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


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

By Tom E. Curran 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 Follow Tom on Twitter at http:twitter.comtomecurran.

Former NFL executive Hanks hits hard on Troy Vincent and NFL's Operations Department


Former NFL executive Hanks hits hard on Troy Vincent and NFL's Operations Department

Until April, this man was employed as an NFL VP of Operations.

That’s Merton Hanks, former San Francisco 49er and the man in charge of monitoring on-field behavior and meting out fines and discipline from 2011 until he was shuffled off the NFL’s premises in the spring.

Hanks was one of several operations guys given the gate as Troy Vincent, the NFL’s Executive VP of Football Operations, continues to drastically change personnel in the department that deals most closely with the on-field product.

On Thursday, I asked Hanks if he believed his Chicken Neck Dance would have drawn a flag.

“No question about it,” he laughed. “One person’s fun is someone else’s taunting penalty.”

Hanks now works as Senior Associate Commissioner for Conference USA. For 13 years, Hanks worked in the league office. Our conversation started with the NFL’s 2016 crackdown on excessive celebrations but ended with Hanks taking stock of the league’s Operations Department, an oft-overlooked layer charged with overseeing everything from officiating to field conditions, technology to discipline.

“The league has a problem,” Hanks said when asked about the cascade of flags this year. “The league has set itself up as an entertainment piece as well as an athletic piece. But its rules inherently skew toward the athletic piece, even though its presentation is an entertainment piece. So when you have athletes who have a clear picture of what the NFL is and understand part of its great nature is entertainment -- as the league likes to brag on, the top-rated shows in the history of television and so forth -- every player understands part of his athletic duty is to entertain the crowd. The way the rules are written, they’re not allowed to do that. So it’s almost as if the player is put in a position where he cannot fulfill his contractual duty within the larger scheme of the National Football League.”

There are myriad theories about what precisely is causing the NFL’s ratings malaise. My opinion is this: The obsession with micromanaging the product so it’s aesthetically but antiseptically pleasing to everyone and -- hence -- more marketable and profitable is the root of the problem.

How willing are they to chip away at the integrity of the games in the name of the integrity of the game?

When you think about how many games come down to seconds and inches, how hard players and coaches fight for them and the butterfly effect a 15-yard nonsense penalty for celebrating can have, it’s obvious they are going too far. But they just can’t help themselves.

There have been six more penalties for excessive celebration and 10 more penalties for taunting this season than in 2015. The excessive celebration flags included one on Vernon Davis for pretending to shoot a jumper with the football after a touchdown and another for Josh Norman for pretending to use a bow-and-arrow.

Asked Wednesday about the glut of unsportsmanlike calls, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said:

“It comes down to balancing a lot of issues, the professional standards that we want to uphold. We do believe that our players are role models and others look at that at the youth level. So that’s important for us to hold that standard up. And it’s part of being a professional. So that’s one element of it.”

Part of being an adult is being able to use discretion and differentiate between truly unsportsmanlike conduct -- like stomping on a fallen player’s leg or taking out a receiver’s knees from behind when he isn’t even thrown the ball -- and having a little fun.

“Discretion and consistency are incompatible,” countered Hanks. “What’s offensive to you may not be offensive to me in an official capacity as a league official. The safest way to deal with that from an officiating standpoint is to flag everything and coward the player back into obeying whatever rule is being emphasized and right now that’s sportsmanship. Sportsmanship, clean play and exciting play are not incompatible. But the NFL by nature, by its own design, is an entertainment vehicle. And when you strip away that all you have is just talented people playing football.”

As with so many NFL initiatives, there was a kernel of sense in what it set out to accomplish. Some of the ugliest incidents last year -- Odell Beckham’s cheap shot on Josh Norman and the Bengals-Steelers playoff meltdown -- were preceded by smaller incidents of jawing, demonstrating and agitating.  The NFL enacted a rule mandating ejections for multiple unsportsmanlike fouls in the same game. But they went overboard with their edict to flag with impunity normal post-play reactions.

“It’s an issue of control. It always has been,” said Hanks. “The NFL wants their players to be dynamic individuals from the start of the whistle to the end of the whistle, stop exactly what they’re doing on a dime, go back to their huddle and then do it again. After being in the league office and now being on the outside looking in after being in the league office for 13 seasons, there is a real line of demarcation that the NFL product inherently harms itself when it devalues its characters, when it doesn’t live up to the entertainment entity that in itself claims it is . . .

"Sportsmanship is a worthy goal. I’m not minimizing that. That’s the line the NFL is taking. But they are throwing out the baby with the bath water. They are stripping away what makes the league a must-watch event.”
* * * * *
When railing against “the league,” the targets of fan and media bile are most often Goodell, the NFL’s Competition Committee and whatever official is walking the beat in a game that goes South.

But NFL Operations oversees it all, as the gaudy website ordered up by the department’s overlord Vincent brags.

As we cast about wondering what ails the NFL, it’s important to note the timeline of Vincent’s ascent.

In December of 2013, former EVP of Football Ops, Ray Anderson stepped down and soon took a job as AD at Arizona State. In March of 2014, Vincent was installed as Anderson’s successor.

It’s been one disaster after another with Vincent working shoulder-to-shoulder with Goodell.

There was the Ray Rice case, which had Vincent testifying before Congress that the league "didn't need" to see more than one tape before imposing its original two-game suspension. There was Vincent’s admission on 60 Minutes that he didn’t read the independent investigation report from former FBI Director Robert Mueller regarding the Rice case.

Vincent was there the night Deflategate began and let his game operations lieutenants, like Mike Kensil, start a witch hunt that Vincent -- if he knew what the hell was going on -- would have been able to at least rein in before it got ridiculous.

How far removed was Vincent from even knowing the purported backstory the Colts passed on to Kensil and Dave Gardi about their suspicions? So removed that he testified at the appeal hearing he hadn’t heard a thing about it – despite scads of e-mails flying around in the days prior to the AFC Championship Game – until Colts GM Ryan Grigson invaded the box containing Vincent and Kensil and said, “We’re playing with a small ball.”

The Hall of Fame Game fiasco in August? A Troy Vincent production.

The in-game technology that Bill Belichick threw his hands up about this week? That’s under Vincent’s purview.

Interestingly, this seemingly distracted, disinterested, overmatched individual in charge of the product we watch was actually on the brink of being the NFLPA’s Executive Director back in 2009.

NFL owners and Goodell desperately wanted Vincent to succeed the late Gene Upshaw so that the cozy relationship between the league and union would continue. For years, Upshaw was criticized for rolling over too easily for NFL commissioners Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue. Vincent was Upshaw’s heir apparent until an alleged coup attempt by Vincent to have Upshaw ousted backfired. Despite the controversy, Vincent was still the favorite to be named.

When DeMaurice Smith was selected instead, the stage was set for the rancorous NFL-NFLPA relationship we’ve seen develop. Smith has tried to advocate for a group that for decades had the sorriest labor agreement of the four major professional sports. Vincent, meanwhile, was hired by the NFL as a player engagement executive and began his quick climb to where he currently sits – right next to Goodell. And, tellingly, he now criticizes the NFLPA for spending too much money to advocate for players -- which is what the union’s there for.

Asked about Vincent, Hanks said, “He’s made some moves that you want to question. I’m part of the party that’s moved on doing other things so I certainly don’t want to come off as someone who is trying to attack their current leader. But at the same time, the facts are the facts. Look at what’s happened. Look at why it’s happened and I think you will start drawing certain parallels, certain conclusions.”

A big part of what’s happened is the department has been transformed under Vincent. Hanks is gone. Kensil, whose name is mud here in New England but who had more institutional knowledge about how to put on an NFL game than anyone on the planet, has been reassigned out of Ops. Myriad other lieutenants and operatives in the multi-tiered department have been moved around or let go.  

“I think (operations) is something, for the most part, your average fan may have to have explained to them,” said Hanks. “They may not care, quite frankly. They’re about the business of showing up on game day, tailgating and having a good time. But when you talk to the 32 clubs and associated personnel, it’s very interesting when you talk to those folks vs. your average fan. For those folks, it really is a different deal.

“It’s a cliché, but the trains have to run on time,” continued Hanks. “Every time. The basic mechanisms of putting on the game have to work every time. It’s inherently your job. So that when something fails in operations -- and something can always fail because there are so many aspects -- but you take the hit on it. It’s a very bottom-line deal in that regard. If we get 1,000 things right on any given day and two or three go wrong, we have to figure out what to do to correct it. Immediately. That’s regardless of sport. Any sport. Operations is a tough and unforgiving business. It’s an interesting challenge but those things are exacerbated when you’re either missing key people or you haven’t developed key people to the point where they can pick up the ball and run with it and make it seamless. It appears some of that has taken place.”

I asked Hanks if Vincent was part of the problem.  

“On the record, you could not find a greater leader of men than (Vincent’s predecessor) Ray Anderson,” was Hanks’ telling response. “A tremendous leader in all facets who understood the game from having been in all facets. Agent, club side, league side. I would say there’s tremendous amount of institutional knowledge that is not there right now. They are missing quite a bit of pure institutional knowledge because you don’t have people who’ve been through the fire and seen it all in football operations. I think that’s fair to say and totally undisputed. It’s almost when you go young as a team you’re going to have some growing pains. I think the football operations team is experiencing a little bit of that.”

Could Hanks say whether or not Vincent is doing a good job?

“That’s for Roger [Goodell] to say,” Hanks replied. “My concern is to make sure my (Conference USA commissioner) thinks I’m doing a good job. There’s a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge not in place (with the NFL). And when you’re missing that, some things may fall through the cracks.”

THURSDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL: Rodgers throws 3 TD passes, Packers beat Bears, 26-10


THURSDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL: Rodgers throws 3 TD passes, Packers beat Bears, 26-10

GREEN BAY, Wis. - Aaron Rodgers set a record. The Chicago Bears lost another quarterback.

After a slow start in the red zone, the Green Bay Packers picked up the pace in the second half to overpower their offensively-challenged NFC North rivals.

Rodgers threw for 326 yards and three touchdowns, Davante Adams and Ty Montgomery emerged as playmakers in the second half and Packers beat the Bears 26-10 on Thursday night.

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