By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Patriots’ improved defense has carried over from training camp to the regular season. For one week, anyway. And it’s due in part to the quick rise of impressive rookie linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley.
It’s rare for Bill Belichick to trust a player this much in his first NFL action. We’ll see how Bentley’s snap count looks on Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars, but through one week he’s played more than any Patriots front-seven player. He got 51 snaps against the Houston Texans, one more than Dont’a Hightower and Trey Flowers.
What led Belichick to give Bentley such a big workload so soon, at such a complicated position?
“Well, all the players that play earn the playing time that they get,” said Belichick during his Monday conference call after the game. “So, that’s up to them. Again, it’s the first game and, again, he did a lot of good things out there. There are some things that we talked about during the game, some things he’ll improve in. So, we just need to keep working as a team and individually, collectively, to try to get better in every area. We have a long way to go.”
Despite describing himself as a thumper in the run game coming out of the draft, Bentley has turned heads with his play against the pass. He was used prominently in passing situations against Houston, and also sstarted in their base 3-3-5 Nickel defense. Sometimes he was their only linebacker on the field when the Patriots ran “Big Dime”, mixing him in with four linemen, three safeties, and three corners.
Belichick was asked again on Wednesday about what he sees in Bentley to make him such a significant piece of the defense as a rookie. Again, no shock from the head coach.
“He’s done it every day,” said Belichick. “But that’s what he’s done his whole career in football. It’s not that big of a surprise to me.”
Bentley could again prove very valuable for Belichick on Sunday against the Jaguars. They like to throw to running back T.J. Yeldon, and if Leonard Fournette can play he could get some targets too. The rookie figures to see a lot of them, based on how he was used against the Texans.
Bentley consistently covered Lamar Miller well last Sunday, taking a security blanket away from Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson. Miller was limited to one catch on two targets as a receiver. You can see on this third-and-6 play that No. 51 has Miller blanketed, closing quickly after starting in the middle of the field. He forced Watson to go elsewhere and make an errant throw.
Even if running back coverage is the main thing Bentley brings to the table, he excelled at it in his NFL debut. That’s an area where the defense struggled late last season, and crumbled in the Super Bowl. Belichick prioritized defending running backs in the passing game over the summer, and Bentley looks like the team’s best option for that.
It wasn’t a perfect afternoon against the Texans for Bentley, who was targeted in a mismatch against slot receiver Bruce Ellington on a late touchdown. The points ended up effectively being in garbage time. But his coverage against players other than running back will surely be among the things Belichick wants to see improve.
Still, it looks like the Patriots have found a draft steal. Even with some regression, Bentley is already proving his value as an NFL player after being drafted in the fifth round (143rd overall) in the 2018 draft. The Patriots traded their third-round pick to the 49ers for tackle Trent Brown and the selection they used on Bentley, so that deal is looking pretty good right now.
Belichick sounds like he knew what he was getting when he drafted Bentley, a three-year captain during his time at Purdue. It’s incredible that he’s been asked multiple times about the surprising amount of trust he’s shown in the rookie, and he’s basically said “Well yeah, you seen this kid?”
The head coach is as impressed as anyone with what he’s seen from Bentley. That’s why we’re already seeing so much of him. But Belichick couldn’t be less surprised.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.