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.

Brady, Harbaugh found common ground on plane ride back from Michigan

Brady, Harbaugh found common ground on plane ride back from Michigan

FOXBORO -- What could have been an awkward plane ride for Tom Brady and John Harbaugh was made less so thanks to a high school lacrosse player. 

Brady and Harbaugh shared a private plane back from Michigan where Jim Harbaugh and his University of Michigan program put on an event for National Signing Day. About a year earlier, Brady told a room full of reporters that Harbaugh and his coaching staff should study the rule book and "figure it out" after hearing that they were pretty upset about the unusual formations the Patriots ran during their AFC Divisional Round win over Baltimore. 

They may not have been on the best of terms.

"I was pissed off," he told ESPN's Ian O'Connor before the start of this season. "It was uncalled for. And the rules are deeper than that, and I know the rules, and I stand by why that play shouldn't have been allowed. ... So yeah, that should never have been said."

But on the flight was Harbaugh's daughter Alison, a high school lacrosse player. When Brady took some time to share a few thoughts on competitiveness with her, he and Harbaugh found common ground.

"We had a lot of fun," Harbaugh said of the flight. "I don't know if he's talked about that at all, but we ended up sharing a plane ride along with my daughter and a couple of his people, friends of his. We just had a chance to just talk for a couple hours. And really more than anything, Alison got a chance to listen to Tom Brady talk about competing and what it takes to be great at what you do.

"And one of the funny things about it was, he was so nice to her. He gets off and they go, and we get back on the plane and we're talking, and she says something like, 'Boy, Tom really is a nice guy.' And I look at here and go, 'Tom?' I'm thinking 'Mr. Brady' would have been more appropriate. She said, 'He said to call me Tom.' I got a kick out of that.

"It was good. Lot of respect for him and a lot of respect for what he's accomplished. He's very tough to compete against. The best quarterback that's played, certainly in this era, without question in my mind. That's how I would rank him. And it's just another tough challenge to have to play against him."

Friday Bag: What’s the Patriots' future at running back look like?

Friday Bag: What’s the Patriots' future at running back look like?

Every Friday Tom E. Curran, Mike Giardi and Phil Perry will take your Patriots questions (Curran is sitting this one out) on Twitter and answer them as a joint mailbag -- or a Friday Bag, as they call it. 

Got questions? Tweet the guys using the hashtag #FridayBag.

MG: Q leading off my portion of the always popular, always exciting, always (occasionally?) informative #FridayBag. I think it would be easy to think that way from the outside looking in, or knowing how callous some organizations can be, but I just don’t believe that to be the case here. Players talk. Agents talk. Hell, coaches talk. If the Pats were to operate that way, it would get around the league in a heartbeat. Then why would someone want to play here knowing they’ll be treated even more like a disposable commodity then normal? The flip side to this is actually protecting the player from himself. Guys in the last year of a deal sometimes feel compelled to play through every damn thing so they can at least say “look at me, I’m a warrior!” And on that note, I’d sit Marty Bennett next week in Denver and probably the following week against the Jets if that will help the ankle and whatever else is ailing him heal to the point where he’s a hell of a lot more effective than what we just saw versus the Rams (He was awful). Bennett’s too valuable going forward. 

MG: Lisa, my understanding is teams nominate their player and then it goes to a panel (one that includes the NFL Commish) to decide who wins for the league (It was Anquan Boldin in 2015). Can’t quibble with Rob Gronkowski being the team’s nominee this year. People have no idea how much he does for the community. Heck, we don’t even know the extent of it, but the great Don Rodman of Rodman Car Dealer fame and one of the most incredibly charitable individuals to ever grace this area said that there are few if any athletes who devote more time and effort to charitable works/foundations. I hope he wins. It would mean a lot to Gronk.

MG: You never figured you’d have to worry about the offense, did you Steve? But the season-ending injury to Gronk and now the injury to Danny Amendola does concern me. Both of those guys are incredibly reliable 3rd down targets, and in Gronk’s case, he’s usually the first or second option on 3rd down. Bennett hasn’t been able to pick up the slack because he’s clearly not healthy either. That means the Pats and Josh McDaniels will be going through a trial and error period here to best determine how to improve that number and become more efficient. I suspect more will fall on Julian Edelman, but also look for the continued evolution of the two back set with James White and Dion Lewis.

MG: Ambrose, the Pats have remained incredibly committed to the run because they don’t want to find themselves in the same spot they were a year ago, when the run game was so pathetic that neither Miami in the regular season finale nor Denver in the AFC title game paid it one mind. That means rushers pinning their ears back and smashing into Tom Brady at rates no one is comfortable with. So while I won’t be surprise if Brady throws it 45 times, I don’t think they shelve the ground game, at least in the first half. 

MG: Ok Bunk, I stole a comment of yours for the mailbag. Trying to make you famous…yes, I stand by my tweet in which I stated the Ravens and Broncos are bigger threats than the Chiefs or Raiders. Oakland’s defense would give up 40 to Brady. 45 if the Pats needed it. Or 50. I’m dead serious. As for the Chiefs, Alex Smith is not coming into Foxboro and beating this team, even with some of it’s defensive issues. And Belichick will make damn sure that rookie Hill doesn’t get many cracks at touching the football in the return game. Oh, and now the Chiefs best linebacker, Johnson, is out for the year with an Achilles. Should I continue???

MG: History tells us no, David. Brady would throw a fit and argue that he needs to play to remain sharp or iron out this problem or that problem. There’s also the possibility of a bye week looming, meaning he’d go 3 weeks without actually playing in a game. Seems like a good idea in the sense that you don’t risk a 39-year old to a blindside shot, but neither he nor Belichick would ever go for it.

PP: The running back position might be the toughest to project moving forward because there are so many injuries there and there are so many backs who come from nowhere to earn significant roles. I'll say this though: The backs they have on the roster -- not including Brandon Bolden, who has turned into strictly a special teamer after having a difficult time holding onto the football this year -- don't seem to be slowing down. LeGarrette Blount just turned 30 but is in the middle of his best season. Dion Lewis looks strong after two surgeries. James White has taken his game to a new level in his third season. I could see the same group coming back next season, but given the volatility of the position, you know the Patriots will always be scouring for talent there. 

PP: Tom E. touched on this yesterday, Big Wally. Brandon Pettigrew, who was released by the Lions on Friday, might make sense. Otherwise, there's not a whole lot out there. Zach Sudfeld? He's available. Would be an unlikely reunion, but desperate times . . . I think the Patriots will continue to roll out Martellus Bennett at less than 100 percent. I think Matt Lengel could see more work as a blocking tight end as he becomes more familiar with the system. I think we'll see more Cameron Fleming, and we could see more two-back sets with no tight ends. In my opinion, Bennett could use a rest, but I don't think it's coming any time soon. As far as Sarge's question about the hurry-up, I'm not sure we'll start to see more that. It's possible, but one of the benefits with the hurry-up is to keep a defense from substituting to shift matchups in its favor. With Gronkowski or Bennett on the field in a hurry-up situation would have even further highlighted the matchup issues they present. If either one found himself with a slow linebacker on him, the Patriots could have rushed to the line and continued...to exploit...that matchup. Without Gronkowski and without Bennett at full strength, the advantage of the no-huddle is somewhat sapped.  

PP: It's so late into the season, I'm not sure there's much in the way of opportunity for a breakout game this week, Paul. I guess the obvious choice would be Griff Whalen. If he can give the Patriots a pair of sure hands as a punt-returner, that would be a significant enough add that I might qualify it as a "breakout." Bill Belichick made it clear this morning that the team views him as more than just a returner, though, so he could see some offensive snaps in four-receiver sets and provide the Patriots with a presence in the slot. I'd deem a four-catch, 50-yard performance as a "breakout" as well. To me, that's the range of his ceiling for this week. One other name as a potential "breakout" candidate? Justin Coleman. He could be used defensively after being inactive for the last three weeks due to Eric Rowe's hamstring injury. If he's able to help slow down the combination of Mike Wallace, Breshad Perriman and Steve Smith, that'd be a breakout in my book. 

PP: The combined record of opponents they've beaten is actually 26-57-1, including the Browns 0-12 mark twice, but now it's out there. 'Preciate you, Dave!

PP:  There's still so much up for grabs in the AFC West that it's hard to determine the likelihood of Patriots playoff matchups and where those games will be. However, without getting into the nitty gritty details, I'll just point out that it's still possible that the Patriots end up on the road in either of these cities in the postseason. On the road, Denver is the tougher matchup. Always has been a brutal place for the Patriots to play, and Denver's defense is still good enough to cause them problems. At home? I'd say, of these two teams, Kansas City would be the one that would provide the Patriots with a slightly tougher test. In my mind, they're a little more balanced and I have more faith in Alex Smith to make plays than I do Trevor Siemien.