EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

August 3, 2011

Mayo, Spikes, Chung hold key on new-look Pats' 'D'

On Pro Football
Hector Longo

FOXBORO — Bill Belichick remains ahead of the defensive curve.

So when I hear the talk that the Patriots will be a 4-3 team now with the addition of Albert Haynesworth, I chuckle.

There's no way, in this era of juiced-up arena ball, with spread formations and multi-receiver sets, that the Patriots will ever revert to a 4-3, a slow, bulky, 1970s era 4-3.

If Belichick tries the even fronts with Vince Wilfork and Haynesworth side by side, as has been reported already, bet your bottom dollar that the coach is heading toward some kind of nickel (five defensive backs) combination set.

This defense, unreliable at best and exploited when it mattered most in 2010, remains in dire need of impact players.

My guess here is that Belichick has three athletes in mind to make that impact.

For this defense to work, the coach needs breakout years, not from the big fatties up front or the guys on the outside.

Who's got the strength up the middle? Can Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Pat Chung make that next step?

If each does, Belichick might have something.

First, there is Mayo, who will probably play on the weak side of the formation, in what I will guess will ultimately morph into a 2-linebacker, 5-defensive back set.

Mayo's 100 tackles have to be around the line of scrimmage.

Not that he had an excuse, toiling behind the monster Wilfork in the 3-4, but now his protection has doubled with the equally immense Haynesworth in town.

He simply has to play downhill on the run, going sideline to sideline, and chasing down the football, be it on the ground or in the air.

Spikes could slide into a more traditional middle backer role as he played at Florida.

The kid, who will again most likely sub out on third down as he did last year for Gary Guyton, plugged the tackle-to-tackle run as well as anyone on this defense a year ago.

He got hurt in two places, at the edge and in the passing game.

That's where the addition of Chung in a hybrid spot, half safety/half linebacker, changes things. Expect Belichick to relieve Chung of pass responsibilities, at least on first and second down, and let him play and attack.

On third down, he could cover or rush, again in this scheme, leaving teams to have to account for Chung at all times.

Let's be certain, folks. Belichick is still well ahead of the defensive curve. He has seen the "spread" sets engulf the college game.

He's helped leak it on the pro level, thanks to the presence of Tom Brady. And he, I'm guessing, is about to start another trend in the pro game as this team innovates.

Shine the Light

Matt Light, wearing the smile of an athlete who had just picked up a fresh two-year deal, was in the stadium, awaiting clearance to begin practicing today.

Light enters camp still as the incumbent at left tackle in his eyes and most likely will keep that status for a while as rookie top pick Nate Solder remains unsigned.

"When he signs, he'll be here, so whenever he gets here, he'll be here," was pretty much all Nick Caserio would have to say about Solder.

Light, meanwhile, says he'll attack this camp like every other.

"I'm pretty certain there's always been a guy right there chomping on my heels. But again like I said, the competition is what drives everybody," said Light, not sounding like man ready to give up his post. "It's going to be a lot of competition up front on the offensive line and like always the guys that go out there and perform the best are the ones that are on the field so you have to make it happen."

Light looks like a man who stayed in shape, in case he had to shop his wares elsewhere. He noted that he had kept busy with a big group of Patriots players, working out together in spite of the lockout.

"I think being away from it, not being around the guys, not being able to enjoy an offseason program like we do around here, for a lot of guys, in our locker room at least, it was painful," said Light. "To be able to come back here and be a part of this organization, we're all fired up for this one."

Rules and refs

A trio of NFL officials were in town, explaining the changes in the rules and the new emphasis the league has, plus work into shape at the camp.

The league will again crack down on any helmet hits to the head or neck area against a defenseless opponent.

And "launching," that is with both feet off the round, will not be allowed.

There has been work to clean up the verbiage surrounding possession and catching the football.

Incredibly, the league is standing by the call that Calvin Johnson's "non-catch" in the end zone last year - the one where he dropped the ball as he tried to rise up from the turf - will again be considered an incompletion.

Surely, that decision will be scrutinized.

And the one biggest rule change of them all?

Every touchdown play will be reviewed, by the booth with no coach's challenge needed.

Two thoughts on that decision:

1. There will be post-TD delays as the crews look at each TD and get confirmation from the booth.

2. Expect crews to make mistakes on the "touchdown" side as opposed to the "no touchdown" side. Why? It's simple. A "no touchdown" call will force a coaches challenge to get a fair review. A "touchdown" call will simply force a booth review and won't cost teams challenges or timeouts.