However, last year the "bend but don't break" finally broke. In the wake of one shootout too many, New England appears to be headed towards a more conventional 3-4 defensive scheme.
The New England Patriots were already ahead of the curve with oversized defensive backs that could also keep up with the speedier wideouts. The pass defense has not really been the problem. As everyone knows, the problem has been stopping the run.
What the Patriots gained in size in the secondary, they gave up in the trenches. The opposing offensive line had little problem pushing the smaller New England players out of the way, opening up on average 4 or 5-yard gains. DB's Lawyer Milloy, Victor Green, and Ty Law were getting more than their share of tackles as they rushed up to bring down running backs who were let loose on the linebackers.
Belichick and his staff could only get so creative in their schemes. Teams were finally figuring out a way to get a hat on all those elusive linebackers, exposing big chunks of field and forcing the defensive backs to sneak up to help out. Eventually, a Patriots defense selling out against the run would face an aerial assault that would put their offense in an even bigger hole.
Along come Ty Warren and Dan Klecko. Warren was the prime target the Patriots had in the first round and his experience in the Texas A&M 3-4 certainly made him even more attractive. The 3-4 allows the flexibility of selling out to stop the run while at the same time confusing the quarterback as the main weapon in defending the pass. However, a true 3-4 demands a big fireplug of a nose tackle to play two-gap, controlling two offensive linemen and allowing the linebackers to come up unmolested to make the tackle on the running back.
Warren can play both nose tackle and defensive end in the 3-4 scheme. However, he may be too tall to play low enough to control two offensive linemen and may get pushed around some. The prototype NT in the NFL is Casey Hampton of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Hampton stands at only 6'1" but weighs around (probably over) 320 lbs. Teams struggle to move Hampton out of the way and thus have a very difficult time controlling the line of scrimmage.
Ideally, Warren will play defensive end opposite the dynamic and disruptive Richard Seymour. What the Patriots are hoping is that 4th-rounder Dan Klecko will rise to the occasion and snare the starting NT job. Klecko is strong and tough, while standing much lower to the ground than Warren. He may have been a steal in the 4th round as a true nose tackle. Anthony Adams of Penn State was taken in the mid-second round and has a strong value there as a nose tackle, though some have doubted his ability to play two-gap football.
With a bit more bulk, Klecko could well be in Adams' class and might even begin to approach Hampton, who is an All-Pro that nobody notices. For now, Ken Kocher may be the starting nose tackle, but Klecko is much better suited for the job.
The Patriots are still short true defensive lineman. Running a true 3-4 makes plenty of sense in view of this problem. New England has plenty of linebackers and can easily staff the defense with the necessary 9 or 10 LB's that the 3-4 demands. The pick of Tully Banta-Cain in the 7th round likely cemented the schematic shift. His real value in the NFL is as a rushing OLB in the 3-4 and is that of a classic tweener.
The Patriots are no strangers to the 3-4, but lacked a real nose tackle to run it properly. Klecko looks to be the lynchpin for the 2003 run defense. As Klecko goes, so will go the Patriots' playoff hopes. If Belichick can force the opposition into more passing situations, the master of confusion will be back in business and the Patriots will be in the hunt for the Lombardi Trophy once again.