Could the Jamie Collins trade be the spark to change the Patriots defense back to a 3-4 look?
The New England Patriots shocked the NFL just about 24 hours ahead of the NFL Trade Deadline by dealing Pro Bowl linebacker Jamie Collins to the Cleveland Browns. Many questioned the move, noting that the Patriots were losing arguably their top playmaking defensive player and removing a component of athleticism.
Moving Collins was not the only change to the linebackers for New England this season. It came after the Patriots drafted Elandon Roberts and traded for both Barkevious Mingo and Kyle Van Noy. With all of these changes and the return of Rob Ninkovich, the Patriots appear to be poised to shift from a 4-3 base defense to a 3-4 alignment following their bye week.
These four can fill the nose tackle position with their size and can also fill the run-stuffing defensive end position that generally plays in a strong-side five technique. This role can be played by Brown, Valentine or Hamilton while the zero technique nose can be played by Branch or Brown.
The Patriots are also set with defensive linemen that can play the weak-side role that is generally a more athletic combination player. This player usually can play the run in a two-gap system, but can also provide pressure on the quarterback. Both Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard have experience playing this role on their previous teams while Trey Flowers and Geneo Grissom have comparable size.
With Collins gone, the linebacker group is less explosive and has less playmaking ability, but still should thrive if the system changes. The star of the system is Dont’a Hightower. Not only can Hightower hold as the defensive signal caller at one of the inside linebacker roles, he has the ability to blitz to create pressure, line up on the outside and force plays to the boundary, or line up on the end of the line and come as a rush linebacker. His multi-dimensional ability allows for multiple linebackers to rotate throughout the defense, but still have a defensive leader on the field.
Next to Hightower as an inside linebacker would be Roberts. The rookie from Houston has excelled in an increased role since stepping in after the start of the season. He is an active player who is strong at the point of attack, making him a perfect inside linebacker in Bill Belichick’s defense.
New England does lack depth at inside linebacker, but could use the services of players such as Van Noy or Shea McClellan when needed. In theory, this could be a role for Rob Ninkovich as well, but he is more likely to play a hybrid role as an outside linebacker/defensive end. They would likely need to add depth in the middle.
Some of the newer additions at linebacker would play a role in a Patriots scheme switch. Players such as Mingo and Van Noy have both been cast off from their teams that drafted them, but had success as rushers in college. Both have athleticism—though Mingo has more—and the build to play on the edge. Combine these two with McClellan and Ninkovich as more run down players and the edge could perform well. There is also the opportunity for players such as Sheard and Flowers to stand up from their defensive line role and play more of a strength rusher role.
The back four would not change in this scheme change, leaving Malcolm Butler, Devin McCourty, Pat Chung and some combination of Logan Ryan, Eric Rowe and others as the starting secondary. In front of them would be a strong, stout defense with the potential to better the Patriots current 13 sacks on the season—tied for just 25th in the NFL.
This defense was possible with Collins, but his trade could, and should be the catalyst that moves the Patriots back to a 3-4 defense following their bye.