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.