FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The formation was fascinating in all the classic ways in which New England coach Bill Belichick meshes his high-brow Northeast education with his elite football strategy.
The Patriots were working on their third-down defense Tuesday. Specifically, this was third-and-long. On the field were five defensive backs, one defensive lineman and five linebackers.
Pretty interesting stuff, even more so when you consider the five linebackers were Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Adalius Thomas, Junior Seau and Rosevelt Colvin. That’s a combined 53 years of experience. Those five have probably forgotten more about football than most people have ever learned.
Moreover, the formation was a symbol of both the strength and weakness of the Patriots defense. In New England, the linebackers are the heart and mind of the defense, working through Belichick’s many complicated schemes with ease.
The downside is that they are old in a sport where careers are often shorter than a Paris Hilton jail sentence. Last year in the AFC championship game, the Patriots discovered how precarious age at linebacker can be. With Seau out because of a broken arm and Bruschi hurting so much that his lateral quickness was sapped, Indianapolis attacked.
Colts tight end Dallas Clark led all receivers with six catches for 137 yards (more yards than receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne had combined). Backup tight end Bryan Fletcher had a critical 32-yard catch on Indianapolis’ game-winning drive when second-year linebacker Eric Alexander lost him in coverage.
“We felt we had some good matchups out there with the tight ends,” Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning said after the AFC title game. “I wouldn’t say it was a normal situation when we play them, but that’s what it was (in this game).”
That’s why it was little surprise to anyone that the Patriots went after Thomas as their top priority in free agency. They did that even though Thomas is entering his eighth season and will be 30 come August. While Thomas was coming off a career-high 11 sacks with Baltimore last season, what appealed to Belichick more was Thomas’ overall athletic ability.
At 6-foot-2, 270 pounds, Thomas has the bulk to play inside and the speed to either rush off the edge or drop into coverage. In fact, Thomas may have sealed his deal with New England when he returned a fumble 70 yards for a touchdown in the Pro Bowl, outrunning everybody on the field.
Belichick and the rest of the Pats staff were coaching Thomas and the AFC squad at the time.
“He was very impressive,” Belichick said of Thomas with a combination of understated tone and a poker face that would impress even Norman Chad.
Thomas is a perfect example of what Belichick loves. He’s a combination of versatility and smarts. Likewise, Seau has played both inside and outside during his career, which has a solid chance of landing him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Vrabel has played both inside and outside linebacker in New England and is a good enough athlete that he has lined up at tight end on occasion.
Still, the biggest factor is knowing what to do.
“Everything we’re doing right now requires thinking about it,” Thomas said. “The goal is always to get to the point that you’re not thinking anymore, you’re just reacting to what you see. That’s going to take time for me. But I’ve got some guys around me who know what they’re doing.”
Said Seau: “The defense is tough for young guys because you have to really know your stuff in this defense. The schemes are complicated and you have to know the terminology very well.”
Seau is the elder statesman of the group as he enters his 18th season. Less than a year ago, he retired and then came out of retirement a day later when the Patriots called after an injury.
Seau was impressive enough that Belichick and the Patriots brought him back earlier this year. On Tuesday, he was part of Belichick’s bit of third-down mad science with the five-linebacker formation.
Whether the Patriots ever use the formation remains to be seen. It was fascinating nonetheless. The goal of the formation was clear. As defensive lineman Jarvis Green lined up at nose tackle, serving as a one-man anchor against a draw play, the linebackers stood around. None of them put their hand on the ground to show that they were going to pass rush, leaving it up to the offense to figure out.
Considering the combined knowledge of the five linebackers, bet on them to have it figured out a lot better than the offense can ever manage.