By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
While the Patriots’ offensive struggles were out in the open in 2020, the issues on defense were a bit more complex. The defensive side of the ball lost more when it came to opt outs, and spent most of the first half of the season trying out different personnel groupings.
The result was an up-and-down year, with strengths and issues that showed up one week and disappeared the next. Still, the Patriots finished with the seventh-best scoring defense, their fifth-straight year in the top 10 in that category.
Why was that? Who was able to separate themselves from the chaos and turn in a productive season? Here’s the best and the worst of the Patriots’ defense in 2020.
Defensive Line: C-
The most consistent thing about the Patriots’ defensive line in 2020 was the inconsistency. Constant injuries and lineup rotations didn’t help, but the group never really found their footing this season.
Right away, there were issues in terms of personnel up front. Beau Allen, who was one of the team’s top free agent signings, wasn’t ready to start training camp and ended up missing the whole year. Brought in to replace Danny Shelton, the Patriots instead spent a good chunk of the year trying to replace Allen.
Practice squadder Nick Thurman was serviceable at times, while waiver claims Isaiah Mack and Carl Davis were someone better, but seemingly always hurt. The Patriots also tried moving Lawrence Guy into the middle, but without true nose tackle size, he found himself outmatched at times.
On the edge, Chase Winovich, Deatrich Wise, and John Simon had trouble in contain in both the run and passing game. With teams running the ball more than ever against the Patriots, and few (or sometimes no) true linebackers behind them, this group had to set the edge themselves.
Winovich’s season was up-and-down, highlighted by his near-benching for most of October. He showed much improvement as a pass rusher, but will need to be more disciplined and stronger against the run to become a three-down player. Wise quietly put together a solid year, while the 30-year-old Simon saw a dip in production.
Yet for all their struggles, this group had some serious high points in 2020. They held Baltimore’s elite rushing attack to just 115 yards in the Week 10 upset over the Ravens. Two weeks later, a goal line stand heading into halftime sparked a win over the Arizona Cardinals.
When they were mostly healthy, the defensive line was able to impact games at times this past season. Unfortunately, those opportunities proved to be few and far between.
(Midseason Grade: C-)
Like the wide receivers, this grade is due more to the promise the group showed as opposed to the actual results.
Halfway through the season, it was impossible to tell exactly what the Patriots had at linebacker. Ja’Whaun Bentley’s 75-percent usage rate was almost double the next closest player at the position. Anfernee Jennings was still in a reserve role, Josh Uche had just come off IR, and Terez Hall had just played his first NFL game.
With Bentley and Shilique Calhoun getting banged up in the second half though, the young group of Patriots linebackers was finally able to show what they’re capable of. Uche proved to be at the top of the group, thanks in part to his versatility. The Patriots deployed him as a MIKE linebacker at times, due to thinning depth at the position. However, the 2020 second-round pick mostly played on the edge, and was able to get into the backfield on a regular basis.
Although Uche saw some snaps in the middle of the defense, that role mostly went to Hall when Bentley wasn’t in the game. The second-year UDFA, who spent his entire first season on the practice squad, certainly looked raw at times. However, he was constantly around the ball, and showed a knack for laying the lumber on running backs between the tackles. He’ll be one of the more interesting players to watch in training camp next summer, to see how big his third-year jump is and how much his role grows.
Jennings was a step behind the other two first-year linebackers, but he did show glimpses while contributing solidly on special teams.
At the end of the day, the production from this unit wasn’t ideal, especially against the run. They missed opt out Dont’a Hightower throughout the year, and at times were forced to rely on an almost-exclusively first-year cast at a position where experience is crucial. That led to unavoidable growing pains, but in what was likely a “growing” year for the team overall, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
(Midseason grade: Incomplete)
Don’t let their drop off from 2019 fool you, the Patriots corners were still very good in 2020. Their level of play in 2019 was so good it was borderline unsustainable, especially for Stephon Gilmore. Combine that with a much less efficient pass rush, and there was bound to be a step back. Still, the Patriots defense allowed the eighth-fewest passing yards on the season.
Although he started slow and missed time with injury, Gilmore was once again one of the best cornerbacks in football. His best stretch came in mid-to-late November, when he held Will Fuller, DeAndre Hopkins, and Keenan Allen all relatively in check for three straight weeks.
The real story though was J.C. Jackson, who in this third season in the NFL began to look like a true number one cornerback. His nine interceptions were a career-high, and the second-most in the NFL. While struggles against elite receivers (Stefon Diggs) showed he’s not a true replacement for Gilmore (at least not yet) he certainly helped himself out entering a restricted free agency year.
Due to their constant use of six and even seven defensive backs, and Gilmore’s injuries the Patriots’ third and fourth corners saw plenty of time as well. Jonathan Jones had the fourth-highest usage rate of any defensive player. He turned in yet another solid season, and continues to make the three-year, $21 million contract he signed heading into 2019 look like one of the best extensions Belichick has given out in recent history.
Jason McCourty served as the number two corner early in the year, but with no second free safety on the roster, he ended up playing deep next to his brother Devin at times in Duron Harmon’s old role. If he returns in 2021, that could become a more regular role for him.
The Patriots also got solid contributions down the stretch from rookie UDFA Myles Bryant. Although his season hardly ended on a high note, he looks like he could provide value as a reserve cornerback/safety hybrid down the road.
(Midseason grade: B)
With the Patriots being light on linebackers in 2020, the safety position was asked to pick up the slack. Those responsibilities mainly fell on a pair of players – Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger.
Phillips’ first year in the system included learning an almost entirely new role – he was essentially the Patriots’ second middle linebacker for most of the season. Not only did he have to worry about playing a new position, but he was at times the one veteran member of an incredibly young defensive front, and tasked with leading the communication.
Still, he managed to put together a productive season, leading the team with 109 tackles. He was also one of only three defensive players to start all 16 games (Devin McCourty, John Simon).
While Phillips moved around plenty, the most versatile safety of the year was the rookie, Kyle Dugger. The Patriots used him as a deep safety, box safety, slot cornerback, and even linebacker. Dugger mentioned throughout the year that he was being put in a number of roles he’d never played before. However, the coaches seemed blown away by his ability to pick up new concepts, hence the trust.
Dugger was most impressive up near the line of scrimmage, where he showed to be a thumper in both the running game and as a pass rusher. That surprised many, given Dugger was primarily used as a deep safety in college.
Manning the back end was Devin McCourty, who nearly played the entire season wire-to-wire. Without Dont’a Hightower or Patrick Chung, he was the leader of the defense in 2020, and unsurprisingly was able to handle all of the extra responsibility.
Despite being one of the oldest players on the roster, McCourty played the most snaps of anybody on the Patriots defense, including 12 games where he didn’t miss a snap. As much as the team – and defense – struggled at times in 2020, the 33-year-old was the picture of consistency.
(Midseason grade: B+)
Special Teams: A+
In a season where every norm Patriots fans believed in was tested, one constant remained – strong special teams. New England has the best third phase in the league in 2020, and it really wasn’t close.
Punter Jake Bailey highlighted the group, and was the best player at his position in the league throughout the season. Making the Pro Bowl in just his second year in the NFL, Bailey led the league with a 45.6 yard net average. He had 31 punts downed inside the 20 yard line, versus just five touchbacks.
Down the field covering Bailey’s punts were the duo of Matthew Slater and Justin Bethel. Slater was named to his record-ninth Pro Bowl this season. On top of being a key piece of the team’s league best kick coverage unit, he also took on much more of a leadership role in a difficult year.
Kicker Nick Folk also turned in a career year at 36-years-old. After starting the year 0-for-2 on field goal attempts, he hit his final 26 kicks of the year, including two game winners. Although his maximum range was a question heading into the season, he finished 13-of-15 on kicks of 40-plus yards.
While the Patriots came out of the gate strong kicking and punting, the return game took a few weeks to get going. Once it did though, it joined the rest of the Patriots’ special teams at the top of the league.
Gunner Olszewski finished the season with 17.3 yards per punt return, blowing away the previous Patriots’ franchise record (Julian Edelman, 15.5, 2012). His strong performances, plus the addition of Donte Moncrief as a kick returner, helped give the Patriots’ offense shorter fields to work with in the second half of the season. Although they weren’t always able to take advantage, it’s an encouraging sign for 2021.
(Midseason grade: A-)
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.