- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It was last July, and Bill Belichick was answering a question about life in the modern-day NFL when he said, "Everything is changing. Bob Dylan talked about that a few years ago."
Belichick, who cracked a smile when he delivered that line, could have said the same thing Saturday night following the conclusion of the 2012 NFL draft because the Patriots' approach is best summed up this way: The Times They are a-Changin'.
The New England Patriots' defense is undergoing a transformation of sorts. Or perhaps better said, the way Belichick views defense is shifting, and in turn, that has altered the value of certain prospects in the team's system.
In the past, more focus was placed on the base 3-4 defense. Belichick has almost always had a stout 3-4, with powerful, hold-the-fort linemen in the 300-pound range whose primary job was to build a wall at the line of scrimmage. Bigger, physical linebackers played behind them.
It wasn't the fastest defense, but it had size, played physically, and was fundamentally sound in its run fits and assignments.
This defense still exists; it's just that we're seeing less and less of it. And this is where Belichick has come around to a new way of thinking on what is needed in New England.
He still has the parts to execute the 3-4, but by infusing the roster with a wave of defenders in the 250- to 270-pound range -- headlined by 2012 first-round picks Chandler Jones (6-foot-5, 266) and Dont'a Hightower (6-2, 265) and third-rounder Jake Bequette (6-4, 274) -- he's improved the unit's speed and athleticism in passing situations. That's been a trouble spot each of the past two seasons.
"Generally speaking, the bigger they are, the slower they run," Belichick said. "In that 250-275ish range, depending on the actual individual, is where you usually get those [40-yard dash] times under 5 seconds -- 4.9, 4.85, 4.8, whatever it is. That speed and quickness with a little lower weight in passing situations usually make those guys a little more active and gives them a little more speed, generally speaking.
"Not that you don't need inside guys to push and power rush and stuff like that, but those guys have that advantage. We have a lot of big guys on our team.
"It seems like every year, the game is getting a little more spread out for us," Belichick continued. "We're in nickel defense more and more every year -- over 50 percent last year. Some of that is being ahead; some of that is teams in our division. Buffalo, you're pretty much in nickel all day against them. That's two games. It's a high percentage of our defense, so that's part of the reason we feel like we need that. It's hard to be in our base defense as much as we were in the past."
What it all means is that the chess master has altered his game, adding new pieces to his arsenal. His focus is more than ever on the sub packages, which have struggled in recent years, especially on third down (28th in the NFL in 2011, 32nd in 2010).
Some might say it's a year late when thinking back to the 2011 draft and how the club selected just one defender in the first five rounds. But few could argue with Belichick's decisiveness this time around, as six of the team's seven picks over the past three days were defensive.
The Patriots aren't alone with such a heavy focus on the sub defense. Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers is in the same category, as his unit has taken a similar sub-based approach.
"The game's changed, and you have to have those elements within your package," he said. "But the percentages are going to be based a lot on who you're playing against. ...
"We play the Detroit Lions twice, and you can count, it's just a handful of your base defense that you're going to play against them because they're in a three-wide receiver set. And when they aren't in a three-wide receiver set, their second tight end is like a receiver and they run the same package. You aren't going to be playing your base defense, and that's two games in our division.
"You could go on to say, we opened with the New Orleans Saints here last year and we did not play one snap of our base defense because of the style of play that they play, because they're always looking for matchups."
Belichick likes the matchups, too. Now his hope is that his defense can come up with better ones. He has a lot of options to consider.
"I do think that with some of the players we've added on the defensive side of the ball, guys have different skills and maybe they will be able to do some different things for us," he said. "On paper, I think there's some possibilities for that."
More possibilities than ever before, in fact.
Yes, The Times They are a-Changin'.
8hEric D. Williams