At the start of the season, the New England Patriots certainly didn’t have the look of the best defense in the NFL. Not with the Buffalo Bills blasting them in the season opener, 31-0.
But then, they don’t play Super Bowl games in September.
Since then, Coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel have put together a hybrid 3-4 defense that suffocates opposing offenses.
The Patriots’ numbers on defense speak for themselves.
New England led the league in fewest points allowed at 14.9 a game and recorded three shutouts in their last four home games at Gillette Stadium. They also had an NFL-best six defensive touchdowns and tied Baltimore for causing the most turnovers in the AFC, 41.
Looming large in New England’s defensive success have been 300-plus-pound linemen Richard Seymour, Ted Washington and Bobby Hamilton. Although they do not make the most tackles, they tie up offensive linemen and eliminate running lanes.
In the Patriots’ base 3-4, they allow linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Willie McGinest, along with strong safety Rodney Harrison, to make plays against the run. It’s one reason New England finished fourth in the league, giving up a stingy 89.6 yards a game on the ground and allowing rushers only 3.6 yards a carry.
Impressive is that the Patriots have done this despite injuries to players who had been making an impact. New England has used 20 defensive starters.
By their third game, the Patriots had already lost linebackers Rosevelt Colvin (broken hip) and Ted Johnson (broken foot) and nose tackle Washington (broken leg).
Although Johnson and Washington returned to the lineup late in the season, their absence, along with Colvin’s season-ending injury, forced Belichick and Crennel to adjust their defense.
For some games, the Patriots featured more 4-3 alignments because of their depleted core of linebackers. There were others when they stuck with their 3-4 but played a more conservative defense.
But by having players versatile enough to play in both sets, the Patriots have become even stronger during their 12-game winning streak. Just ask the quarterbacks who have tried to figure out what positions New England’s defenders are playing from snap to snap.
The crucial player in New England’s complex defense is McGinest, who has excelled as an every-down player after having been tagged as a pass-rushing specialist early in his career.
Thanks to his defensive end background, McGinest has been equally effective against the run and pass. Sometimes, he makes key tackles in the backfield, as he did against Indianapolis in November. Then there are other plays when he drops into coverage for an interception, as he did against the New York Jets last month.
McGinest’s versatility makes the Patriots’ zone blitzes nearly impossible to detect for opposing offenses. Belichick and Crennel love to play chess with their assortment of weapons on defense, shaking up offenses with multiple coverages.
From their base 3-4 alignment, the Patriots can send the fourth rusher from all angles. Bruschi may crash into the backfield on a blitz, then Harrison or even cornerbacks Ty Law or Tyrone Poole.
The final piece to the Patriots’ defensive puzzle is their secondary. After the team released four-time Pro Bowl safety Lawyer Milloy before the season opener, many believed that New England would be vulnerable to the pass.
But that hasn’t been the case. Rookie Eugene Wilson has filled in for Milloy and Law and Poole have provided excellent coverage on the perimeter. Backup cornerbacks Asante Samuel and Je’Rod Cherry also have stepped up for the Patriots, who gave up only 11 touchdown passes during the regular season, the Colts’ Peyton Manning accounting for four in one game.
The Patriots have worked as a cohesive defensive unit since their rocky start, so don’t expect them to change anything when they play Tennessee in today’s AFC division game.