EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

May 11, 2013

Pats defense built in Belichick mold

Physical makeup harkens back to 2004, but can these guys play?

On Pro Football
Hector Longo

---- — FOXBORO — Like Greg Brady, playing out the role of Johnny Bravo back in 1974, your 2013 New England Patriots “fit the suit” — at least on defense.

Bill Belichick, the man with a bottom five rated defense over the last five years, has obviously seen enough.

If he is going down defensively, he’s going to do it his way. And his way is the way this franchise played defense back in the glory days of 2003-04, when the Patriots played a nasty, physical and at times complex 3-4.

New England dominated those seasons, going 14-2 in each and pummeling the opposition on the way to back-to-back Super Bowls.

There was little “Wild, wild West,” riding the arm of Tom Brady, and there was playmaking and effort and some hurting going on with his defense.

Super Bowl losses to the Giants in 2008 and again in 2012 have brought the coach back to his bread-and-butter. This past month’s draft was the third in a row in which Belichick looked to revamp his defense.

The transition looks to be complete, at least in the looks department.

Belichick now has to sort out who can play and who can’t.

As far as image and effort go this fall, this Patriots defense will look nothing like recent years, in which the Pats sat back in a passive 4-3 look and allowed teams to dictate.

New England will attack. It will get physical. This defense will make plays and make mistakes. Can they execute and limit the latter? That will ultimately tell whether the switch worked.

Belichick is making this move because he has to.

First, look at the offense. The release of Wes Welker was such a telling blow. The days of Tom Brady throwing 50 passes a game are over. This offense is, for the first time since Corey Dillon skipped town, a run-first attack.

Just look at the way New England has bulked up.

Gone is the 5-8 Welker at the slot receiver for a bigger, stronger version in 5-foot-11 Danny Amendola.

Little Danny Woodhead is history, too, with the top potential replacement for him coming in being 245-pound bruiser LeGarrette Blount from Tampa.

At receiver, 6-foot-3 Aaron Dobson, a second-round pick, and 6-footer Donald Jones, a free agent from Buffalo, will likely battle for a starting spot. And expect this team to keep four tight ends in Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Jake Ballard and Daniel Hoomanawanui, keeping three on the field much of the time.

The reason is the transition, from wide open to smash mouth, a strategy which Belichick has been so comfortable with over his career.

Nobody took more pride in Corey Dillon’s 1,600-yard Super Bowl season in ‘04. And you know the coach is attempting to think ahead.

Brady continues to age. Whether he sticks around long-term or this team replaces him with a kid like Ryan Mallett — say when Brady’s pay gets cut in half three years down the road — the burden on the QB has to be lessened.

That’s where a change in the defensive strategy makes sense, too. Belichick is going back in time, finding body types and athletes to fit the mold, guys who “fit the suit.”

Can they match that ‘04 group? Probably not. That was a pretty special group, which had potentially five NFL Hall of Famers in Ty Law, Rodney Harrison, Willie McGinest, Richard Seymour and Vince Wilfork; plus another handful of possible Patriots Place Hall of Famers in Tedy Bruschi, Ted Johnson and Mike Vrabel.

Belichick has invested heavily in the draft over the past 4-5 years to match it. If he can come remotely close — say watching this group move from the bottom to the middle of the NFL — it could translate to one more legit run at multiple titles.