The secondary gets all the glory when they make four interceptions, but the Patriots’ defensive onslaught on the Jets’ Zach Wilson wouldn’t have happened without the pass-rush.
One week after flustering the rookie, it may be time to run it back against seven-year veteran Jameis Winston.
Wilson’s first of four interceptions in a 25-6 loss to the Patriots came with Ja’Whaun Bentley coming in untouched on a delayed blitz. Bentley pressured him up the middle again on his third INT. Chase Winovich was fast approaching from the edge when Wilson heaved up his fourth pick of the game, essentially a fair catch for safety Devin McCourty.
It was a good example of complementary defensive football, and it’s likely a similar strategy would be effective against Winston. The Patriots defense always looks a little different each week, but the overall approach is simple: pressure Winston into ill-advised throws, and give the secondary opportunities to come down with the ball.
That doesn’t mean Winston hasn’t at times looked like a different player under Saints head coach Sean Payton. In Week 1 against the Green Bay Packers, he threw five touchdowns with no interceptions, completed 70 percent of his passes, and posted a 130.8 passer rating.
But the Winston we’re all used to seeing showed up in Week 2 against the Carolina Panthers. Down 17 points with 1:55 left in the second quarter, Winston was pressured on his first dropback. He got rid of the ball as the defender grabbed him, with his left hand, toward no one in particular, which drew a flag for intentional grounding.
His next two plays went well enough: a short dump-off to Marquez Callaway in the flat, followed by a 27-yard strike to Lil’Jordan Humphrey after stepping up in the pocket with pressure coming off the edge. But after that, the pass-rush proved to be too much. Winston uncorked a high, incomplete pass intended for Callaway with a corner blitz bearing down on him, then threw it away on the following snap with more pressure coming from the right.
Finally, the coup de grâce. With another blitz coming up the middle, Winston avoided the first rusher before a second went for the hit. Winston heaved the ball deep down the middle of the field as he fell over, into a wall of three Panthers defenders. Predictably, the ball landed in the hands of Carolina safety Juston Burris.
A similar script could play out for the Patriots. Dial up the pressure, in a pressure situation, and Winston will inevitably make an unforced error. Payton, who noted this week that the Patriots typically win at home when they win the turnover battle, knows Winston will need to take care of the ball at a high level.
“We know that [the Patriots], pretty much like our team’s been very successful when they’ve won the turnover battle, so we have to make sure we’re on top of that, focusing on ball security and making great decisions,” Winston said this week.
It helped that the Panthers had a 17-0 lead when they pressured Winston into throwing the costly pick. So for the Patriots defense, it arguably starts with slowing down All-Pro running back Alvin Kamara. It could be the same question for both teams: who will stop the run, build a lead, and force the opposing quarterback to take shots down the field?
For Payton, he’s hoping to see something closer to the Winston from Week 1. Payton appears to be “managing” Winston by limiting the deep shots down the field, and scheming up higher-percentage throws like screens, which is typical of his system. That’s illustrated in Winston’s dip in intended air yards, which is the average distance the ball travels through the air on all pass attempts. Over Winston’s final four seasons in Tampa, he ranked second or third in the NFL every year in average intended air yards, most recently with 10.5 yards in 2019. So far in 2021, Winston is averaging 8.6 intended air yards, 12th in the league.
In other words, they’re protecting Winston from himself. It worked in the first week, not so much the second. The Patriots are hoping for more of what they saw on the Carolina tape.
“He’s just trying to do whatever they’re asking him to do,” said linebacker Dont’a Hightower on Winston. “Obviously, he throws the deep ball really good, and he has all the weapons and tools he needs to be a good quarterback. I’m sure Sean [Payton] is working with him and those guys on the offense, so they can get things going the way they want to. But, they’re a talented team, so it’s only a matter of time before those guys get to where they want to be.”
The Patriots defense won’t look the same against Winston and the Saints as it did against Wilson and the Jets. But the strategy, and the results, might be the same.
Matt Dolloff is a writer and podcaster 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 and follow him on Instagram @mattydsays. You can also email him at email@example.com.