With 11:14 remaining in the second quarter Sunday, rookie defensive end Chandler Jones beat the Titans’ veteran left tackle, Michael Roos, to the outside with a swim move.
Jones then quickly turned on Jake Locker, stripping the ball from unsuspecting quarterback.
The loose ball bounced to about the six-yard line, where Jones’ fellow first round rookie Dont’a Hightower scooped it up and eluded a would-be tackler before barreling his way into the end zone.
This play was more than a visible return from the investment of two first-round picks made in the defense back in April.
It was a statement, announcing loud and clear to the rest of the NFL that the transformation of New England’s defense is just about complete.
For years, New England ran the 3-4 as its base defense. This dictated how they scouted and drafted defensive players. There was a prototype for each position, based on what their role in the scheme demanded.
Defensive linemen were supposed to be big and physical. Instead of attacking up-field, they were mainly asked to control their assigned gaps at the line of scrimmage. With the line tying up multiple blockers, the linebackers would be able to read blockers and fill the remaining gaps.
Richard Seymour was perfect for their scheme, a player who never racked up gaudy sack totals but always required multiple blockers and still was nearly impossible to move in the run game.
This scheme was very effective at the peak of the Patriots’ success. The 3-4 took off in 2003, with the mid-August pickup of defensive tackle Ted Washington. With Washington manning the middle of the line, the 2003 Pats allowed the fewest points in the league.
They were particularly dominant at home, gaining shutouts in three of their last four home games.
They neutered Peyton Manning and the high-powered Colts' offense in the playoffs two years in a row, en route to back-to-back Super Bowl Championships. They also spawned imitators, as the 3-4 became an increasingly popular defense throughout the league.
This success also forced teams to counter it, making their initial success harder and harder to replicate.
Former Colts owner Bill Polian, incensed after New England’s secondary was allowed to manhandle the Colts’ receivers in the 2003 AFC Championship game, influenced the leagues’ competition committee to make a “point of emphasis” on the illegal contact rule.
This had a league-wide effect. It made it much more difficult for cornerbacks to match up with receivers one-and-one. This put a premium on pass rushers, who could limit the amount of time cornerbacks spent in coverage.
It also made passing the ball much easier. New England beat the Colts twice in their 2004 championship season, but the Colts would win six of their next seven match-ups, including a huge second-half comeback in the 2006 AFC Championship Game.
Other teams began to capitalize on how league rules made passing a far more efficient way to move the ball. New Orleans reinvented itself, spreading the field with multiple receivers and having Drew Brees pick defenses apart.
The Packers would later do the same thing with Aaron Rodgers. The Patriots, who had previously run a conservative offense built around power rushing and short passing, added Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte’ Stallworth, transforming into a record-breaking, down field passing machine in a single offseason.
Perhaps no team demonstrated the increased value of passing more than the Falcons, who traded two first round picks, a second, and two fourths for the rights to move up a mere five spots to draft receiver Julio Jones.
Statistics further illustrate this trend. In 2003, the height of the Patriots’ success, five teams had over 500 rushing attempts, with six more that rushed at least 480 times. Last season, that number was down to only two teams rushing 500 times and only three over 480. Likewise, 2003 saw only four teams with over 550 passing attempts. In 2011, that number was up to 15.
While the Patriots were one of the earlier teams to adapt on offense, they stubbornly held onto their defensive philosophy. They were initially able to get away with this, as the defense was stocked with still-productive veterans who could probably run the scheme in their sleep.
However, age and the league-wide passing trend eventually caught up to them. Big and physical has become largely obsolete, with defenders needing to be either able to cover or pass rush to counter the avalanche of passing offenses.
Seeing beloved stars like Tedy Bruschi struggle to cover younger, faster players was painful to watch. It’s hard to imagine how poorly they would’ve fared against the current Packers or Saints passing games.
Super Bowl XLII, saw a defense long on pride but short on speed fail to get the one stop needed to cement their place in history. That offseason was the beginning of the rebuilding process, as they drafted Jerod Mayo with the tenth overall pick, adding some desperately needed youth to the linebacking corps.
The 2009 offseason saw Tedy Bruschi, Rosevelt Colvin, Mike Vrabel, Rodney Harrison and Richard Seymour, all mainstays of the team’s early 2000s heyday, either retire or get traded.
They once again spent their first two draft picks on the defense, with differing results (Patrick Chung good, Darius Butler bad). 2010 saw the additions of Devin McCourty, Brandon Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham, as well as the departures of two more long-time vets in Ty Warren and Jarvis Green.
The gradual change in defensive strategy was also influenced by the number of 3-4 teams that had sprung up among the league. Writers and talk show callers alike complained for years about Belichick’s seeming refusal to get younger at defense and specifically at linebacker.
However, the facts remained that 3-4 linebackers were hard to find and in high demand. Stud “elephant” pass rushers like DeMarcus Ware and Shawne Merrimen were snapped up quickly in the draft.
Likewise, it seemed unlikely that the Pats would find a player with the combination of size, strength and smarts they required later in the Draft. It eventually became apparent that it would be easier to find far-more-common 4-3 personnel than another Mike Vrabel or Tedy Bruschi.
Despite the efforts to add young, talented players, the defense remained a work in progress. 2011 saw a unit that was solid against the run but horrendous against the pass.
This resulted in their actions in the 2012 Draft. Long known for stockpiling draft picks, Belichick cashed in his chips this year, moving up twice in the first round to snag the aforementioned Jones and Hightower.
The scheme had gradually adjusted with the personnel, as the Patriots had transformed by this point from a primary 3-4 to 4-3 over the years.
However, they had lacked one final aspect to make said scheme work. They had few pass rushers capable of regularly winning one-on-one match-ups. Andre Carter had a productive season before his season-ending quadricep injury, an injury he doesn’t appear to have recovered from (if he was healthy he would’ve been on the field for someone on Sunday).
Mark Anderson had a deceptively high sack total that was fattened by garbage time pass rushing opportunities. New England was content to let Buffalo overpay a one-dimensional player.
The selection of Jones filled their pass rushing need. It also particularly stood out, as he is a player that the Pats wouldn’t have even considered drafting a few years ago. Listed at 6-5 and 265 pounds,
Jones is roughly 40-50 pounds lighter than the Richard Seymour prototype that Belichick once prized at defensive end. It’s unlikely he would be successful at merely occupying gaps against 300 pound linemen.
However, Jones excels at attacking upfield, using his athleticism and an impressive arsenal of pass rushing moves to defeat blockers one-on-one. Jones does an excellent job of using his long arms to keep opposing tackles at bay, preventing them from overpowering the undersized end.
Likewise, he has shown good discipline so far, rarely taking angles that take him out of the play. As a result, his ability to defeat blockers has made him an effective run defender too.
The Patriots' starting defense on opening day represented the completion of the rebuilding process.
Vince Wilfork, 30, is the oldest starter. After him, the longest-tenured starter is Mayo, who enters his fifth season. Mayo is joined by Hightower and Spikes, forming an imposing and instinctive all-SEC trio of linebackers with athleticism and physicality.
Buoyed by an impressive debut by Jones, the defensive line never allowed Locker the time to get comfortable and pick the secondary apart. Jermaine Cunningham excelled in his new situational role as an interior speed rusher, and the rotation of Kyle Love, Brandon Deaderick and Ron Brace consistently got a good upfield push next to the always reliable Wilfork.
The secondary made more plays on the ball. Rookie safety Tavon Wilson stood out with an acrobatic interception and a big hit to break up what would’ve been a big play down field to Nate Washington.
The result was impressive. The combination of upfield push and swarming linebackers held the Titans to 13 points and held Titans' star running back Chris Johnson to a paltry four yards on 11 carries (0.4 yards a carry).
Despite this, Patriots fans must remain cautiously optimistic. The defense allowed a ton of yards last season and allowed the Titans to make a few big plays in the passing game. They will also face offenses more potent than Tennessee’s. An injury (knock on wood) to a key player or two is always a threat to submarine progress.
However, the big takeaway from this is the Patriots finally have the combination of scheme and personnel to have a truly competitive defense in the modern passing era. Gone is the hold-your-gap, read-and-react power scheme. Waiting and reacting will get you killed against today’s passing offenses.
The Patriots now have a scheme that will attack the offense, forcing it to adjust to them. It is for that reason that this year’s team has the potential to be the best (and certainly most well-rounded) Patriots team since 2007.