FOXBOROUGH — Bill Belichick has mastered the modern NFL, winning 11 division titles and three Super Bowls in 14 years in an era of parity designed to push every team toward 8-8.
But Belichick often yearns for the old days of the NFL, when the kickoff wasn’t an automatic touchback and the extra point an automatic conversion and the same players stayed on the field for all three downs. Back at the league’s annual meetings in March, Belichick had an interesting diatribe about the increased specialization of NFL players.
“We have a long field goal kicker, we have a short field goal kicker,” he said. “We have a punt snapper, we have a field goal snapper. We have a five-tight end offense, then a six-linebacker defense to match the five-tight end offense.
“There was a time when you watched the National Football League and you saw 11 players out there, basically the same players on every play and you recognized those players.”
“Now, a lot of times, you see four or five players brought onto the field, then four or five players brought onto the field for the other team. You’d rather have, if you will, fewer players and more continuity, and let the fans actually be able to recognize who some of the players are instead of trying to know all 40-however-many-of-them.”
This year, Belichick just might have created his ideal old-school defense.
There is very little specialization on that side of the ball as the Patriots work on making the pieces fit and transition back to a 3-4 base defense. Outside of Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, and Vince Wilfork, there is hardly a player on the starting defense that isn’t being cross-trained at multiple positions.
Cornerbacks Logan Ryan and Kyle Arrington are getting work at safety. Safety Devin McCourty will occasionally work at his old cornerback position. Tommy Kelly, Chris Jones, Joe Vellano, and other defensive tackles are getting work as 3-4 defensive ends.
Chandler Jones, purely a pass rusher in his first two seasons in the league, is getting a lot of work as a 3-4 outside linebacker in camp. He’s now participating in seven-on-seven drills, and it’s not uncommon to see him chasing tight ends down the field in coverage.
“It’s fun, I enjoy it,” said Jones. “It gives me a chance to get out and run a little bit. I always joke in practice, ‘Oh, I’m Darrelle Revis!’ And everyone laughs.”
The ultimate weapon is second-year pro Jamie Collins, who has the most versatile skill set on the team.
He has been working for most of camp as an inside linebacker next to Jerod Mayo in the 3-4, chasing down running backs from sideline to sideline. But Collins played everything in college; he started as a safety and grew so big that he was a dominant pass rusher his senior year.
On any given play, Collins could rush the passer as an inside or outside linebacker, or drop into coverage on a tight end or even wide receiver. Collins also got a couple of snaps at tight end on the goal line during spring workouts.
Collins gave Patriots fans a glimpse of his versatility last year in the playoffs, when he had a sack, interception, and tackle for loss against the Colts. Don’t be surprised if more players join Collins this year in filling up the stat sheet in various ways.
“This defense always asks its players to do multiple things,” McCourty said. “It just feels like this year there’s a lot more players doing it. It’s always something that we’re doing to give guys more versatility and be flexible with different positions.
“When we’ve got 46 guys dressing up on a Sunday, you really don’t know what can happen in that game. The more you can do, the better it is for the team.”
Moving Jones to a 3-4 outside linebacker is one of Belichick’s more interesting moves.
“That makes sense — absolutely,” one NFL GM told me. “It fits his skill set really well.”
Jones has played 4-3 defensive end for most of his first two seasons, using his 6-foot-5-inch frame and long arms to be purely a downhill, quarterback-seeking pass rusher.
But he played some outside linebacker in college at Syracuse, and has a better size/speed combination to cover big tight ends such as Julius Thomas than linebackers like Mayo or Dont’a Hightower.
“It’s nothing foreign to me,” Jones said. “I felt like versatility adds to becoming a better player, being able to adjust to different things on the field and different positions. I feel like Bill will make a decision of that nature based on whatever will help the team.”
Still, though, Jones doesn’t want to be dropping into coverage on every play. He has had 17½ sacks through his first 30 NFL games, and could be primed for a big sack total this year, especially if Revis and the secondary can lock down opposing receivers for an extra second.
“I’d rather have a sack than an interception,” Jones said. “I know it sounds kind of selfish, but it just feels good. There’s nothing like that feeling you have once you take the quarterback down.
“Nothing compares with getting after the quarterback. But if this is to help the team, I’ll do it.”