by Chris Warner, Patriots Daily Staff
The addition of Albert Hayneworth to New England’s defensive line could signal a fundamental change at the Foxboro front, as Coach Bill Belichick considers getting his best defenders (Haynesworth, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo) on the field at the same time with a four-linemen, three-linebacker formation as opposed to his standard 3-4.
For the record, we’re not exactly sold on the idea of this switch, for a couple of reasons. One, as Mike Reiss has pointed out in his Patriots blog, the defense played some kind of sub package other than a 3-4 most of the time in 2010.
Two, asking Haynesworth to contribute seems like asking your sketchy cousin to cash in a lottery ticket. You could become a big winner, but there’s a huge trust factor there.
(We’ll just say this: The man not only knows how to get in trouble, he also tends to swim around in it until he’s comfortable. Albert Heinousworth, indeed.)
On the hypothetical that Haynesworth and Wilfork hold down the middle, we look at some other players whom that would affect.
All Wright, All Wright, All Wright: More 4-3 defenses mean more linemen, which will give Mike Wright and some others longer looks. Wright’s a yeoman defender who excels at rushing the passer (a team-leading 5.5 sacks last year, which says as much about New England’s anemic pass rush as it does about him).
Bring Me A Pryor, Love: Interior defensive linemen Myron Pryor, famous for his Brett Favre chin music in 2010, and Kyle Love, another undrafted rookie like Wright, could get more playing time, while free agents like Landon Cohen could solidify spots on the team.
Brace Yourself: Meanwhile, D-lineman Ron Brace could find himself in some trouble, as the third-year player fit as a 3-4 defensive end but seemed to get pushed around in the interior. Big year for him.
A Moore/Jermaine Topic: Defensive ends in a 4-3 tend to have a little more quickness and a little less size. This changes the game a bit for Eric Moore and Jermaine Cunningham, who showed potential as 3-4 outside linebackers in Foxboro after playing defensive end at Florida State and Florida, respectively (Moore also had a stint in the UFL). Both could stay on the field as ends, but each also has the flexibility to play off the line, allowing New England’s D to confuse opponents with more looks.
A Means To Their Ends: Keep your eyes on sixth-round pick Markell Carter of Central Arkansas and undrafted rookies Alex Silvestro of Rutgers and Clay Nurse of Illinois. While each has prototypical size for a 3-4 outside linebacker, a four-man front would better utilize their experience as pass-rushing college defensive ends while downsizing that pesky learning curve for the linebacker position.
Dane To Be Different: A four-man front calls for more speed and less bulk at outside linebacker, opening a door for speedsters like Dane Fletcher and Gary Guyton. While Guyton took plenty of snaps last year as a middle linebacker, he got overwhelmed by offensive linemen and showed his ideal position as a 4-3 guy.
We Wuz Rob: So, where do the above changes leave Rob Ninkovich? A potential switch cuts into his playing time. He has started in a 3-4 defense, but in a 4-3 he lacks the speed for the outside and lacks the size for the line.
Ridley, Believe It Or Not: If the 4-3 helps New England get back to its defensive-strength of the recent past, rookie running back Stevan Ridley could become a big part of the team’s success. While the D had a tough time stopping opponents last year, too often the O failed to hold onto the ball late. (Really, it’s kind of amazing the 2010 Pats went 14-2.) Teaming Ridley up with BenJarvus Green-Ellis could provide a punch like swinging a bag of tools: you’re not exactly sure what’s going to hit your opponent, but you know it’s going to make an impression.
We Was Rob: A potential focus on running the ball could mean an increase in tight ends, and by “increase,” I mean weight-wise. Rob Gronkowski – the best all-around Pats end since Ben Coates – tilts the scales at 265. Rookies Lee Smith and Will Yeatman have similar gravitational obligations, demonstrating a camp necessity for bigger bulk at the position.
Now if they could just get veteran Alge Crumpler back…
Chris Warner can be contacted at email@example.com