Patriots 2022 midseason report card: Defense & Special Teams
November 9th, 2022
On Tuesday, we took a look at how the Patriots’ offense has performed – position by position – over the first half of the 2022 season. Now, it’s time to take a look at the defense.
As the offense has sputtered, the Patriots’ defense has been what has kept their season afloat through the first two months of the season. As a unit they’re allowing just 18.4 points per game, which ranks seventh in the NFL. They rank second in sacks, just one behind the Dallas Cowboys, and second in turnovers, just one behind the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles.
That success has been a product of all three levels of the Patriots’ defense, from the line to the linebackers to the secondary. Let’s take a closer look at what each group has done through nine games.
If you missed the offensive mid-season grades, those can be found here.
Defensive line: B-
Deatrich Wise Jr. celebrates a 2nd quarter sack with Davon Godchaux. Patriots home opener against the Baltimore Ravens on Sept 25, 2022. [USA Today/The Providence Journal/Kris Craig]
One of the biggest points of emphasis for the defensive line, and the defense as a whole really, heading into the season was improving against the run. On the surface, the numbers from last year and this year are similar. After allowing 4.5 yards per carry last year, they’re allowing 4.7 to this point in the season.
Those numbers don’t tell the full story though, as the run defense has been rather inconsistent through nine games. 58 percent of their total rushing yards allowed have occurred in just three games – against the Bears (243 yards), Packers (199), and Ravens (188). While those are all strong running teams, the Patriots have held other upper-level rushing offenses to minimal impacts, like they did against the Browns (70 rushing yards) and Jets (51).
When it comes to playing the pass, the defensive line has improved. That effort has been highlighted by Deatrich Wise, who has already set a career high for sacks with 5.5 – leading all Patriots defensive lineman. Wise has been thrust into a workhorse effort this year, playing 79.5 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. That high of a usage rate in incredibly rare for a defensive lineman, but he’s made the most of it.
Overall, the defensive line had held up well. However, the absence of a playmaker in the group has stood out since they lost Christian Barmore to injury after he started the season playing at a high level. It will be interesting to see how this group looks when they get Barmore back in the second half. His kind of athleticism should be key against mobile quarterbacks like Kyler Murray and Josh Allen.
FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – NOVEMBER 06: Matthew Judon #9 and Ja’Whaun Bentley #8 of the New England Patriots celebrate in the first quarter of a game against the Indianapolis Colts at Gillette Stadium on November 06, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)
Let’s start with the outside linebackers, who have been a big part of the Patriots’ defensive success this season. Of course, that begins with Matthew Judon. At the bye, Judon not only leads the league in sacks with 11.5 in nine games, he’s also three ahead of the next closest players. He’s been a dominant force who has set the tone in the passing game, just as he was at this point last year. The question now is, can he finish the season strong?
Part of what hurt Judon down the stretch last year was the lack of a complementary pass rush. Teams were able to focus in on him, without worrying too much about what was happening on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
Over the last couple of weeks, Josh Uche has started to emerge as a player who can make an impact opposite Judon. Uche began the season with 10 hurries in five games, before missing two weeks due to injury. He’s remained impactful since returning including his three-sack performance last week.
On early downs, the team has turned to Anfernee Jennings more on the edge. After missing all of 2021, Jennings has continued the strong play he showed in training camp. His 70.1 PFF grade against the run is one of the best among Patriots linebackers this season.
Jahlani Tavai has seen snaps both on the edge and in the middle of the defense. Unlike in the preseason when he was used heavily in pass defense, like Jennings he’s been primarily a run defender and his role seems to be built around his skillet.
The Patriots’ primary middle linebacker has been Ja’Whaun Bentley, whose 72.6 percent usage rate is the fourth-highest on the team. PFF has him as the team’s third-highest graded defender and highest non-cornerback, as well as the 10th-ranked linebacker in the NFL. He leads the team with 54 tackles, and his five quarterback hits are the third-most on the roster.
Behind Bentley though, the depth is thin. Raekwon McMillan and Mack Wilson both came into the season with some hype, but neither has managed to make much of an impact to this point. Given the natural athleticism of both players, either playing to a level where the Patriots can have them on the field more would be a big boost for the defense.
FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – NOVEMBER 06: Jonathan Jones #31 of the New England Patriots runs with the ball during the second half of a game against the Indianapolis Colts at Gillette Stadium on November 06, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)
When training camp began, the cornerback position was the biggest question on the Patriots’ roster. The team lost J.C. Jackson in free agency, and never made another premium move to add at the position.
As it turns out, they didn’t need to. The decision to move Jonathan Jones from the slot to the boundary turned out to be a brilliant one. In his new role, Jones has been targeted just 28 times in eight games, allowing less than 50 percent of those passes to be completed (46.4 percent). The passer rating for his targets is 55.5, and he’s currently the eighth-highest graded coverage corner according to PFF.
Jones hasn’t been the only player to emerge through a major adjustment. Rookie fourth-round pick Jack Jones has stepped right in and played at an incredibly high level. He’s allowed just 51.9 percent of the 27 targets thrown his way to be completed, and he’s actually PFF’s highest-graded corner through nine weeks – the only player at the position to earn a coverage grade over 90 (90.4).
Filling out the rotation on the boundary is Jalen Mills. Mills doesn’t have the same eye-popping numbers either of the Joneses do, but he has hardly been a liability.
In the slot, things have significantly improved from early in the season. Myles Bryant has quietly put together a few good weeks. Despite playing about the same percentage of snaps as he did in September, Bryant didn’t allow any multi-catch games over the last two weeks, and hasn’t allowed more than two catches in a game since Week 4.
Aug 19, 2022; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots safety Kyle Dugger (23) in the backfield during the first half of a preseason game against the Carolina Panthers at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports
This has been a breakout year for Kyle Dugger. Not only has he made an impact in the running game and passing game when he’s on the field, his absence was blatantly apparent when he missed two games earlier this season.
It’s the games that Dugger missed that hurt this grade. The Patriots struggled to cover tight ends with Dugger not on the field. Adrian Phillips and Devin McCourty have been solid in their usual roles – Phillips as a box safety and McCourty as a center fielder – but had issues when forced into coverage.
A recent encouraging development at the position has been the emergence of Jabrill Peppers. Peppers was limited in camp as he was working his way back from tearing his ACL last season. That continued into the early part of the regular season, but the last few weeks he’s had bigger roles in the Patriots’ defensive game plan. PFF has him as their 16th-rated safety through nine weeks.
Special teams: B
Oct 9, 2022; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots place kicker Nick Folk (6) kicks a field goal against the Detroit Lions during the first half at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports
Field position is a strong unit of measure for special teams. Through nine games, the Patriots have the best average starting field position in the NFL, with their drives starting on average on the 32.6-yard line. At the same time though, their opponents’ average starting field position is the 28.8-yard line, which ranks 28th.
The Patriots’ special teams units have gotten better since the season has gone on. Early in the year they struggled on both sides of the return game, but changes since have turned those elements of the kicking game into advantages. Marcus Jones has provided a spark as a returner, while fellow rookies Brenden Schooler and DaMarcus Mitchell look much more comfortable covering returns than they did two months ago.
Nick Folk has of course been excellent. His 19 made field goals rank second in the league, while his 90.5 percent success rate on field goals is also second among all kickers with at least 20 attempts. The 38-year-old is perfect on kicks inside the 20-yard line, and is a perfect 20-for-20 on extra points.
At this point, the biggest question is punter Jake Bailey. It’s been an interesting couple of years for Bailey. He was an All-Pro in 2020, then took a step back last season as he played through an injury for the majority of the year. Despite that, he earned himself a new contract after putting together a strong camp this summer, yet is now struggling once again. He’s currently averaging 35.3 net yards per punt, which is last in the league among qualified punters. His five touchbacks rank second in the league.
Field position and being able to flip the field will be major keys for the Patriots if they want to be competitive late in the season, especially if the offense continues to struggle. Bailey has shown he can be a weapon in that regard, but hasn’t played like it so far in 2022.
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 @RealAlexBarthor via email at abarth@985TheSportsHub.com.