MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – When it first appeared during training camp, it raised eyebrows.
A Bill Belichick defense, lining up in a 4-3?
Must be something he's just experimenting with … you know, to appease the big fella, Albert Haynesworth, for whom he'd just traded. No way they'll stick to that come the regular season … right? Besides, there's not enough time for him to implement an entirely new philosophical scheme, after a non-existent offseason and a rush to start the new league year.
But then Belichick proceeds to acquire talented veteran after talented veteran at both the end and tackle spots – to be precise, ends and tackles who are best suited in an attacking 4-3 scheme.
The Patriots stuck with their new look throughout the month of August, but there were still some skeptics who questioned whether or not Belichick would dare stray from his core principals.
Those questions were answered Monday night in muggy Miami.
Though close at the start and into the third quarter, it was New England's fresh crop of defensive linemen that provided much of the heat, helping demoralize the Dolphins o-line by the final stanza.
Throughout the game, from the opening drive on, the Patriots freely rotated every defensive lineman who was active Monday night. So many so that it was difficult to identify any regular grouping, because there wasn't one, with the possible exception of the goal-line personnel package.
The one constant was Vince Wilfork. The co-captain was on the field for the majority of defensive snap, regardless of down, distance, or who lined up alongside him. The beneficial effect was that the big guys were able to remain fresh and firing on all cylinders without getting worn down by the heat and humidity, or the retooled Dolphins offensive line, which featured a rookie center, a new right tackle, and a right guard playing the position for the first time.
As experiments go, this one passed a critical test.
"Oh, it helped great," declared Haynesworth, derided throughout his career as a player who doesn't give it his all on every play. "I still felt like I was in the first half. We have defensive tackles here that can play and start at any other team and we have a great rotation."
"A lot of people played today, and that kept guys a little fresher. We haven't had that in the past, but we have it now, so, we're going to use it to our advantage," added Wilfork.
"We have a lot of depth … it makes it harder for our opponent to game plan and try to wear us out because if they wear on one set, guess what, we have another set coming in."
To be fair, the defense wasn't perfect. They surrendered more than 500 yards of total offense to Miami, the bulk of which came through the air. Nor was it the sole reason New England was victorious. Tom Brady and the hurry-up offense – even without center Dan Koppen for the majority of the time (ankle injury) – seemed to have the Dolphins defenders guessing all night.
Brady's dissection of the Dolphins was so clinically precise he could have been mistaken for a veterinarian. He finished with 517 yards, four touchdowns, including a record-tying 99 yarder to Wes Welker, and just one interception off a deflected pass (his first pick since last October).
"When you have a quarterback like Tom Brady, just keeps making it look easy and score points, the pressure was on them to have to score points," Haynesworth explained. "That made it a one-dimensional game where they were just going to pass. So, we could just pin our ears back and take off."
Shaun Ellis and Andre Carter started the game at left and right defensive end, respectively, while Mike Wright got the starting nod at tackle beside Wilfork. Haynesworth rotated in and out regularly, as did third-year man Myron Pryor at tackle. Mark Anderson also saw plenty of action at the end position, even registering his first sack as a Patriot.
"Those are all veterans," Wilfork continued. "They've been around the league a while. I don't expect anything less from them. Same with me.
"It's going to be a fun year with these guys," he concluded. "We make each other better."
And together, they're making the Patriots a better team. Though the experiment is far from over.