By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Patriots' defensive renaissance is certainly born of talent, but three other qualities have keyed the resurgence: experience, intelligence, and versatility.
In safety Adrian Phillips, they've found a perfect fit. When the Patriots take on the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday night, Phillips will likely play a key role in containing quarterback Russell Wilson both through the air and on the ground. Fortunately, Phillips seems to have picked things up quickly.
Bill Belichick spent years studying Phillips when he and the Patriots prepared for the Chargers. Watching the veteran safety helped him figure out what he was trying to figure out, how he was diagnosing offensive plays. When opposing offenses are constantly mixing up their formations and personnel packages, or adding wrinkles to the same play, it helps to have defenders like Phillips who can switch up their responsibilities. Belichick sounds happy to now share a sideline with him.
"He's a smart player, he's tough, he's physical, he runs well and he tackles well and plays really within the defense, plays a smart game," Belichick said in a recent video conference. "Glad we have him and he's working well with our other linemen, linebackers and specifically defensive backs, which is where he works the most. But, when he's around the line of scrimmage, he has to have a good feel for what those other guys are doing, too. He's shown the ability to play near the line and not near the line, so it just kind of depends on what they're in and what we're trying to do."
In the absence of Patrick Chung, who opted out of the 2020 season, Phillips has taken full advantage of playing a similar role. He led the Patriots last Sunday with nine tackles and made an interception, but thought he could've done even better in his first chance for live contact. He speaks like a player who has already assimilated well into the Patriots' culture of communication and accountability.
"It wasn't flawless like I wanted to be. I had a couple mishaps that I wish I could have back," said Phillips on his Patriots debut. "But overall, I think I think it went pretty well. You know, during training camp we were focusing on tackling a lot. That was a big emphasis, because we didn't have those four preseason games. So we had to find a time to get it in. And we went about it the right way and made sure that we were smart with it.
"But the game is always like - the tempo might just be a little faster because you've actually got to take guys to the ground. Players are running a little harder because they're fighting for every inch now, because it matters. And I think our first showing was great, and you can see that from our defense. And, you know, there's always going to be some mishaps in the game. But overall, I think we did great transferring from practice to the game."
Teammates love what they've seen - and heard. Phillips and defensive captain Devin McCourty have spent a lot of time talking X's and O's, which has helped them gel when they actually take the field.
"I think anytime you add a veteran, obviously with his versatility and what he can do on the field, but then when you get to pick his brain and learn from him and the things he's done," says McCourty, "I think that's really started this show last week and this week when we were talking about game-planning and he starts talking about if he played a team more than we played a team in his career, just some of the things he's seen over the years and the tape, and then from just his experience of watching the tape this year, has been really good.
"I think we've added another really smart guy to our secondary who really understands the game of football."
Fellow captain Ja'Whaun Bentley plays a different position - kind of. Phillips is able to contribute as a hybrid linebacker at times. But wherever Phillips is on the field, Bentley feels more comfortable in his newly increased role with a savvy group of defensive backs communicating at a high level behind him.
"It speaks highly of those guys, just because of the amount of different positions they can play and the versatility you have, so it allows us to do a lot of different things on defense," Bentley said. "So as far as those guys ... as you can tell, it's a big deal. It's great for us to have, especially with the experience behind it."
Phillips' tackling, versatility, and and instincts will be crucial on Sunday against the Seahawks, when the Patriots secondary gets one of their biggest tests of the season against Wilson and his stable of pass-catchers. But it's also one of the biggest tests of the season for Wilson, who faced minimal resistance against the Atlanta Falcons last Sunday.
"As you watch the film, people get to Russ, and they have a shot - makes them miss," said McCourty. "I think that's what we talked about this week, just trying to make sure we wrap up and trying to get as many guys there when he is moving around and making plays."
One of the league's elite passing games may still be able to produce, but the Patriots will give them much less room to operate. Phillips is going to be a big piece of that, and he will be in the future against other dual-threat quarterbacks.
Devin Asiasi's chance to shine?
Pete Carroll's defense is no secret to the Patriots. Belichick and Josh McDaniels have long found ways to move the ball and score against the Cover-3 scheme that the Seahawks employ. They've dismantled the same systems as run by the Falcons' Dan Quinn and the Chargers' Gus Bradley.
One way the Patriots could beat the single-high safety is to hit the tight ends up the seam. There's no Rob Gronkowski to execute that anymore, but it's not Earl Thomas back there anymore, either. This could be a chance for Patriots rookie tight end Devin Asiasi to have his "coming out party" in the second game of his career.
Asiasi played 10 snaps in his NFL debut last Sunday - six of them as a run-blocker. It's promising that the Patriots have confidence in Asiasi in that role so early, but his downfield receiving ability is what really made him an attractive draft prospect.
It'll be fascinating to see if the Patriots try to attack the Seahawks with the tight ends in the passing game, and how much Asiasi factors into that.
Byron Cowart finds his 'groove'
One of the bigger questions for the 2020 Patriots defense was how they would improve up front against heavy fronts and dynamic rushing attacks. Chase Winovich showed up as an important piece of that improvement against the Dolphins last Sunday. So did second-year defensive tackle Byron Cowart, who started and registered a pair of tackles as a stout presence on the interior.
Despite Jordan Howard punching in a touchdown from the 1-yard line, Cowart and others contributed to the big back gaining just seven yards on eight carries.
Cowart is happy to have those first-start jitters out of the way. And in a very Patriot-like mindset, he's focused on improving wherever he can.
"Just learning from my vets, with Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, Deatrich [Wise]," Cowart said Friday. "Just learning and watching those guys, how they play. Quick start. Things that they do in the game, I feel like I can get better with experience. So just things like that, being more consistent, more ‘vetted’ as you may say. So that’s what I’m trying to work on, just like getting more into my groove."
Onwenu reacts to surprising debut
One of the most pleasant surprises last Sunday was rookie offensive lineman Mike Onwenu, who played right guard in college but came out of nowhere to play right tackle and tight end against the Dolphins. We'll see if Onwenu ever gets that surprise target in the passing game, but we won't get ahead of ourselves.
Like Cowart on the defensive side of the ball, Onwenu has the right mentality after an auspicious debut. The key is to build upon the positives, correct the negatives, and see a net improvement. So it may actually help for Onwenu to be hard on himself.
“Um, personally I did OK. There’s always room for improvement," Onwenu said. "So you know, watching the film, and watching the tape, you know, I’m always [looking] at my technique, there’s always stuff I can improve, whether it’s as an extra lineman or at right tackle.”
Onwenu's coachability and versatility allowed the Patriots to run their new-look offense with Cam Newton efficiently. The Patriots may have a real find with the fifth-round pick out of Michigan.
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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? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff or send him a nasty email at [email protected].