New England Patriots

New England Patriots

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - OCTOBER 22: Jabrill Peppers #5 of the New England Patriots celebrates with teammates after intercepting the ball in the first quarter of the game against the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium on October 22, 2023 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, we began our biannual Patriots report card series with a look at the Patriots’ offensive performance through the bye week. If you missed those grades, you can check them out here.

Now, it’s time to focus on the defense. Coming into the bye week the Patriots’ defense is allowing 23.8 points per game, which ranks 23rd in the NFL.


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That ranking has come among a turbulent year for the defensive unit. Despite starting the season against the Eagles and Dolphins – the current third- and first-ranked offenses in the league – the defense allowed 19.7 points per game in the month of September – and ranked ninth in the league at that point.

That’s before injuries started taking their toll. Highlighted by the losses of pass rusher Matthew Judon and cornerback Christian Gonzalez, the defense was forced to dive deep into the depth chart in October. During that month, the defense allowed 29.8 points per game. The group has seemed to settle in a bit in recent weeks – albeit against lesser offenses – allowing 20 points against the Commanders before holding the Colts to 10 points last week.

What’s led to that up-and-down season? Let’s take a look. As a reminder, grades are compared to initial expectations and put more weight on more recent games. Grades take into account not just player performance, but how the coaching staff has managed each position.

  • Defensive line: B+

    Oct 22, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots defensive tackle Christian Barmore (90) reacts after a sack during the first half against the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

    Oct 22, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots defensive tackle Christian Barmore (90) reacts after a sack during the first half against the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

    Not only is the Patriots’ defensive line the highest-graded group on the defense, but it gets the highest mark of any positional group on the midseason report card, offense or defense. In a season that has been full of letdowns, this group has met and at times even exceeded expectations.

    That all begins with Christian Barmore. Now seemingly fully healthy after playing on a bad knee last year, Barmore is showing the promise that had many surprised he fell to the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft. He ranks top 10 among all qualifying defensive linemen in most of PFF’s major pass-rushing metrics, and top-20 in many run-stopping metrics. His three sacks are second on the Patriots this year, and his 26 pressures are tied with Deatrich Wise for the team lead. He leads the team with four batted balls.

    Playing next to Barmore is Davon Godchaux, who after dealing with an injury earlier in the season is playing some of his best football since joining the Patriots in 2021. He’s been good against the run, which is his strong suit, but has flashed as a pass rusher as well.

    The next step up for this group would be a larger contribution from rookie Keion White, who has been in a rotational role after a very strong training camp and preseason. White hasn’t quite reached that same level of play in the regular season yet, but at 2-8 the team can now afford to and should give him more in-game opportunities to help expediate his development.

  • Linebackers: B-

    LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - OCTOBER 15: Jahlani Tavai #48 of the New England Patriots reacts after an interception during the first quarter against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium on October 15, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images)

    LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – OCTOBER 15: Jahlani Tavai #48 of the New England Patriots reacts after an interception during the first quarter against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium on October 15, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images)

    It’s been a mixed bag from the Patriots’ linebacker group. Some players who weren’t expected to contribute much have done more than expected, while other projected key players have come up short of expectations.

    Perhaps the biggest surprise in either direction has been Jahlani Tavai. Tavai, who signed a two-year contract extension with the Patriots last November, is playing the best football of his career and is PFF’s sixth-highest graded linebacker. Last year Tavai showed he could be a force against the run and he’d done that again this year, but he’s also showed up much more in pass coverage than in the past. He has three pass breakups and an interception this year, and his 87.3 coverage grade ranks sixth in the NFL among all qualified linebackers.

    Anfernee Jennings’ play has also been a pleasant surprise for the Patriots. In his fourth NFL season, the 2020 third-round pick has already set a career-high in defensive snaps played (377, 68 percent of the team total) and has helped settle down the edge in Judon’s absence. He’s gone from being viewed as a likely cut candidate in the summer of 2022 to being a logical extension candidate ahead of the 2024 offseason.

    Ja’Whaun Bentley is having another solid season as well in the middle of the Patriots’ defense. He leads the team with 68 tackles and is second on the team with three sacks.

    On the other side of things, Josh Uche hasn’t made the next step after his strong second half of the 2022 season. Without having Judon on the opposite edge drawing blocking attention Uche has been held to 20 pressures and two sacks in eight games. That’s after he had 42 pressures and 11 sacks over his final nine games last season. Without Uche being a top pass rush threat, the Patriots’ overall pass rush has struggled.

    Then there’s rookie Marte Mapu, whose lack of impact and production is more of a coaching issue than anything else. Many people (myself included) were very high on Mapu coming out of training camp. A big part of that excitement was that the Patriots were entrusting him with a number of different responsibilities – especially at the second level. It seemed like the Patriots were finally ready to embrace and integrate the modern, athletic off-ball linebacker into their defense.

    However, that role hasn’t carried over to the regular season. Instead, the Patriots have mainly used Mapu as a box safety, a position that he’d never played and where the team already had plenty of depth. As a result he’s found himself in a limited rotational role, and still seems to be feeling things out when he’s on the field. As is the case with Keion White, the Patriots should look to get him snaps at that linebacker role, where it makes sense to develop him long-term, for the rest of the season.

  • Cornerbacks: C-

    Sep 10, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones (31) prepares for a game against the Philadelphia Eagles during the warm-up period at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    Sep 10, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones (31) prepares for a game against the Philadelphia Eagles during the warm-up period at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    Injuries have taken their toll on the Patriots’ cornerback room more than any other group. Christian Gonzalez and Marcus Jones both didn’t make it through the first month of the season and are out for the year (although Gonzalez played exceptionally well before getting hurt), and Jonathan Jones and Jack Jones also missed significant time.

    That left the Patriots needing to make a mid-season trade at the position, acquiring J.C. Jackson in a late-round pick swap. A cornerback lineup of Jackson and the two Joneses seemed like a competitive group, but Jackson and Jack Jones both failed to buy in. Jones has since been released, and Jackson is currently away from the team.

    Next up has been Shaun Wade and Myles Bryant. Both have had their flashes, but their starting roles go beyond what the team realistically should be asking of them this season.

    Despite all the moving pieces around him, Jonathan Jones has help up again in his second season playing primarily on the boundary. Jones has been targeted just 27 times in seven games, with opposing quarterbacks having an 88.8 passer rating when targeting him.

  • Safeties: C+

    Nov 5, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots safety Jabrill Peppers (5) celebrates after a play against the Washington Commanders during the first half at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

    Nov 5, 2023; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots safety Jabrill Peppers (5) celebrates after a play against the Washington Commanders during the first half at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

    The loss of Devin McCourty has been felt immensely by the Patriots’ defense. While the team did meet with a couple of free agent free safeties back in March, they didn’t sign or draft any true ‘center fielder’ deep safeties this offseason following McCourty’s departure.

    To replace McCourty the Patriots’ initial plan was to move Kyle Dugger to the deep part of the field from playing box safety. That move didn’t seem to work out, as Dugger struggled in coverage and failed to make the same kind of impact he did closer to the line of scrimmage.

    What moving Dugger to the deep part of the field did do was open up a bigger role for Jabrill Peppers. Peppers thrived in that role, and was the Patriots’ best defensive player for the first month and a half of the season. He’s currently PFF’s fourth-highest rated safety, with the best run defense grade and 10th-best coverage grade.

    In recent weeks the Patriots have flipped the responsibilities, with Peppers playing more deep and Dugger playing more in the box. That seems to be a positive change, as Dugger is now making more of an effort and while Peppers’ production has dropped off slightly his presence is still definitely felt. Still, looking ahead to next year it may make more sense for the Patriots to keep Peppers as the full-time box safety and bring in a true free safety via either free agency or the draft to replace Dugger.

    Meanwhile, the Patriots haven’t used their depth safeties much. Jalen Mills has played just 29.4 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, and Adrian Phillips usage rate has dropped from 62 percent last season to 19 percent through 10 weeks this season.

  • Special teams: D

    Nov 12, 2023; Frankfurt, Germany; New England Patriots punter Bryce Baringer (17) and place kicker Chad Ryland (37) react after a missed field goal against the Indianapolis Colts in the second half during an NFL International Series game at Deutsche Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Nov 12, 2023; Frankfurt, Germany; New England Patriots punter Bryce Baringer (17) and place kicker Chad Ryland (37) react after a missed field goal against the Indianapolis Colts in the second half during an NFL International Series game at Deutsche Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    For all of the resources the Patriots put into special teams, it’s been another disappointing year. They rank 24th in the league with a 67.1 PFF special teams grade.

    One of the biggest issues for the unit, in all phases, has been untimely penalties. Their 12 special teams penalties this season are tied for the second-most in the league. Special teams is, above all else, a field position-focused part of the game, and penalties at their simplest are avoidable losses of field position.

    Kickoff returns have been another big issue. The Patriots have run five kicks out of the end zone this year, and haven’t had one of those returns reach the 25-yard line (where the ball would be for a touchback). Only one of their eight total returns has passed the 25.

    As for the rookies, Chad Ryland is 11-of-14 from inside of 50 yards but his misses have come in key spots – like last week against Indianapolis. He’s also 1-of-3 from beyond 50 yards, despite one of his highlight traits coming out of the draft was his ability to hit from distance.

    The bright spot for the special teams units has been rookie punter Bryce Baringer. He did have two shanks in his first two games but he’s recovered and been excellent since, highlighted by his 46 percent inside-20 rate, which ranks sixth in the NFL. He’s knocked 23 punts inside the 20 this year compared to just five touchbacks, and two of those were still true field-flippers in the Colts game.

  • 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 abarth@985TheSportsHub.com.

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