Just when we thought we had the answers, Bill Belichick continues to change the questions.
After nine years in New England it has become clear that the Patriots coach prefers to employ a 3-4 defense. All along he's maintained – both with his words and through his actions – that his unit is multiple with the capabilities of adapting based on a particular game plan. But when push ahs come to shove, his preference has been with three-man fronts.
From the looks of the things in camp thus far and during the preseason opener, there could be a shift coming in that philosophy. The team has featured a vast majority of four-man fronts, even showcasing a variety of looks with different personnel groups within them.
The two basic looks have been heavy and light, as in one has featured the big boys while the other the speed demons. The Patriots opened the Eagles game with Vince Wilfork and Myron Pryor inside with Richard Seymour and Le Kevin Smith (who has since been traded to Denver) outside. Ty Warren will obviously replace Smith in that "big" 4-3, and Ron Brace rotated with Pryor inside. The smaller version included Tully Banta-Cain and Derrick Burgess on the outside as pass rushers while Seymour moved inside with Jarvis Green.
For all of the reliance on the 3-4 over the years, Game 1, albeit a preseason one, featured nary a three-man front. But both Belichick and the principles involved were quick to caution against putting the incumbent base set in mothballs just yet.
"We've played 4-3 and 3-4 in various percentages or ratios over the years," Belichick said. "What are common are the fundamental techniques that are taught within those schemes and the flexibility that comes from the versatility of the players and - to a certain extent - game planning and the opponents that we play. We definitely haven't determined anything right now. We're just teaching our defense and teaching the techniques, which no matter what defense we play those techniques will apply to it at all the positions."
Seymour also pointed out that the two-gap techniques generally employed by the members of the front seven, regardless of position, continue to be in place for most of the variations. The former All-Pro said there were some schemes that allowed for some penetration from the guys up front, which obviously was good news for the guys who are usually relegated to taking up blockers while clogging running lanes.
"Anytime you can get another big guy on the field it's good news to us," said Ty Warren, who missed the opener as he works back from offseason surgery. "And when we get opportunities to get upfield and make plays that's obviously something we enjoy too. Whether we get those chances will depend on what the coaches want to go with. But our jobs really don't change much from one scheme to another."
One man who may be affected by a potential change is Jerod Mayo. The reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year could find himself all alone as the middle linebacker if the team decides to operate regularly in a 4-3 set. One theory suggests that the athletic Mayo could better utilize his speed and range to make plays from sideline-to-sideline without as much congestion in his path. It's an idea that the linebacker didn't shoot down.
"It doesn't really change that much," he said when asked if his responsibilities change in the 4-3. "It's a little bit easier. I don't have to wrestle those linemen as much. We'll see what happens. I don't have to take on as many linemen and things like that. I'm more of a defensive tackle in the 3-4 defense. In the 4-3 I'm more of a linebacker. So I can think a lot faster and get to the ball."
Tedy Bruschi, who's pretty much seen all of Belichick's master plans during his 13 years with the Patriots, believes such a move would be beneficial for the 2008 first-round pick.
"He's going to have a lot more on his shoulders than last year. It's different," Bruschi said. "You look at him as a rookie last year, but now, you look at him as an established leader of this team and leader of this defense. That's something I'm sure he'll do fine with."
While Belichick reiterated the fact that the techniques remain the same regardless of the alignment, it's clear that Mayo could find himself in space more often as the lone linebacker inside.
"Depending on what the call is, their reads change and their responsibilities change as far as coverage, dealing with blockers, recognizing their blocking schemes and things like that," Belichick said. "There are some adjustments when players play different alignments. But the fundamentals of those positions, basically, we try to keep those the same so we're not changing the techniques."
Whether the overall makeup of the scheme changes or not, one thing that has been evident during the preseason has been the constant changing of personnel. Belichick and defensive coordinator Dean Pees have made changes from down-to-down, routinely changing three or four player at a time.
While that depth and flexibility could be valuable should it manifest itself during the regular season, it also could create problems.
"It does," Mayo admitted when asked if the personnel changes presented an extra challenge. "We have so much talent on the defensive side of the ball we have to find a way to get everybody on the field. So rolling those personnel groups out is going to be a major part of our defense."
Getting everyone set is only part of the problem, however, and it may not be long before the Patriots see a different dilemma. On opening night the Buffalo Bills will bring their no-huddle offense to Gillette Stadium, and that could throw a wrinkle into Belichick's plans if he intends to rotate personnel consistently into the regular season.
"We have the ability to do different things, just like we always have," Seymour said following the Eagles game. "We could very well play the 34 for 60 minutes in the next game. You never know how the coaches are going to set things up. The thing for us is getting everyone on the same page, and if that means we have four defensive linemen and three linebackers, then that's what we'll do."