New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick prizes versatility, and the defensive line provides many different options: Veterans such as Chandler Jones and Sealver Siliga, and youngsters like Dominique Easley and rookie Malcom Brown. Aidan Curran reviewed the film of the New Orleans Saints Week 2 preseason matchup, focusing on Patriots versatile defensive line.
NFL coaches crave versatility, as it offers them flexibility in roster management, aiding their ability to be creative in offensive and defensive schemes. Linebackers Jamie Collins and Mychal Kendricks are quickly becoming household names because of their versatility; they can both rush the passer and drop back in coverage exceptionally well.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick seems to have an even greater penchant for versatility than his peers, drafting players like tackle Nate Solder (converted from a tight end in college), wide receiver Julian Edelman (played quarterback throughout college), and Collins (former safety and defensive end in college). Versatile players were a large part of New England’s Super Bowl run last season: Solder scored a touchdown in the AFC Championship Game by lining up as an eligible tackle and Edelman threw a touchdown pass to Danny Amendola against the Ravens in the divisional round.
Belichick continued to target versatile defensive players in this year’s draft and signed defensive end Jabaal Sheard, formerly of the Cleveland Browns. Sheard is both an effective player against the run, and a skilled pass rusher. According to Pro Football Focus, Sheard posted an overall grade of 8.2, with a 9.4 run defense grade and a negative-0.2 pass rush grade, all while receiving inconsistent playing time throughout the season, in part because of a foot injury he suffered. In 2013, Sheard posted a 9.3 grade in pass rushing.
I noted the Patriots defensive line’s snap counts and positions during their Week 2 preseason game against the New Orleans Saints to get an idea of where players were lining up and how the coaching staff were exploring their versatility.
Three players who stood out are highlighted on the chart: Dominique Easley, coming off of an injury-shortened rookie season, moved all over the defensive line. He played almost as many snaps at defensive end (15) as he did at defensive tackle (17). Malcom Brown, the Patriots first round draft pick, started the game as a 0 technique, but as the game progressed, he was moved around as well.
Geneo Grissom, who was seen as a project by many has drawn positive reviews in training camp, and received a lot of playing time in the two exhibition games. He is versatile and can play a multi-faceted role in the New England defense similar to Collins. Against New Orleans, Grissom was seemingly everywhere. Most of his snaps came at defensive end but he also had playing time at the 1, 3 and 5 technique.
Now let’s take a look at how Belichick used the versatility to his advantage:
Chandler Jones is playing 3 technique with the Saints facing a 3rd and 5. In an obvious passing situation, Belichick decides to load up on pass rushers in order to get after Saints QB Drew Brees. Jones shows an explosive burst off the line of scrimmage, and rips past the offensive guard to get into the backfield. This forces Brees to check down and make an off-balance throw off his back foot to Khiry Robinson. It resulted in an 11-yard gain for New Orleans, but is a good example of how Belichick maximizes his players’ strengths and puts them in positions to succeed.
Another play that deserves to be highlighted is a nice show of hustle by Brown:
On a designed slip screen for Robinson, Brown gets overzealous and rushes into the backfield before he realizes his blocker released, and is headed downfield, while the ball carrier is at least 5 yards ahead of him. However, Brown does not give up on the play, and shows impressive speed and hustle for a 320-pound defensive tackle by chasing down Robinson from behind and tackling him by the legs. It’s not often you see such a large human display that kind of speed.
Jones also demonstrated over aggressiveness in the first quarter, with the Saints on the Patriots’ 14 and threatening to score:
New Orleans is running an outside zone play, with the left tackle tasked with kicking out to the second level. while the left guard and center double team Brown. The fullback motions into a wing alignment offset position offset next to the left tackle, and will chip Jones. However, at the snap, Jones uses a swim move to avoid the blocker, and gets into the backfield.
Meanwhile, Brown splits the double team nimbly, and forces Robinson right into Jones’s path, who should have taken Robinson down for a 2-yard loss. But once he gets past this chip block, Jones cannot shift his balance in the backfield in order to tackle Robinson, and his head is turned in the wrong direction. Because of this, he can’t even see the running back running in his direction before it is too late. Ideally, you would expect a bit more awareness from a veteran like Jones.
Now let’s take a look at Easley. The defensive tackle was a beast for the Florida Gators in the SEC, and was drafted late in the first round by New England in the 2014 draft while recovering from an ACL tear. He was placed on injured reserve after playing 11 games last season and is expected to be at 100% for the first time in several seasons. Easley is a unique player in that he has the size to play a penetrating 3 technique DT, but he has elite burst and agility to play on the edge as well. Belichick employed him as a defensive end frequently against the Saints:
Easley’s burst is on display here. He gets a great jump at the snap and gets off the line of scrimmage immediately to engage his defender and push him back. This initial push prevents the running back from being able to cut outside for a bigger gain. Here, Brown is playing 1 technique ‒ on the inside shoulder of the guard ‒ and gets past his man and into the backfield. With Easley and Brown pressuring their respective gaps, it makes Sealver Siliga’s job easy, and all he has to do is shed his man to wrap up the running back for a 1-yard gain. Easley’s burst has been significantly better this season compared to last. It will be interesting to see where he is utilized along the line in different situations this season.
This is a defensive line that gives Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia many options. With the depth and versatility the line provides, New England should be able to generate more of a pass rush than it has in recent seasons. And with a radically-altered secondary, an upgraded pass rush will be key if the Patriots’ defense is to replicate last season’s success.
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Inside The Pylon covers the NFL and college football, reviewing the film, breaking down matchups, and looking at the issues, on and off the field.
All video and images courtesy the NFL.