The New England Patriots signed veteran linebacker James Anderson on Wednesday, and to get a better feel for Anderson's style of play, three games at different points of the 2013 season were dissected as part of a film study.
Games: Week 1 versus Bengals (24-21 win); Week 7 at Redskins (45-41 loss); Week 17 versus Packers (33-28 loss).
Alignment/usage: The Bears run a 4-3 defense and Anderson, as one would expect, was mostly utilized in an off-the-line role. He started all 16 games and stayed on the field in the nickel defense, while coming off in the dime. The Bears would occasionally blitz him, usually on third down by lining him up directly over the center in a two-point stance. Anderson also aligned at the end of the line of scrimmage a handful of times, where he'd either rush or attempt to set a hard edge in the running game. Occasionally he'd also split out wide in coverage on a running back or receiver.
Pass coverage a strength: Anderson matched up against tight ends, receivers and running backs and mostly held his own. The first defensive play of the season seemed to reflect his solid feel for the passing game, as he aligned on the weak side of the formation, stayed home as there was play-action to the opposite side, and then was in position to quickly bring down tight end Tyler Eifert who had come in motion to his side to catch a short pass while headed toward the sideline. We saw Anderson later break up a pass to receiver Mohamed Sanu on third-and-5, and also drop out of an A-gap blitz look into a short zone and almost intercept a pass intended for receiver Marvin Jones on a slant. He consistently showed an ability to open his hips and carry a tight end down the field as he still runs well. In the season finale, Anderson's ability to drop deep in middle coverage made a potential touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers to Jordy Nelson a tougher throw than it would have been otherwise (it was thrown too high and was incomplete). Overall, Anderson seemed more effective playing backwards than towards the line of scrimmage, with a little bit of a knack for dropping out of a blitz look and making a play as a pass defender. The biggest knock on Anderson in the passing game was a mental error we saw in the season finale as he failed to scoop up a loose football on what initially appeared to be an incomplete pass (the ball slipping out of Rodgers' hand) but was actually a fumble that the Packers advanced for a touchdown.
Not a stack-and-shed linebacker: At 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds, Anderson is not in the mold of the traditional Patriots-type stack-and-shed linebacker. He's at the opposite end of the spectrum from a downhill thumper like Brandon Spikes as he didn't consistently defeat blocks in the running game, whether matched up against fullbacks, tight ends or offensive tackles. That said, it's not for a lack of effort -- he drew a holding penalty on Redskins full back Darrel Young and set a solid edge against Bengals Eifert on a BenJarvus Green-Ellis minus-4-yard run -- and he's a sound tackler when the play is in front of him. But overall, he's going to win more with instincts and quickness than power and physicality.
Projecting Anderson's role with Patriots: Unlike the Bears, who struggled on defense in 2013, the Patriots almost certainly won't be calling on Anderson for full-time duties should he make the roster. So he adds depth and his coverage skills could be tapped in a variety of ways based on each week's defensive game-plan, most likely in sub packages (which the Patriots were in 67 percent of the time last year). In that sense, Anderson's signing reminds me a little bit of the Patriots and another former Chicago Bear -- defensive end Mark Anderson (2011). The Patriots used Mark Anderson solely as a nickel rusher and got the best out of him with that less-is-more approach. The same could hold true with James Anderson, who could be a solid addition as a fourth or fifth linebacker.