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Hickok SportsThoughts

Sports historian and author Ralph Hickok of www.hickoksports.com sometimes meanders on about current happenings in sports and sometimes looks back in languor.

Friday, September 09, 2005

3-4, 4-3: Whatever Works for the Patriots

A lot has been written about the return of 3-4 defense to the NFL this season. The success of the New England Patriots has had a lot to do with it.
So it's ironic that the Patriots switched from the 3-4 to the 4-3 very early in last night's 30-20 victory over the Oakland Raiders.
On the game's first possession, Oakland embarked on a fairly easy 72-yard touchdown drive. Kerry Collins completed all four of his pass attempts, accounting for 63 yards. The Patriots had gone 36 consecutive games, including the post-season, without giving up a touchdown on the opposition's first drive.
The Patriots came right back with a field goal. Then they switched to the 4-3 and stuck with it for most of the game from then on.
Collins completed only 14 of 36 passes the rest of the way. He did throw for three touchdowns, but the 4-3 allowed the Pats to get a push up the middle that consistently bothered the Oakland quarterback and created the turnover that was really the game's turning point.
New England was clinging to a 17-14 lead with about six minutes left in the third quarter. The Raiders had a second-and-8 at their own 33. As Collins retreated to pass, Richard Seymour and Jarvis Green, the fourth down lineman, pressured him. Green hit Collins from the blind side just as he was about to throw the ball. It popped into the air and into the arms of another defensive lineman, Vince Wilfork, at the Oakland 20.
From there, it took the Patriots just three plays to score the touchdown that put them comfortably ahead to stay. They extended the lead to 30-14 in the fourth quarter before Oakland scored again.
It will be interesting to see how the Patriots play it the rest of the season. I doubt that the tactical change from the 3-4 to the 4-3 against Oakland represents a total strategic change. Like any team that uses the base 3-4, the Patriots have always had the 4-3 in their defensive mix and they've used it frequently in passing situations to get more pressure on the quarterback.
Bearing in mind that they've lost both of last year's inside linebackers, Tedy Bruschi and Ted Johnson, it well may be that they'll usie the 4-3 much more this season than they have in the past.
Coaching is a pragmatic profession and Bill Belichick is the most pragmatic of coaches. One big reason for the Patriots' remarkable success over the last three seasons is that Belichick, his staff, and his players have been able to figure out what will work for them in the course of a game.
Al Davis's slogan, "Just win, baby," has been transformed by Belichick into "Just make whatever adjustments it takes to win, baby."
Not quite as catchy, but it's proven pretty effective.