FOXBOROUGH - Like any good team, the Baltimore Ravens will try to take advantage and attack during today’s AFC Championship game when they catch the Patriots out of position.
One problem with that: By design, many of the Patriots aren’t playing their usual position. For a play, sometimes a series, or even longer, a number of Patriots will line up somewhere different. That kind of position flexibility has meant many more looks and possibilities for the Patriots, and headaches for opponents.
Julian Edelman contributes on offense, defense, and special teams. Matthew Slater, too. Devin McCourty alternates between cornerback and safety, rookie right tackle Nate Solder has started twice at tight end, and Aaron Hernandez lines up everywhere except quarterback, it seems. Heck, even quarterback Tom Brady punted last week.
Some would surely scoff, such as Chuck Bednarik, the NFL’s last full-time two-way player. Or Gordie Lockbaum, the former two-way star at Holy Cross who finished third in the 1987 Heisman Trophy race. But the Patriots, especially lately, have been squeezing every last drop of versatility out of their roster, experimenting with position changes and formations, all in the name of doing what’s best for the team.
With the Patriots a win away from playing in the Super Bowl for the seventh time in franchise history, it seems to be working.
“Our coaches just know how to move people around and get them in situations that make it very hard on the [opposition],’’ said Hernandez. “There’s a lot of players that are very versatile, but our coaches do a great job of moving us, especially me, putting us in different positions.’’
Take Hernandez, for instance. At 6 feet 1 inch, 245 pounds, he’s smaller than the average NFL tight end, his natural position. But his speed and athleticism are traits that more and more modern tight ends now possess, so he’s being used in more creative ways, and not just setting up to the left or right of a tackle, expected to mostly block.
Against Denver in last Saturday’s 45-10 playoff win, Hernandez lined up behind Brady - where you’d typically find a fullback - on the Patriots’ first offensive play. On the same drive he lined up in the slot, as a flanker, in the traditional tight end spot, and as a tailback, taking a handoff from Brady and running 43 yards, setting up the first Patriots touchdown. It wasn’t a random experiment. He led the team in rushing against the Broncos, gaining 61 yards on five carries, and caught a 17-yard touchdown pass from Brady, one of his four receptions for 55 yards.
This guy is a tight end? Says who?
“It’s hard for a defense to recognize where everybody is, to have who they want matched up on who,’’ Hernandez said. “It makes defenses think fast, and we move fast, so it’s tough on them.’’
It hasn’t always been easy when a player is asked to try a new position, although coach Bill Belichick said he can’t remember too many instances when a request has been rejected, since it usually means more playing time. Edelman was a quarterback at Kent State, but considered too small to play that position in the NFL. After being selected by the Patriots in the seventh round of the 2009 draft, Edelman displayed enough skills to secure a roster spot, just not under center. He started out filling a role on offense as a receiver and on special teams as a returner, scoring a touchdown each way in his first two seasons.
This season he’s added defense to his workload. Because of injuries (Patrick Chung, Ras-I Dowling) and ineffectiveness by players no longer with the team (Darius Butler, Brandon Meriweather), the Patriots had issues in the secondary, and have turned to Edelman and Slater. Many teams in the NFL would only envision sending two offensive players out on defense in a worst-case scenario. For the Patriots, it’s hardly raising an eyebrow anymore.
“I think it’s challenging for anyone in my role,’’ said Edelman, who during the regular season had four receptions (for 34 yards), four rushes (8 yards), 584 return yards, and 14 tackles. “Obviously, I’ll help any way I can, just like anybody else.’’
Having receivers make the move to the defensive secondary brings with it certain advantages.
“With those guys being on the offensive side of the ball, they understand route concepts and what offenses are trying to do,’’ said Josh Boyer, who is in his third season as the Patriots’ defensive backs coach. “They kind of got a jump on that, [but] from a technique standpoint, a lot of the things that we do are a little bit different from an offensive perspective, so that takes a little bit of time. Both of those guys have been excellent.’’
McCourty, oft-criticized in his second season as a cornerback, has spent some time at safety the past two games, with generally positive results. Like many of the Patriots offensive linemen, who need to know multiple positions in case they need to switch over, the secondary positions have similarities, so McCourty’s new position isn’t as dramatic a change.
“It’s just about playing football,’’ he said. “I think my attitude, just like a lot of the other guys, was any way we can help the team win, we’re ready to do it. Hopefully we can play well whatever position they put us in.’’
With only a 46-man active roster on game days, being versatile isn’t a luxury in the NFL, it’s a necessity. The more you can do, the popular saying among the Patriots goes, the more you can do.
“If a guy can do one or two or three different things, that’s certainly going to enhance his ability on game days to make a contribution to the team,’’ said Nick Caserio, the Patriots’ director of player personnel. “They have to go out there and perform . . . that if you put them in a position that they’re normally accustomed to not playing, that they’re going to go out there and perform at a competitive enough level.’’
That’s been done, for the most part. Hernandez is a dangerous hybrid and a matchup nightmare, McCourty a serviceable safety, and Edelman and Slater haven’t been burned for long gains or touchdowns yet. Brady, for his part, even had a 48-yard punt downed at the Denver 10-yard line last week when pressed into service at his new position. Whatever roles or schemes the Patriots have concocted, they’ve resulted in wins.
New positions have their limits, however. Just ask Deion Branch.
“It’s fun for us as well, especially when guys get the opportunity to get in the backfield and play quarterback,’’ the Patriots receiver said. “I’m still trying to get myself a pass in at some point.’’