The Belichick Defense Part 5: The rebirth of the 4-3

“There is nothing like returning to a place that reminds unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” – Nelson Mandela

In 2011, Bill Belichick set his course, and in an attempt to match his personnel to a scheme that he felt would give him the best chance for success, he changed his base defense. Sound familiar?  In part 2 of our series, we explained how Belichick will adjust his scheme to his personnel.

History repeats itself, and so did Belichick. While rebuilding on the fly, he realized he didn’t have the quality depth at linebacker needed to run a full fledged 3-4 defense. Bill reached deep into his playbook and turned to what had helped him get to, and win a Super Bowl in 2001.

Two off-season acquisitions made this transformation happen in 2011 - defensive ends Andre Carter and Mark Anderson were brought on board. Although both can play in a two point stance, they were better suited playing down. Carter, a veteran with an endless motor, set the example of playing hard. Anderson, at age 26, hadn’t reached his potential, but his talent couldn't be ignored and his playmaking ability just needed to be brought out.

Belichick didn’t scrap the 3-4. He redesigned it in the form of a 4-3, taking advantage of his two new defensive ends. He would set four down linemen while still using the two gap philosophy. Belichick would then set the weak side linebacker on the line opposite the left defensive end, thus creating the 52 style that the 3-4 provides. The linebackers would play with more depth in order not to get caught up in trash, and the ability to flow to the ball.

The biggest advantage to playing this style of 4-3 allowed the defense to adjust on the fly and switch into the 3-4. Let’s look at the base personnel:

(LDE) Andre Carter, (NT) Vince Wilfork, (DT) Kyle Love, (RDE) Mark Anderson

(OLB) Rob Ninkovich, (MLB) Jerod Mayo, (OLB) Dane Fletcher/Tracy White

(LCB) Devin McCourty, (RCB) Kyle Arrington, (S) Patrick Chung, (S) James Ihedigbo

Unlike 2001, the elephant position wasn’t utilized as Belichick didn’t have the versatile talent that was Willie McGinest. Carter would stay on the left side, and the closest thing to the elephant was Anderson, who would back up Carter on the left side and play primarily on the right side.

Both ends set the edges, however, Carter had the green light to all out rush, Anderson was run first, then pass rush (which would change when Carter went down with a late season ending injury and Anderson assuming Carter’s role).

Wilfork and Love would clog the middle of the line using the two gap philosophy, and then if it's a pass, rush the passer. The Patriots don’t expect a lot of pass rush production from their tackles, preferring them to hold the point of attack, and maybe push the pocket back enough for the DEs to get to the quarterback.

This 4-3 alignment gave the defensive ends the responsibility to get to the quarterback; they would be the primary rushers, leaving the linebackers the task of being more involved in the coverage schemes for the back seven. The deeper depth for the linebackers was an indication that Belichick wanted the opposing offense to work in front of the defense.

After a rough start for the secondary, Belichick saw enough after their first meeting against the Buffalo Bills. Chan Gailey saw on film that when teams went five wide, the Patriots would go man to man. The Bills exploited this concept by motioning running back Fred Jackson into the five wide, forcing the Patriots defense to match up man to man.

The results uncovered a major weakness - the Patriots couldn’t cover man to man, and thus setting up the way the secondary would play the rest of the year. Belichick went to zone coverages, and large cushions that would give up a lot of yards until the offense drove into the red zone, then Belichick would crowd the twenty yards in zones, aiming to force field goals instead of touchdowns. Again, adjusting to his personnel, Belichick saw early the inability of his defense to play man to man, and went with the safer zone concepts.

Playing a conservative style of defense means that to get some solid production, the defense would have to produce turnovers. So the focus became playing safe and forcing turnovers, in which they did excel at.

The Patriots defense ranked 31st in the NFL by season's end, but it’s misleading, the defense played much better than its statistics. Though they ranked next to last in yard given up (6,577), they ranked 15th in a more important and relevant category, yards per game (21.4).

Belichick was robbing Peter to pay Paul so to speak, and early on despite the large amount of yardage given up, the Patriots were starting to develop a solid pass rush. Carter was an instant contributor in that category, by keeping everything in front of them, the quarterback would hold onto the ball longer, allowing Carter’s endless motor to eventually catch up to them for the sack.

Late in the 2011 season, Belichick decided to go back to the base 3-4 with some help from Tim Tebow. Tebow was hot, taking a 1-4 Denver Broncos team and turning them into playoff contenders. In their week 15 meeting, Tebow and the Broncos’ spread offense shredded the Patriots early, gashing them in the run game. The defense was the 4-3 base, and Rob Ninkovich was struggling to handle the option on his side. Belichick changed the defense to the 3-4 on the fly, giving him an extra inside linebacker and released Ninkovich from having to wait for Tebow to pitch.  Instead he would now just go after Tebow and the inside linebacker would pick up the pitch.

That demonstrates what the hybrid defense can give in game options and it's ability to adjust on the fly. Expect the Patriots to continue to use multiple fronts, but the addition of two rookie linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Chandler Jones are a strong indication to the return of a full time 3-4 base, along with the 4-3 as a sub package, or for game specific situations.