By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Don't let the weak competition sway you: the 2019 Patriots defense is really, really good. All the way down to the inactives.
The unit is dealing at an otherworldly level, and hasn't even done it with a full deck. They've played without key pieces, cycled valuable players in and out of the active roster, and supported each other with in-game substitutions. And yet the result has been consistent domination: zero offensive touchdowns, three total points allowed so far.
The machine isn't always this well-oiled. It's hard to find a spot on the 2019 defense to exploit, not even the backups. They play multiple roles and they're prepared for every situation. It's the same principle that led Malcolm Butler to make that interception, and it's allowed them to strangle opponents with a slightly different group each week.
Take the season opener. Linebacker Kyle Van Noy, one of the Patriots' best and most important defensive players, had to miss the game against the Steelers to see the birth of his child. But the Patriots did just fine without him in their 33-3 win, thanks to their depth and versatility. Unsurprisingly, head coach Bill Belichick had others prepared to pick up the slack.
"We practice really a lot of players so we're in there in different combinations in practice and fortunately, or unfortunately, if we end up with a situation where somebody's unavailable for the game, then in a lot of cases those rotations have already occurred on the practice field," Belichick said in a conference call on Tuesday. "Like in Kyle [Van Noy's] case, of course he would've been active for the game and he would've had a major role in the game, but John [Simon], and Jamie [Collins Sr.], and Shilique Calhoun, and [Chase] Winovich – those guys – they were all working there anyway, so the adjustment for those guys is really not that big."
Calhoun got the most notable bump in playing time with 55 snaps, mostly replacing Van Noy's role on the edge. The former Raiders edge rusher finished with a QB hit, hurry, and tackle assist in his Patriots debut. Collins, Simon, and Winovich combined for another nine tackles, while Simon broke up a pass at the line of scrimmage.
Third-year defensive end Deatrich Wise also made his presence felt against the the Steelers when he strip-sacked Ben Roethlisberger, a play that could have been massive in a more competitive game. Against the Jets last Sunday, Wise hit QB Luke Falk twice and made a solo tackle.
Week 2 in Miami? Healthy scratch. Van Noy had to replace someone, and Wise was essentially the odd man out. All the Patriots did was rack up seven sacks, 12 QB hits, four interceptions, and 12 pass breakups in a 43-0 shutout. That's what happens when every piece of a dominating defense takes every opponent seriously, even a tanking Dolphins team.
"It’s a testament to our hard work, day in and day out," Wise told 985TheSportsHub.com. "It’s a big testament to our defensive coaches - [inside linebackers] coach [Jerod] Mayo, [defensive line] coach Bret [Bielema], coach D.C. [outside linebackers coach DeMarcus Covington], [safeties] coach Steve [Belichick] - coming together to put in game plans and putting people in the right positions to make plays.
"We never underestimate or overestimate anybody we go against. We treat everybody by what they show on the field. If we see that someone’s good, we highlight it and we just try to affect the quarterback at any given time."
The Patriots' defensive depth also helped them lean on each other to survive the intense heat and humidity in Miami. They won't let the guys on the field beat them, so why would the weather crack this group? Not a defense that is this locked in.
"You know, you go down to Miami and it’s like 100 degrees out there, and then Sunday it was another hot one," said McCourty. "Guys just staying fresh, saying, 'Hey, you got me on this series, you go this time.' I think we all as players, and then the coaches, have tremendous amount of trust in each guy that sits in those defensive meetings – if you need to go in and your number’s called, that we can, for one, run all of the same defenses we’ve been running. We don’t have to adjust anything.
"We have guys that can play in so many different positions, whether that’s a linebacker-type role, in the secondary, on the line. Within a game and within practice, we have guys kind of playing all over, to the point that we have to sometimes remind each other, like, 'Hey, you’re here this time,' 'I’m here,' just to make sure we get all of our communication. And it’s tough, though, but that’s some of the hard work we’ve been putting in that we’ve got to continue to do if we want to do those things well."
The depth has made these defensive performances look easy, but Belichick doesn't necessarily have a perfect replacement for everyone. All the more reason to marvel at what they've accomplished with so many moving parts.
"I think it's a little bit challenging defensively when you have several different packages, an early down package and a couple of different third down packages, sometimes the same player doesn't always replace him in all of those situations," said Belichick. "Depending on who the player is and what the game plan is, that could get a little more challenging. But, overall, our depth is good. Those guys get a lot of work in practice and they're somewhat interchangeable."
It's rare to have this much interchangeable talent working in concert. And the talent on the Patriots defense is as evident at the bottom of the roster as it is at the top.
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 [email protected].