Commentary

Patriots should think outside the system

Why edge rushers that might not fit 3-4 scheme should be on Belichick's draft radar

Updated: January 31, 2011, 2:56 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

Woodley/Belichick/MatthewsUS PresswireMoving forward, Bill Belichick should not discount pass-rushing specialists like LaMarr Woodley (left) and Clay Matthews (right) on draft day just because they might not fit the 3-4 scheme.

DALLAS -- New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick said his coaching staff is still taking "inventory" on the 2010 regular season. One area that should stand out -- and help shape a significant part of the team's offseason approach -- is the heavy volume of sub packages.

The Patriots are known as a 3-4 defense, but that's not what they played in the majority of their snaps. In fact, it wasn't even close.

Of 1,101 defensive plays charted by ESPNBoston.com (including some penalties and 2-point conversions), the Patriots were in a sub package 628 times. That's a 57 percent clip.

Meanwhile, the defense was in a base 3-4 alignment 441 times (40 percent) and short-yardage personnel on 32 snaps (3 percent).

So ultimately, the sub -- which is when five or more defensive backs are on the field -- is what sunk them. It's primarily why they ranked last in the NFL on third down.

The first step to change that is for Belichick and his staff to place more value on it in the scouting and evaluation process.

The Patriots are a system-specific team, which means they scout players independently based on how they might fit into their unique-to-them 3-4 system. Because of that, they sometimes take themselves out of the running for some of the best pure edge rushers in the draft, defenders who might fit only in 4-3 schemes.

Based on 2010, a strong case could be made that it's time to change that line of thinking.

Because of the struggles in the sub package, a 4-3 edge rusher is exactly what the Patriots need -- a havoc-creator that opposing teams must account for at all times, a play-with-your-hair-on-fire rusher who brings an attitude to a defense.

As the Super Bowl hype gets underway here Monday in "Big D" with the arrival of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers, there are two players in attendance who highlight what might have been different had the Patriots been thinking along those lines: LaMarr Woodley and Clay Matthews.

In 2007, Woodley was selected by the Steelers in the second round (46th overall). That was a draft in which the overall quality was considered poor, so how did a gem like Woodley -- who has 39 regular-season sacks in four seasons and comes up even bigger in the playoffs -- slip so far?

[+] EnlargeMatthews
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireClay Matthews could have been a Patriot, but New England traded away the pick the Packers used to select the star pass-rusher in the 2009 NFL draft.

Obviously the Patriots weren't the only team to miss on Woodley, who probably dropped because he measured 6-foot-1 and ran a so-so 4.74 in the 40-yard dash at his pro day entering the draft. The concern in scouts' eyes was likely whether Woodley's size would hinder him against bigger offensive tackles as a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end. While he's landed in the perfect system to maximize his talents -- always something important to consider -- it's hard to imagine Woodley wouldn't be a terror in New England and elsewhere.

As for Matthews, his situation has been well documented in these parts because the Patriots traded their 2009 first-round pick (26th overall) to the Packers, who were so hot for pass-rush help that they paid the hefty price of a second-round pick and two third-rounders, who then took Matthews with that pick from New England.

Coming into the draft, Matthews was a bit different from Woodley in that he was lighter, weighing 240 pounds at the combine and his pro day (Woodley was 266). That led to questions among analysts as to how well he'd hold up against the run in New England's 3-4 scheme ("setting the edge"), which could explain why the Patriots passed on him, assuming he checked out in all other areas. While Matthews has also landed in the perfect system to help him emerge -- he has 23.5 sacks in two seasons -- it's safe to say 31 other teams could find a way to maximize his pass-rush explosion.

When it comes to Woodley and Matthews, it's always easy to look back and wonder what might have been, and to simply pick two players like that isn't necessarily a fair exercise. After all, the Patriots' drafting is on par with some of the best in the NFL in Bill Belichick's tenure, and it would be just as easy to pick two highly drafted edge rushers who haven't panned out over that time.

Still, one important aspect of scouting is being flexible within a system, and the growing number of snaps in the sub defense could signal the need for the Patriots to alter their mindset.

In the search for three- and four-down players with their top picks, the Patriots have selected safety Brandon Meriweather, linebacker Jerod Mayo, safety Patrick Chung and cornerback Devin McCourty in each of the past four years.

Looking ahead, a two-down player wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing if that player is a pass-rusher.

At the least, he'd fill 57 percent of the snaps in sub packages, addressing the team's biggest need.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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