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Cosell: When it comes to identifying Patriots’ defensive front, mind the gap

03.26.12 at 11:09 am ET
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During the 2011 season, much was made about the Patriots’ apparent decision to move from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3. With the acquisition of veteran defensive linemen like Andre Carter, Mark Anderson and Albert Haynesworth — all defenders who appeared to be a better fit in a 4-3 — it certainly appeared Bill Belichick was making a seismic shift in defensive sensibility.

But it turns out that the idea of 4-3 vs. 3-4 scheme in New England wasn’€™t as simple as having someone on the edge put their hand on the ground instead of stand up. Greg Cosell of NFL Films, who serves as the executive producer of ESPN’€™s ‘€œNFL Matchup,’€ said that when it comes to the Patriots, the differences between a three-man front and a four-man front are more complex than you’€™d think.

‘€œYou have to understand one thing — fronts are not determined by who’€™s in a three-point stance and who is in a two-point stance. Fronts are determined by gap concepts,’€ Cosell said. ‘€œAnd I guarantee if you look at a lot of the Patriots’€™ ‘€˜three-man fronts’€™ in the past where there’€™s actually two linebackers standing up on the outside, you’€™ll see that they’€™re actually in four-man front principles.’€

Some of the versatility of defenders like Vince Wilfork and Rob Ninkovich allow the Patriots to present one front when they’€™re actually in a different look altogether.

‘€œWith the Patriots, it’€™s complicated. You’€™ll see a three-technique. You’€™ll see a nose shade, not a nose tackle. Sure, there were snaps where they played a true 3-4 with a true nose tackle or a zero technique and two ends who are five techniques. But just because you have three down linemen, it doesn’€™t mean you are playing a 3-4.’€

With the Patriots cutting Haynesworth and losing Anderson in free agency to Buffalo and the future of Carter uncertain because of injury, Cosell believes the Patriots won’€™t necessarily brand themselves a 3-4 or 4-3 team going forward, no matter who they might draft (or otherwise acquire), saying there’€™s ‘€œno need for them to make a delineation between 3-4 and 4-3. You don’€™t need to do that.’€

Instead, look for them to continue to add versatile linemen and keep people guessing.

‘€œIn Houston, Wade Phillips‘€™ defense is not a 3-4. It’€™s a 4-3. It just has the weak side defensive end — which was DeMarcus Ware in Dallas and was Mario Williams in Houston — stand up in a two-point stance. But every gap tells you it’€™s a 4-3,’€ Cosell said. ‘€œPeople immediately assume because you see three down linemen and you see two outside linebackers standing up, that’€™s a 3-4. No. Belichick is smarter than that.’€

Read More: Albert Haynesworth, Andre Carter, Bill Belichick, DeMarcus Ware
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