The core tenets of Bill Belichick’s football program always will remain the same: Versatility is key. Do your job. Hide your weaknesses and attack theirs.
But Belichick is smart enough to not be rigid in his ways. Even at 63 years old and with four Super Bowl rings on his nightstand, he’s constantly seeking out new information and his plan of attack is evolving.
This time, he’s changing his philosophy on defense — right after winning another Super Bowl, no less.
Fans were none too pleased that Belichick opted not to bring back Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner after the cornerbacks played a big role in the Patriots’ title run. But Belichick has been around the game long enough to know that there’s more than one way to assemble a championship defense.
The plan now, as foretold by the Patriots’ moves in free agency and the draft, is to develop more of a rotation on the defensive line, keep the pass rushers fresh into the fourth quarter, and overwhelm opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks.
It’s a strategy that is employed by many teams in the NFL — Patriots fans still have nightmares about the Giants sending wave after wave of pass rushers at them in the two Super Bowl losses. The Seahawks also have reached two Super Bowls behind a stout defensive line that rolls five or six deep at end. The Steelers have created an assembly line of pass rushers, and they haven’t drafted a cornerback in the first round since Chad Scott in 1997.
But the last few years, the Patriots went the opposite way, relying heavily on Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones. In 2013, Jones played 98 percent of the Patriots’ snaps, and Ninkovich 95 percent. In 2014, Ninkovich led the defense with 94 percent of snaps played, and while an injury forced Jones to play in just 58 percent of the season, when he was healthy he played the entire game, sitting out just eight total snaps in the playoffs. Vince Wilfork also played 73 percent of snaps last year.
It’s hard to argue with the results — the Patriots made the AFC Championship game the last two years and just won a Super Bowl. But with Jones coming down with a little bit of the injury bug last year and Ninkovich now 31, it appears that Belichick is wisely planning to ease their workload this year and get more of a rotation going along the defensive line.
Let’s put it this way — the Patriots didn’t give pass rusher Jabaal Sheard $5 million guaranteed to sit on the bench. They didn’t draft Geneo Grissom in the third round or Trey Flowers in the fourth round to only play special teams. And they didn’t give Ninkovich a contract extension through 2016 and trigger Jones’s fifth-year option to ship them out of town, either.
There’s plenty room for everybody at the table.
The Patriots were caught a bit flat-footed last year when Jones went down with a hip injury, forcing them to trade for linebacker Akeem Ayers and play him out of position at defensive end. Of course, it worked out swimmingly, because Belichick is an incredible coach and didn’t ask Ayers to do too much. But the Patriots are much better prepared for an injury to Jones or Ninkovich this time around.
The Patriots now have three solid veteran pass rushers in Jones, Ninkovich, and Sheard, plus rookies in Grissom and Flowers who should contribute to the rotation. Up the middle they roll five deep with Alan Branch, Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones, Dominique Easley, and first-round pick Malcom Brown.
And let’s not forget their two versatile linebackers, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins, who combined for 10 sacks in the regular season.
That’s a lot of heat that Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia can bring at quarterbacks. And the days of having to sign a free agent off the street such as Andre Carter, or depending on developmental rookies such as Michael Buchanan or Zach Moore, are gone.
Is the secondary worse without Revis and Browner? No question. But I keep going back to the point that the 2011 Patriots, with a borderline horrible secondary, were a miracle Mario Manningham catch away from winning a Super Bowl, while the 2014 Patriots, with Revis and Browner making $16 million combined, were a miracle Malcolm Butler interception away from losing the Super Bowl.
If Belichick thinks the team is better off not spending $39 million guaranteed on Revis, or using a first- or second-round pick on a cornerback, well, he gets the benefit of the doubt at this point.
But at least Belichick isn’t resting on his championship laurels. It’s fascinating to see a future Hall of Fame coach be willing to change his defensive philosophy literally a month after winning his fourth Super Bowl. One area of the defense is worse, but another area is much improved.
And the Patriots’ 2015 secondary should be better than the 2011 version. There is no No. 1 cornerback, but I see a bunch of No. 2s and 3s — veterans who have a significant number of NFL snaps under their belt in Kyle Arrington, Butler, Logan Ryan, Alfonzo Dennard, Bradley Fletcher, and Robert McClain. And they still have Devin McCourty, arguably the best free safety in the game, lining them up before the snap and covering a large swath of the field.
If the Patriots’ pass rush can bring the heat, the cornerbacks don’t have to be great.
Quick, who were the Giants’ starting defensive backs in the Super Bowl matchup after the 2011 season?
But you certainly remember Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora, and Chris Canty making life miserable for Tom Brady.
That’s where Belichick is now with the Patriots’ defense. Instead of betting on a stable of cornerbacks, he’s betting on a stable of pass rushers to get the job done.