Commentary

Do Patriots' D-line moves signal shift?

Former Pat Ty Warren sees evidence of a move away from 3-4 defensive alignment

Updated: July 30, 2011, 5:08 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Defensive lineman Ty Warren has been with the Patriots since 2003, and this is the first time he's felt such a dramatic shift. The defense he has known was changing and he didn't see himself fitting.

So, no, he wasn't surprised by the team releasing him Friday. The bigger surprise was the schematic changes that were unfolding in meeting rooms and on the field.

[+] EnlargeTy Warren
AP Photo/Charles KrupaBetween what he heard in meeting rooms and the team's acquisition of Albert Haynesworth, Ty Warren says he sees the writing on the wall.

"I think it looks like they're trying to get away from the 3-4," Warren said of the base alignment that has been a Patriots staple since early in coach Bill Belichick's Patriots tenure.

"When I heard about the different defensive deals they're going to be doing, I didn't see me in that big picture of things, or at least not a huge role in that deal. Then there were the acquisitions they made [Albert Haynesworth], which made it even more [likely]."

Such a change, if that truly is Belichick's intention, would signal a major shift in core defensive philosophy. Instead of the base 3-4 alignment, which the Patriots used in 40 percent of their defensive snaps in 2010, they could line up in a more traditional four-man front with Haynesworth and Vince Wilfork in the middle. Good luck to the interior offensive line that has to deal with that duo.

Then the question would be who lines up at end?

On the current roster, second-year man Jermaine Cunningham would seem to be a natural fit at one spot, which would be a similar role to the one he played at the University of Florida. Veteran Eric Moore, a career 4-3 end who flashed late last season, also projects to that type of role.

But a shift to such a scheme opens new possibilities in free agency and beyond. Ends who might not have fit Belichick's 3-4 would suddenly be in play.

Such a scenario is intriguing, although in a note of caution, it's still early in training camp and it's possible Belichick is simply experimenting with different wrinkles, as he often has in the past. After all, the Patriots lined up in the 4-3 on only three of 1,056 defensive plays last season. Warren acknowledged he has seen the team work on different defenses over his eight seasons, although this time seems different.

"Before, it was more like, 'Let's try to do something different and if this doesn't work, we're going back to base.' Now it's more like, 'This is what we're doing,'" said Warren, who was due to earn a base salary of $3.1 million this season. "That's my whole outlook on the deal. You have to play to your personnel, too."

Haynesworth would be a big part of that, as his best seasons came with the Tennessee Titans as a 3-technique defensive tackle, lining up over the outside shoulder of the guard and powering ahead to create havoc in the offensive backfield. A more conservative two-gapping style, which is a trademark of the Patriots' 3-4, is not his forte.

At the least, it's something to ponder that perhaps Belichick spent his lockout offseason re-evaluating his belief in the 3-4 as a core philosophy. That would be typical Belichick, zigging while everyone else was zagging, going in the opposite direction as more and more NFL teams are now running the 3-4.

Given the proliferation of 3-4 defenses, Warren -- who started 92 of 105 games while with the Patriots but missed all of 2010 with a hip injury -- figures to land on his feet quickly, considering his on-field resume and standing as a positive locker room presence. He opened this year's training camp on the active/physically unable to perform list after his hamstring tightened during Wednesday's conditioning run, but it shouldn't keep him down long.

Looking back on his time with the Patriots, he said he leaves with no regrets after arriving as a first-round draft choice out of Texas A&M.

"I definitely enjoyed my time there, my teammates, the people that I've met. It's been great," he said. "At the end of the day, there comes a business side of it. You have to get in line. Everybody's time comes. I'm fine with that. I have a lot of football to play and I'm excited about what's to come.

"Based on from the time of the release to now, it looks like the future is pretty bright [in terms of interest]. I'm excited and happy for a fresh start."

If Warren is right, he won't be the only one with the fresh start. The Patriots' defense might be in the midst of one, too.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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