The New England Patriots have one of the most complex defenses in the league. Observers try to categorize it as a 3-4 defense, based on the fact that the team typically uses three defensive linemen and four linebackers in most regular defensive formations.
The Patriots are one of only four teams in the NFL to use the 3-4 regularly; most use four down linemen and three linebackers. The 3-4 relies on two-gap technique, whereby each defensive lineman is responsible for action to either side of the offensive lineman in front of him.
But while the Patriots play two-gap style, their base formation is not always the 3-4 look. The Patriots attempt to confuse opposing offenses with varying positions, making it difficult for the quarterback to tell which player if any is blitzing or which is covering a given receiver.
The team often moves linebackers and safeties to and away from the line of scrimmage, often many times before the snap, so there are not always three down linemen or four linebackers. In one game at Buffalo in 2002, the entire defense was standing up and shifting right up until the ball was hiked, creating chaos with the offensive game plan and allowing them wreak havoc in the opposing backfield.
This system is difficult to execute because it is predicated upon constant change. The players therefore must be very smart, able to assimilate often wildly varying new game plans from week to week. On-field adjustments are also critical and the players must be able to process information on the fly both before and after the snap.
New England head coach Bill Belichick likes players with flexibility, players who can play in and have themselves been in a variety of positions. With this in mind, Coach Belichick seems to have a particular proclivity for taking defensive linemen and turning them into linebackers.
These players have experience as down linemen, taking on blockers, controlling gaps (which is critical when there are only three down linemen), and rushing the quarterback from a three-point stance. But they also have the athleticism and quickness to chase plays down from sideline to sideline. They are tough and rangy and this combination of mercenary qualities makes them perfect for Belichick's system.
One example of this type of Patriots player is Tedy Bruschi. He was college football's all-time sack leader as a defensive end for the University of Arizona. The Patriots selected him in the third round in 1996 and began his conversion to linebacker. After an apprenticeship on special teams, he moved to outside linebacker. Although he still contributes to special teams (a hallmark of a Bill Belichick team is that everybody, even starters, will work on the teams), Bruschi is now the Patriots' starting middle linebacker.
Willie McGinest, too, began his career as a defensive lineman. He came out of the University of Southern California as an All-American, every-down starter at defensive end. After the Patriots took him in the first round of the 1994 draft, he began his career as a linebacker (rotating with then-starter Dwayne Sabb). McGinest went back to the line during the Pete Carroll regime, but in an "elephant" role: standing up at the line of scrimmage.
He continues to do both under Coach Belichick and is in fact listed as a defensive end on the team's roster. But he was selected as a Pro Bowl alternate this year as a linebacker (he will be in Hawaii filling in for Baltimore linebacker Peter Boulware), indicating just how difficult it is for a 4-3 league to come to terms with a 3-4 team.
The Patriots are attempting to pull off the position switch again with Tully Banta-Cain. A seventh-round draft pick last spring, Banta-Cain has played primarily on special teams for the Patriots this year, just as Bruschi did during his rookie campaign. Banta-Cain was a pass-rushing phenomenon as defensive end in college, but was considered a bit of a "'tweener" for the pros, meaning too small to be an NFL end, but utterly lacking in linebacker experience.
The Patriots took a chance that they could teach him what lacked and he has shown flashes that the bet was a good one. Other teams might not have known what to do with him, but Banta-Cain is on his way to becoming a typical Patriots linebacker.
These players were drafted into the Patriots' system. However, Coach Belichick has shown himself to be a shrewd personnel man as well as a brilliant defensive mind and arguably no free agent acquisition better exemplifies that than the hiring of Mike Vrabel.
Vrabel was just a part-time player in Pittsburgh. A defensive end at Ohio State University, Vrabel played the same position with the Steelers after they selected him in the third round of the 1997 draft. But after setting the Ohio State record for sacks (36), he was used as little more than a situational pass rusher in Pittsburgh. He began playing linebacker in the 1998 season opener, and because of his speed, Vrabel quickly became a regular part of the Steelers' "dime" defense in passing situations. In other words, he saw the field only on substitutions, and this was Vrabel's fate for the next three years.
But Coach Belichick saw in him the potential to be a starter. When Vrabel's rookie contract expired, the Patriots went after him and signed him on March 16, 2001.
The Patriots wanted a strong side linebacker and put faith in this former part-timer from Pittsburgh. Vrabel responded. He had more solo tackles in his first year with New England (37 in 2001) than he had total tackles (36) in his four years in Pittsburgh combined.
Vrabel has become one of the team's most reliable defenders. He had 75 tackles in 2002 and 45 this season, the lower number a result of missing games due to injury. He is the complete player the Patriots covet, able to stand up to the run and shed blocks, but he has become one of the team's premier pass rushers as well. He has had at least one interception each year in New England, with two in 2003, and he led the team in sacks this year with 9-1/2.
He is a tough guy, too. He played every game in his first two years with the Patriots, but this year a broken arm kept him out of four games. Still, he returned to play despite the injury and elevated his game: he was named AFC Defensive Player of the Month for December after recording 27 tackles, four sacks, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and an interception that he returned 14 yards during that month alone. He was a key part of a New England defense that posted two home shutouts during December and gave up just 29 points in four games.
As good as he has been on the team's current run to the Super Bowl, perhaps no play was bigger in his time in New England than in the team's last appearance in the big game. In that match-up, the Patriots' defense was holding the Rams' offense in check, and the score stood at 3-0 in St. Louis' favor with nine minutes remaining in the first half. The Rams had the ball again, and quarterback Kurt Warner dropped back to pass from his own 39-yard line. Immediately Vrabel was in his face, rushing in untouched from Warner's right.
Vrabel got his hands up and forced Warner to get rid of the ball before Warner, or his receiver, was ready. But Patriots cornerback Ty Law was prepared, and he stepped in front of the errant pass for an easy interception. Law ran it back for a touchdown, and the Patriots claimed both a 7-3 lead and a chunk of momentum that carried them through the rest of the game to victory.
Vrabel has done everything right in New England and his play has become emblematic of both the defensive scheme and the team's personnel-building philosophy. The coaches clearly relish Vrabel's versatility, his familiarity with playing in a "down" stance at the line of scrimmage, and his ability to move in space. The Steelers never tapped into that combination of talents, whereas the Patriots have made a habit of transforming defensive ends into productive linebackers.
With several stars on the New England defense like Ty Law, Rodney Harrison, Willie McGinest, and budding superstar Richard Seymour, Vrabel is often easily overlooked. But he is a major component in the Patriots' defensive success and a great story for his rise from modest obscurity. Keep a sharp eye out for Vrabel (#50) on Sunday.
On Wednesday, Patriots wide receiver Troy Brown faced-off against Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith in a video game contest. In the eight years that this contest has been run, the video game winner's team has gone one to victory in the Super Bowl itself.
Two years ago, Brown participated in the video contest and beat St. Louis Rams receiver Isaac Bruce, adding to the karmic indicators that gave the Patriots a chance to overcome their 14-point underdog status, which they eventually did in winning Super Bowl XXXVI. This time, though, Brown lost. So for New England to win, they will have to buck the trend of this video game contest.