New England Patriots

By Matt McCarthy, 985TheSportsHub.com

Preseason performances should always been taken with a grain of salt, but it’s hard not to feel like the Patriots defense at least flashed a small sign of progress in their 37-20 win over the Eagles Thursday night.

The defense was suffocating at times. They held Nick Foles to 44 yards of 3-of-9 passing and sacked him three times. Where was that in February?

I’m not over it yet, can you tell?

The defensive line, a unit that is clearly improved on paper from last year’s group, looked strong in an eight-sack performance. Newcomer Adrian Clayborn was impactful, Deatrich Wise is showing signs of improvement in his second year, and 2017 third round pick Derek Rivers has been noticeable after tearing his ACL in camp last year.

Bill Belichick knew he had to improve his team’s play in the trenches and on the edge after Foles went untouched in the Super Bowl and the Eagles ran for 164 yards on 27 attempts. So far, so good.

Nick Foles of the Philadelphia Eagles reacts after a 1-yard touchdown reception against the New England Patriots Super Bowl LII. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Nick Foles of the Philadelphia Eagles reacts after a 1-yard touchdown reception against the New England Patriots Super Bowl LII. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Depth at linebacker remains a huge question after the injury-prone Dont’a Hightower, but it’s hard not to be impressed by rookie Ja’Whaun Bentley. The three-time captain at Purdue has flashed in both preseason games, including returning a fumble for a touchdown Thursday. Bentley spent most of his time against the Eagles working with the Pats top defensive unit, an indication that Belichick and the coaching staff believe Bentley could contribute in 2018.

If the Patriots are going to improve defensively this year, their play at linebacker will need to take a big step forward. Whether or not a fifth round pick like Bentley can be a catalyst for positive change remains to be seen, but there’s little doubt that he has been the most encouraging rookie halfway through the preseason.

Stephen Gilmore played 24 snaps and was targeted just once, a play that resulted in an incompletion. There’s a competition for the starter opposite Gilmore between Eric Rowe and Jason McCourty, and while neither are likely to make us forget about Ty Law or Darrelle Revis any time soon, plenty of other teams are likely in worse shape at that position than the Patriots are.

If the Patriots are going to get back to the Super Bowl and win it this year, the defense will have to be better than the unit that allowed 41 points to a backup quarterback on the biggest stage in football. Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all-time, but it’s unfair to ask him to win his sixth Lombardi alone. He needs help.

Thursday was the first positive sign that improvements are possible.

Now let’s see if those strides continue when it actually matters.

You can hear Matt McCarthy on various 98.5 The Sports Hub programs. Follow him on Twitter @MattMcCarthy985.