Eric Hartz: The Patriots used some four-man fronts last week against Miami and even played Vince Wilfork at defensive end. Do you see that continuing, or was it a special plan for the Dolphins' unique attack?
Jon Scott: The Patriots are without Jarvis Green, who had started at defensive end every game without Richard Seymour in the lineup. They needed to find a way to get pressure on the strong side of the formation and Wilfork is difficult to block one-on-one. By moving him to end, he could be more disruptive against the Wildcat (or sweep) by clogging the line at the point of attack.
The 4-3 is still a big part of New England's defense because they have more talent up front that they want to get on the field. New England has had trouble stopping the run in the past and moving to more of a four-man line allows them to get big run-plugging bodies up front. It also allows the team to create pressure without having to blitz. Despite those efforts, New England still lags in the sack department.
EH: Many of the defensive warriors we're used to seeing on the Patriots' defense, like Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour and Rodney Harrison, are no longer with the team. Tell us about some of the new guys Colts fans will have to learn to despise.
The new names to learn at cornerback are Leigh Bodden, Darius Butler and Shawn Springs. All three are new to the DB group and all are playing on par (actually better) than Hobbs, Samuel and crew. At safety, the team is most pleased with "The Brandons." Brandon Meriweather is a familiar name, but Brandon McGowan (Bears) is the new guy on the block, playing much better than James Sanders, who lost playing time to him.
At linebacker, the Patriots have reloaded and actually have some healthy players this time. Adalius Thomas is back, Jerod Mayo (Defensive Rookie of the year 2008), and Gary Guyton (second year) man the inside usually. Former Patriot Tully Banta-Cain is back on the outside, paired with former Raider Derrick Burgess.
Replacing Seymour has been Green, but rookie Myron Pryor has also been a force on the inside while Mike Wright (Colts fans should remember him from that AFC title game) fills in on end. Occasionally you'll see Burgess playing end as well to get more speed on the field.
EH: Have teams had more success running or throwing the ball against the Patriots' defense this season? If you had to pick out a weakness on this defense, what is it?
JS: Third-down defense is the killer. The Patriots cannot get off the field. The corners are giving up too much of a cushion on third-and-fourth or -five, letting teams make the first downs easily. The running game, when the Patriots focus on the run, has been well contained. When they play more base defense — a more vanilla scheme – opponents have been able to gain big chunks of yardage far too easily.
The weakness is the play-action. New England defenders hurry to attack the ballcarrier — to address the aforementioned problem, and the opposing quarterbacks are able to get a pass over the linebackers who moved up too fast. It's something Peyton Manning and Dallas Clark should have a field day with.
EH: What is it about Bill Belichick's defense schemes that allow his teams to be successful year in and year out?
JS: It's about adjusting schemes during the game and an overriding scheme that gives players the opportunity to make plays when they recognize opponents' formation. What has impressed me watching this team is that they change personnel during a period or a drive, substituting three or four key players, yet run they same coverage, or stunts up front. Then the next play, those same players adjust into a different look. It's defensive versatility.
You see these wild or exotic blitz schemes from the Steelers, Ravens or Jets and you think wow, that's what New England has to do to get pressure, or to pin their opponent's to the wall. But that's not what New England does, they opt to bring pressure in four-, five- or six-man packages and challenge their players to beat the guys in front of them. The scheme behind the guys up front has to hold up and communication is the key.
I honestly thought communication would be a huge problem for the Patriots defense this year without the team leaders Vrabel, Bruschi and Harrison. But, that hasn't been an issue. It all comes down to the coaching. With all of the changes to the playcalling, having new faces should have been an issue, but the Patriots coaching staff have managed to get guys to play well inside the parameters of the defense. They're getting better every week, which is something that should scare other division and conference opponents. The Patriots defense in week one is not the same one you're seeing now. Guys are making a lot more plays.
EH: How have injuries affected the Patriots' defense and how have they overcome them?
JS: As I mentioned, Jarvis Green is out, and he had started at RDE every week until last week. Mike Wright will get the nod again, and I would expect to see a rotation of Myron Pryor, Vince Wilfork and Ron Brace up front with Ty Warren on the opposite site. At linebacker, Jerod Mayo was dinged up, but is now back. Adalius Thomas moved inside, but Junior Seau was brought in to address the issue. If you see Seau, the Pats are probably dealing with an injury issue at LB, or they need to rotate players because they're being run ragged.
The corner position has been another area of concern with Shawn Springs slowed from injury and Jonathan Wilhite sidelined by an illness. Butler and Terrence Wheatley have filled in as needed, with other DBs Bret Locket and Kyle Arrington seeing a little bit of action.
Jon Scott has covered the NFL since 1995, and has been a regular contributor to Patriots Insider, Comcast SportsNet New England. and FOXSports.com magazines. A member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA), Jon has appeared as a guest analyst on the NFL Network, Sporting News Radio, ESPN Radio and other outlets around the web.
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