By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
Continuing our mid-season grades, it’s time to move on to the Patriots’ defense.
While the offensive issues have been somewhat unsurprising, the Patriots’ defense continues to be depleted due to opt outs and injuries. The result has been a unit that has fallen below expectations. But are things as bad as they seem?
Let’s go position-by-position to see where the Patriots have fallen off, and where things can get better in the second half.
Defensive Line: C-
Usually one of the most reliable groups on the roster, there’s been very little consistency up front for the Patriots defense this year. The team ranks 25th against the run through eight games, allowing 131 yards per game. They also rank 27th in the league in QB pressures, although their pressure rate (25.3 percent) ranks seventh.
Part of the problem is no one player has been able to get into a rhythm. Chase Winovich started the year strong, but was then benched. John Simon has historically been one of the team’s most steady players, but he’s struggled at times to set the edge.
Overall, it’s really been a balancing act by the coaching staff. Simon leads the team when it comes to defensive usage, playing just over 76-percent of the team’s snaps. Deatrich Wise is the second-most used lineman, on the field just 55 percent of the time. It’s been a constant rotation as the team searches for a combination that fits.
When it comes to the interior, the Patriots are still searching for a replacement for Danny Shelton, who left this offseason in free agency. It was supposed to be Beau Allen, but he got hurt before training camp and has already been ruled out for the rest of the season. They’ve tried using both Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler, but both of those players are more hybrid ends/tackles. Without a traditional nose tackle, the defensive scheme has been out of whack against the run.
Bill Belichick seemed to make an effort to change that over the past few weeks, bringing in Isaiah Mack via waivers and signing Carl Davis off the Jaguars practice squad. Between those two and UDFA rookie Bill Murray on the practice squad, the Patriots are hoping to find a solution to plug up the middle.
It’s really tough to grade the Patriots’ linebackers because none of them have really played.
Last year, the Patriots’ most-used linebackers were Kyle Van Noy (who played on 80.75 of downs), Jamie Collins (80.65 percent), and Dont’a Hightower (71.73 percent). Compare that to this season, and the position is nearly non-existent. Ja’Whaun Bentley leads the group in usage (75.90 percent) followed by Shilique Calhoun (43.34 percent) then Anfernee Jennings (23.89 percent).
Going into the season, it was apparent the Patriots were going to lighten the workload on their linebackers, putting more emphasis on the defensive backs. But the extent to which they’ve done so is a bit surprising. The extra box safety is a reliable formation against teams in passing situations, but either by down or by score, the Patriots defense hasn’t faced as many of those as expected.
Instead, they’ve struggled against the run and short passes between the hashes. Those are both areas where Dont’a Hightower was a major key. Through eight games, he’s appearing to be the most crucial of any of the Patriots’ opt outs.
The good news is there’s as much room for improvement here as there is at any other position on the Patriots roster. A lot of that has to do with the fact we just don’t know a ton about the options besides Bentley.
Anfernee Jennings was a regular contributor through the 49ers game, but has taken a step back the last two weeks. With the injury to Brandon Copeland, he should see the field more going forwards.
Second-round pick Josh Uche spent the beginning of the season on IR, before a light but promising debut against Buffalo. Like Jennings, he took a back seat against the Jets. Given the Patriots’ lack of depth at the position, it’s hard to think that’ll be a regular thing. I’d expect to see him on the field more down the stretch.
Then there’s second-year UDFA Terez Hall. Until last week, he had remained on the practice squad and hadn’t been on many people’s radar. But he got the promotion to replace Bentley in New York, and played pretty well. His 30 snaps (65 percent of the team’s total) seem to indicate that Belichick trusts him, and he could become a regular part of the defense, especially if the team suffers another injury.
This unit will be put right to the test to start the second half of the season, tasked with slowing down the dynamic Lamar Jackson. We’ll see what personnel adjustments, if any, are made for that game.
The Patriots cornerbacks were the team’s strongest positional room entering the year, and arguably the best group across the league. Statistically, they’ve been holding up allowing just 221 passing yards per game, which is ninth in the league. They’re also third in opponent air yards.
Week 3 against the Chiefs remains the high water mark of the season, as the Patriots defense as a whole held Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense to the fewest yards they gained in a single game in almost two years.
Since then, the group has had their struggles. Of course, they’ve had to play the last two games without their best player, Stephon Gilmore. After not missing any games despite a positive COVID test, Gilmore returned for after the bye before being sidelined with a knee injury.
In Gilmore’s absence, J.C. Jackson has been in the spotlight and made the most of the opportunity. Outside of one rough play Monday night against the Jets, he’s been among the best cornerbacks in football this season. Entering a restricted free agent year, he’s done a great job positioning himself.
Jonathan Jones continues to be reliable in the slot, and has started to shift to a bit of an outside roll as well. The three-year, $21 million contract he signed last fall is looking more and more team-friendly.
Jackson and Jones have stepped up into solidified second and third corner back roles (or first and second when Gilmore is out) with Jason McCourty’s role shifting. While he still plays some outside corner, the team has also flirted with using him as a center field safety, replacing Duron Harmon. As a result, McCourty has struggled at times this year.
With a less impactive pass rush in front of them and their best player in and out of the lineup, the Patriots secondary has really been put to the test in 2020. They’re holding up well given the circumstances, but we’ve yet to see them change games regularly the way they did last season. That ability is there, they just need to break through. Monday starts a stretch of what should be seven straight games against first-round quarterbacks (including two taken first overall), so they’ll be put to the test.
The Patriots entered the season needing to replace two of the three safeties that served as core parts of the defense for three Super Bowl wins. In the Patrick Chung, they lost a reliable box safety who was one of the smartest and most instinctual players on the defense. The team also traded Duron Harmon in March, the ‘closer’ and deep safety who played a key role late in games.
Chung opted out of the season, so it’s not like the Patriots had a chance to proactively fill his spot during the offseason. Yet they made moves as if they knew they wouldn’t have him, signing Adrian Phillips and drafting Kyle Dugger.
Phillips has, in some ways, been the great surprise of the defense through eight games. He’s filled in as both a linebacker and safety, allowing the Patriots to compensate for their lack of linebacker depth. The strategy has had mixed results, but it’s been mostly effective when teams throw the ball.
Second-round pick Kyle Dugger, and 2019 second-round pick Joejuan Williams, haven’t played much, but when they get on the field have done exactly what they were drafted to do – shut down tight ends. The Patriots have faced a number of the league’s top tight ends already, including Travis Kelce, Darren Waller, George Kittle, Greg Olsen, and Mike Gesicki.
Despite those opponents, the Patriots have allowed the fewest catches and fourth-fewest yards per game to opposing tight ends of any team in the NFL. That’s in large part due to Dugger and Williams, who have drawn those assignments in coverage.
As for the free safeties, or rather, free safety, Devin McCourty remains a staple of the Patriots’ defensive scheme. He remains the only player – on either side of the ball – to play 100 percent of his unit’s snaps. He’s even taken over the role of defensive communicator, wearing the green dot helmet.
The 33-year-old has multiple interceptions in a season for the sixth time in his career. He’s got two so far, and could probably have two more if not for drops in Kansas City and New York. For the last few years, the Patriots defense has run, on and off the field, through the trio of Hightower, Chung, and McCourty. With the first two out, McCourty has gone above and beyond picking up the slack, helping keep the defense somewhat steady through constant injuries and lineup juggling. He’s also served as a strong leader during a tough, tumultuous year.
Special Teams: A
Special teams is included with the defense because the Patriots’ best special teams player so far this year has essentially been an extension of the defensive unit. That, of course, is punter Jake Bailey.
Bailey had an impressive rookie year, but has taken his game to another level in year two. He’s second in the league in net yards per punt (45.7) as well as touchback-to-inside 20 ratio (13:1).
Given the team’s offensive struggles, field position has been key in every close game they’ve played. His ability to flip the field has helped the Patriots bend-don’t-break defense. Of course, it’s not just Bailey – gunners Matthew Slater and Justin Bethel have played a big part in the effort as well.
In the kicking name, Nick Folk has been as good as anyone could have hoped since the bye week. His last miss came in Week 3, and his season-long 51-yard game winner was a great way to cap off the first half. Obviously, the situation around fifth-round pick Justin Rohrwasser not making the main roster is a concern from a teambuilding point of view, but it’s not like they’ve suffered much because of him.
The only reason this unit didn’t receive an A+ is the return game, specifically on kickoffs. For some reason, the Patriots have been incredible aggressive running kicks out of the end zone this year, and thus far it hasn’t payed off. Of the 12 kicks they’ve taken out, they’ve failed to reach the 25-yard line on eight.
In total, they’ve cost themselves 26 yards of field position, or just over two yards a return. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a game of inches, especially for a team struggling to move the ball offensively.
Perhaps that’s why they’ve been so eager to make a splash. A big return would obviously be a spark plug for the offense, so perhaps Belichick has decided it’s worth starting a few yards inside the 25 on most drives to try and capture that moment.
Alex Barth is a writer and 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. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at Alexander.Barth@bbgi.com.