Versatility is king
The Patriots would often run a 4–3 defense with elements of a 3–4, where one of the defensive ends will play standing up. Patricia’s general defensive draft strategy is to draft and sign players who can play multiple positions. We’ve seen this in action already with the team picking up Da’shawn Hand who can play multiple positions across the defensive line, as well as Tracy Walker who can line up at safety or corner. This way when they set their base defense they can find a spot for their most talented players regardless of if they run a 4–3, 3–4 or Nickel base package.
Matt Patricia’s philosophy when he was defensive coordinator for the Patriots defense was “Bend-don’t-break” and to value player’s versatility above anything else. The Patriots were much more likely to run a defensive scheme based on what players they had rather than forcing the players into a scheme they wouldn’t be comfortable with. In 2016, you will have seen almost entirely 4–3, whereas from 2012–2014 they lined up in a 3–4. It all depends on what players they had at any given time. The scheme relies on the opposing offensive team not getting big plays, thereby forcing the offense to put together drives with many plays for scores, and in the process increasing the likelihood for a turnover.
Some trademarks of a Patricia Defense
The Patriots would come out with six defensive backs on occasion. They’ll would also often run a 2–4–5 where they have two Defensive Tackles or 3–4 ends, four 3–4 style linebackers, and five Nickel-style defensive backs. The key here is versatility, keeping the offense guessing. However one constant is that there is almost always a designated pass rusher coming off the edge on the quarterback’s throwing hand (Chandler Jones played this role during his time in New England and I believe Devon Kennard will be the designated player for this role in Detroit).
The Patriots would frequently take a player who is supposed to blitz on a play and purposely audible that player to range freely in coverage. Because that player never had a zone or man responsibility, they can make plays in space and use their football instincts more freely. This is where I can imagine Jalen Reeves-Maybin coming into his own. He has the athletic ability to come screaming off the edge to put the quarterback under pressure quickly or drop into coverage and use his instincts to decide what to do. He can also have a hot read to either spy the quarterback or play man coverage against a running back or tight end to surprise the defense. They might even have one guy playing man defense while the 10 other players on defense play zone.
Speed, speed and more speed
However there is one things Patricia values very highly, that is speed. Speed is critical to making the bend-not-break defense succeed because you can’t get beat deep or it doesn’t work. As such I can imagine Agnew will be used in a wide variety of situations this coming season due to his incredible speed.
It’s a hard one to evaluate as there are so many nuances to Patricia’s style of game that you can’t really pin down what direction he is going with things, even he doesn’t say what way he will go. All he states is that the Lions will try and abuse as many mismatches as they can which leads me to believe they will be running a mixture of schemes throughout the year.