we played a 4-3 at the Giants. Lawrence Taylor did a lot more rushing than he did pass dropping, said Belichick. He was probably . . . 80 to 90 percent of the time he was the rusher in the defense. Now not every play was a pass, but certainly in passing situations and on a lot of pass plays, he was the designated fourth rusher which really put us in what amounts to a 4-3.

I think honestly Belichick's affinity for the 3-4 is something thats a media fabrication, he continued. 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. Look, you have 11 defensive players. You can put them in various positions. Whether you want to put it in the pregame depth chart as one thing or another I think is a little bit overrated.

Were treading on tender ground here. A reporter trying to pin Belichick down on what defense he normally plays is like a T-Ball coach trying to explain the strike zone to Ted Williams disembodied head. Ted would win that argument. And Belichick will win this one.

But the topic is germane to the 2011 Patriots because they are A) currently in possession of the most potentially destructive 4-3 defensive lineman on the planet (Albert Haynesworth), B) said lineman has already made clear his disdain for the reactive nature of the 3-4, and C) the Patriots are working in 4-3 sets an awful lot during training camp.

But tiptoeing along the periphery of which defensive alignment the Patriots will use is offensive to Belichick on a few fronts. First, it violates the desire for schematic secrecy. Second, it makes it seem as if Haynesworths presence is going to dictate how the Patriots play defense. And, finally, the whole interrogation process from a media member will without fail wind up watering down and oversimplifying a very nuanced and complicated football scheme.

Still, business is business. And to better understand why the Patriots may switch to a base scheme with four defensive linemen with their hands on the ground and three linebackers filling the gaps behind them, you have to understand the backstory on Albert Haynesworth.

He became the NFLs Defensive Player of the Year in 2008 with the Titans because he was a penetrating defensive lineman who could not be blocked 1-on-1. He lived in opponents backfields, forcing offenses away from him and making it impossible for quarterbacks to step up and avoid outside rushers on pass plays. His rare talents are designed for penetration, not absorption. To ask him to read and react is like asking David Ortiz to bunt. Maybe he can, but why?

After Haynesworth left the Titans as a free agent and went to Washington, he became an ornery cuss thanks in large part to his feeling miscast.

Last December, after two seasons of ornery in Washington, Haynesworth said, "I'm still the same player I was when I left Tennessee and if they could put me on the field and let me prove that I would.

"I want to play every down, but what we play here is a 3-4 defense . . . I'm just not that good at it. Let me be great. Let me accomplish my goals. Let me be the best DT to ever play the game. There would be no other DT in the league who can outplay me. All I want to do is play for the football. All you gotta do is let the leash off and let me go."

The Redskins and Mike Shanahan would not do that. Whether it was the 3-4 or the 4-3, they werent convinced Haynesworth was going to try in either.

In February, Redskins coach Mike Shanahan laid out Haynesworths gripes.

When I sat down with Albert, and I talked to him . . . he was very blunt with me, Shanahan revealed in a radio interview. He said, Hey, Mike, Im not sure if I wanna play in this 3-4 defense, nose tackle OR defensive end.

And I said, I understand that, I understand that you like the 4-3 defense.

And he said, I do.

So I looked at about a hundred plays with Albert, and out of those hundred plays, there were about fifty of those plays where he was going about half speed. I said, Well, you tell me you like the 4-3 defense, yet youre not playing very hard in THIS 4-3 defense.

He said, Well, its not the same defense that I had in Tennessee.

I said, I understand, but you said you wanted to play in a four-man front. This is a four-man front. So sometimes you have to adjust to a scheme. So what you want to do is you want to play in EXACTLY the same front that you did when you were at Tennessee. I said, If you wanna do that, I said, Im gonna give you the opportunity to go out. I dont want anything in return.

But if you take our check for 21 million, I expect you to come back here and not only work, but play at a high level. You dont have to take it, cause youve already gotten a lot of money from this organization. But if you do take that check, Im just not gonna cut you and let you go out and go to another football team and get another payday. If you take that check, youre gonna come back here and play and at least work hard to give yourself an opportunity to make this football team and help us win.

When he did take that check, I expected him to work hard and do the things he was capable of doing to help our football team win. Now, a couple of games he did play at that level. But not as consistently as I would like.

Will the Patriots play the 4-3 defense that Haynesworths excels in? Perhaps. But not solely because Haynesworth likes it that way.

The Patriots currently have personnel that fits a 4-3 scheme. Fast and athletic linebackers in Jerod Mayo, Gary Guyton and Brandon Spikes. A deep rotation of defensive linemen with Haynesworth and Vince Wilfork as the primary defensive tackles and a combination of Jermaine Cunningham, Mike Wright, Rob Ninkovich and Eric Moore at the ends.

And they also have a need that the 4-3 can help address. Pressure.

Dan Klecko, who spent three seasons as a defensive linemanlinebacker with the Patriots, two in the Indianapolis Colts 4-3 and another year in the Eagles 4-3, sees Haynesworth and the 4-3 bringing that extra heat.

"What I saw last year is they had no pass rush, no one was getting to the quarterback. They were getting nothing from 3-4 besides Vince, said Klecko, currently living in New Jersey and working in radio in Philadelphia. When you get Haynesworth, why not build a 4-3 around him? Put him at 3-technique (positioned between the offensive guard and tackle) and make him happy. I think thats just going to be the best way to go.

Why will Haynesworth and Wilfork excel in this?

If Haynesworth plays the schemes right and you have a good edge-setter on the other side, everything gets funneled back to the middle. His job with the Patriots will be to push the pocket and that will help the ends because the quarterback cant step up. I dont know how much Vince will be used on third down, but hell be responsible for the backside 'A' gap as 1-technique. The middle linebacker will be responsible for the front-side 'A' gap. This will be a one-gap defense. It wont be like the Colts where guys fly everywhere. (Colts defensive ends Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney) do what they want. Theyre the best bookends in the league. But this will be more disciplined.

The big if to all this is a motivated Haynesworth. When motivated or at least partially interested he is incomparable, says Klecko.

When used right, he is the most dominant defensive tackle in the league, bar none, Klecko emphasized. He is a difference-maker, the guy you can set up a defense around. With a nosetackle like Vince, its got the potential to be devastating.

The give-up for Belichick is control. The 3-4 when carried out correctly is a steady, disciplined base set that by its nature can create confusion.

In the 3-4, there is always going to be an extra rusher coming in addition to the three down linemen, Klecko pointed out. You can bring four different linebackers, safeties, whatever. It become a 4-3 but you dont know where the 4-3 is going to come from. I dont think Bill trusted his players to do that.

In the 3-4, you dont have to be as strict and as disciplined, Klecko explained. You have more guys who can cover for you. Linebackers will love it. With Mayo and Spikes, those guys will have a million tackles. Mike Wright will love playing end, which is kind of where he started career and hes really an undervalued player. And Cunningham came along really nice.

Whether its 3-4 or 4-3 is irrelevant, Belichick says.

The techniques that are taught in the different defensive systems, whichever ones you want to talk about, are consistent within those systems, Belichick noted. And those teams go from a three-man line to a four-man line . . . Theyll continue to play the same fundamental techniques that theyve been teaching for the entire year, for the most part. I think thats what teaching defensive fundamental football is about.

Its about fundamentals, said the coach. Wherever you put them, you have to put other people in complementary places however you decide to do that. Its pretty straightforward really. You cant have them all over here and none over there. You have to balance it off at some point. Its more the teaching and techniques and the fundamentals that you teach your defensive players more than it is the 3-4, 4-3 lineup that is so important to put on the flip card.

Tom E. Curran can be reached at tcurran@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Tom on Twitter at http:twitter.comtomecurran.

Patriots UDFA Ellis 'all in' on football before giving medical school a shot

ellis.jpg

Patriots UDFA Ellis 'all in' on football before giving medical school a shot

FOXBORO -- When a new player arrives to the Patriots, there's a familiar refrain that's recited from behind the podium at Gillette Stadium: "Football is important to him."

Whether the subject is a rookie or an established veteran, those five words can serve as Bill Belichick's stamp of approval. It means the player cares. It means the player is willing to put in time.

Belichick hasn't gone on the record on any of the members of this year's class of undrafted free agents just yet, but linebacker Brooks Ellis seems to fall into that category of players to whom football is important.

If it wasn't, he would probably be putting all of his energy into getting accepted into medical school right now.  

Ellis was a two-year captain at Arkansas and one of 12 finalists for the Campbell Trophy, also known as the "Academic Heisman." He maintained a 3.82 grade point average as a pre-professional exercise science major with a minor in biology, he was the first two-time Academic All-American in program history, and he was the SEC's Scholar-Athlete of the year for 2016.

All that is to say, Ellis had options upon graduation.

Football won out. He agreed to a deal with the Patriots soon after the draft, and he's spent the better part of the last month trying to learn defensive terminology and special-teams techniques. 

But eventually Ellis hopes to be an orthopedic surgeon, and later this summer he'll submit his applications to medical schools in order to kick-start that process for whenever it's time to pursue his next plan full-throttle.

"I'm putting my all into this right now," Ellis said, wearing Patriots gear while standing on the Gillette Stadium turf last week. "But when I get some spare time, I'm finishing applications, and then when I get back in July I'm sending those in.

"If I get accepted somewhere, I'm going to tell them I need to defer until I know for sure what the football situation is going to be. So I'm all in on football, and just in case, I'm going to have that ready to go when I get out of it."

If all goes well for Ellis this spring and summer, it could be a while before he's taking the Hippocratic Oath. The Patriots have a long history of giving worthy undrafted players a shot at the 53-man roster, and Ellis plays one of the few positions on New England's loaded roster that might have room for a newcomer or two.

On paper, he certainly looks like their type.

The 6-foot-2, 245-pounder was his team's leading tackler for two seasons. He played all three linebacker positions in Arkansas' defense -- strong-side, middle and weak-side -- and he started 31 consecutive games to finish his career. Ellis also has extensive special teams experience, and he recorded one of the quickest three-cone drills among linebackers at this year's NFL Scouting Combine.

That he learned under Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema can't hurt his chances, either.

Bielema began his coaching career at Iowa under former Belichick assistant Kirk Ferentz, and Belichick has dipped into Bielema's programs at Wisconsin and Arkansas several times over the course of the last few seasons. Running back James White, defensive end Trey Flowers and former tight end AJ Derby all played for Bielema, and Ellis joins fellow Arkansas rookies Deatrich Wise (fourth-round pick) and Cody Hollister (undrafted) on this year's squad.  

"He came in, started about halfway through his true freshman year -- we weren't a really good football team, we were 3-9 -- threw him in the middle of it, didn't bat an eye, and he got better every game," Bielema said of Ellis on Quick Slants the Podcast. "Sophomore year, [he] really began to mature, develop. He's another guy that the potential -- because we never redshirted him -- to grow in this year is going to be huge . . .

"He's just truly very, very intelligent, compassionate. And the value that he brings is he could be an unbelievable role player. I'm not saying he's going to be a four-time All-Pro or anything like that, but he'll be reliable, dependable, in every phase of the game."

Robb Smith, Arkansas defensive coordinator from 2014-16, believes Ellis landed in the perfect spot. Prior to his time at Arkansas, he worked under Greg Schiano at Rutgers, where he coached Patriots safeties Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon, former Patriots corner Logan Ryan, Patriots linebacker Jonathan Freeny and safeties coach Steve Belichick.

"He's one of those guys that's not only going to know his job, but what the other 10 guys around him are supposed to do," Smith said of Ellis. "He'll be able to be a leader from that standpoint in terms of helping guys with the system and the scheme. He's very good instinctively . . ."

"This guy's going to be replacing my knee someday. I'm serious. He's going to be an orthopedic surgeon that's outstanding. I know that's what his goals are. But hopefully he gets to play a lot of football between now and then."

There's one more Patriots link connecting Ellis to New England. His agent, Neil Cornrich, has counted Belichick as a client and also represents Bielema, Ferentz, Flowers, Derby, undrafted Patriots rookies Cole Croston and LeShun Daniels (both of whom played under Ferentz at Iowa) and Patriots running back Rex Burkhead. 

It may come as no surprise then that when Ellis signed with the Patriots, no one knew. He didn't announce it on Twitter, as is the norm for undrafted players when they come to an agreement with a team. And the news wasn't leaked. Instead, he waited for the team to announce it, which his new employers probably appreciated.

Ellis, who according to the Boston Globe received the fifth-most guaranteed money of the 19 undrafted rookies the Patriots signed, said he received some simplie advice from Cornrich before making his way to New England.

"He just said that you'll fit in well there," Ellis said. "You're the type of guy they like, and you're the type of guy that succeeds in that organization. Don't do anything special. Just go out there and work like you do every day, and it'll turn out for the best."

Even if it doesn't, Ellis will have medical school. But he acknowledges there's some unpredictability with that path, just as there is being an undrafted player in the NFL. He still has to be accepted. His application, including personal statements, interviews and MCAT results -- "It was horrible, I don't want to take that ever again," Ellis said -- still has to be deemed up-to-snuff.  

Whenever Ellis starts, it will be the beginning of almost a decade of training between schooling and residency. It will be a challenge, he knows, and it's one that he looks forward to. But he's hoping it can wait because football is important to him. 

"It just makes you work harder," he said of his uncertain future. "It makes you really focus on right now, and make sure that you're doing all you can in this area because even the next area might not be there.

"That's what I've done. I'm just working as hard as I can on this, and if that doesn't work out, then I've got the next thing, and I'm going to work as hard as I can in that area."

NFLPA tells rookies to be like Rob Gronkowski

NFLPA tells rookies to be like Rob Gronkowski

Rob Gronkowski is a model citizen in the NFL. In fact, the NFL Players Association is advising rookies to be more like Gronk, according to The Boston Globe

The New England Patriots tight end has developed a name for himself on and off the football field. With that attention comes branding. And at the NFLPA Rookie Premiere from May 18 to 20, the NFLPA encouraged rookies to develop their own brand -- much like Gronkowski.

“Some people think he’s just this extension of a frat boy, and that it’s sort of accidental,” Ahmad Nassar said, via The Globe. Nassar is the president of NFL Players Inc., the for-profit subsidiary of the NFLPA. “And that’s wrong. It’s not accidental, it’s very purposeful. So the message there is, really good branding is where you don’t even feel it. You think, ‘Oh, that’s just Gronk being Gronk.’ Actually, that’s his brand, but it’s so good and so ingrained and so authentic, you don’t even know it’s a brand or think it.”

Gronkowski's "Summer of Gronk" has indirectly become one of his streams of income. The tight end makes appearances for magazines and sponsors. Because of his earnings from branding and endorsements, he didn't touch his NFL salary during the early years of his career.

Gronk was one of three players who were the topics of discussion during the symposium. Dak Prescott and Odell Beckham were also used as examples of players who have been able to generate additional income from endorsements. Beckham, in particular, has been in the spotlight off the football field. He's appeared on the cover of Madden, and just signed a deal with NIke which is reportedly worth $25 million over five years with upwards of $48 million over eight years. His deal, which is a record for an NFL player, will pay him more than his contract with the Giants.

“A lot of people talk to the players about, ‘You should be careful with your money and you should treat your family this way and you should treat your girlfriend or your wife.’ Which is fine. I think that’s valuable,” Nassar said, via The Globe. “But we don’t often give them a chance to answer the question: How do you see yourself as a brand? Because Gronk, Odell, none of those guys accidentally ended up where they are from a branding and marketing standpoint.”