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INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 31: Matt Judon #9 of the New England Patriots celebrates after recording a sack in the second quarter against the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium on October 31, 2021 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

It’s time for Part 2 of the Patriots mid-season report card for 2021, focusing on defense and special teams. If you missed Monday’s grades for the offensive side of the ball, those can be found by clicking here.

As a whole, the Patriots’ defense has been excellent in 2021. They’ve allowed the fourth-fewest points per game in the league through nine games. Their 16 forced turnovers also ranks fourth in the NFL. That defensive dominance has shown up at all three levels, from returning players to new additions, veterans to rookies.

On special teams, the Patriots are once again one of the best teams in the league. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, with just about every player returning from last year’s excellent unit.

Before we get to the grades, just a few notes – first off, all positions are graded against expectations. Basically, it’s not just how well or how poorly the players at the position are performing, but how that level of performance compares to what was expected at the start of the season. Secondly, the grades are weighted with a recency bias. Football is a ‘what have you done for me lately’ game, and these grades reflect that.

Now, onto the grades…

  • Defensive line: B+

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – OCTOBER 17: Christian Barmore #90 of the New England Patriots reacts after a play in the second quarter against the Dallas Cowboys at Gillette Stadium on October 17, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    The Patriots’ defensive line was one of their biggest issues last year, allowing over 2,000 yards on the ground in the 2020 season. It’s also a positional group that got tremendous attention this offseason. Nine games in, those moves are paying off.

    When talking about the defensive line, the conversation has to start with rookie Christian Barmore. The second-round pick out of Alabama has had an incredibly strong start to his career, and only has room to grow as he becomes a bigger part of the defense. In the last four weeks, he has four QB hits and two pass breakups.

    Through the first five weeks, Barmore was on the field for about half of the team’s defensive snaps, but over the last three games has seen his usage rate climb above 60 percent, including a season-high 68 percent last week. He’s now played more snaps than any defensive lineman. Not bad for a player some viewed as a ‘project pick’ in the draft.

    Barmore wasn’t the team’s only addition up front, they also added via free agency when they signed nose tackle Davon Godchaux. With Godchaux anchoring the middle of the defense, the Patriots are allowing 4.1 yards per carry. That ranks 9th in the NFL – the Patriots ranked 18th allowing 4.5 yards per carry last season.

    Godchaux and Barmore account for half of the Patriots’ regular defensive line rotation, both having played about 56 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. They other half includes returners Deatrich Wise and Lawrence Guy, who both signed new contracts with the team in the offseason. Not having to make up for the issues up the middle that plagued the team at times last year, Wise and Guy have been able to play to their strengths primarily as edge setters, opening up opportunities for players at the second level.

    As for the depth of the group, Carl Davis (another recipient of a new contract in the offseason) continues to play well after a strong showing in training camp. That depth has been key, with free agency signing Henry Anderson only playing in four games due to a torn pec.

  • Linebackers: A

    Nov 7, 2021; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; New England Patriots outside linebacker Matt Judon (9) reacts after sacking Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold (14) (not pictured) in the fourth quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

    Once again, there’s a clear starting point at this position. And once again, it’s a new addition.

    Matt Judon has been nothing short of spectacular since the day he stepped foot in Foxborough. It’s not just his on-field production – which has been excellent – but he’s been a valuable voice and tone-setter for the team, keeping things steady during early season turbulence.

    But how about his on-field performance? Judon has nine sacks in nine games, which ranks second in the NFL. For every sack he’s had, there’s two or three more plays where he doesn’t quite get to the quarterback, but is close enough to disrupt the throw. Then for every one of those plays, there’s another handful where he draws a hold – plus a few more apparent holds that have gone uncalled.

    Don’t think Judon is just a pure pass rusher though. His 10 tackles for a loss rank fourth in the league, as he’s regularly worked his way into the backfield from the edge. One of his most impressive traits has been his ability to come from the backside on an outside run, and still get to the back at or behind the line of scrimmage – he had two such plays against Carolina on Sunday.

    While Judon has been great, he’s hardly the only linebacker succeeding. Kyle Van Noy has gotten better as the season has gone on. He’s setting the edge with more regularity, and has started showing up in coverage with four pass breakups in the last three games.

    Dont’a Hightower is another player who has improved with more time on the field, and he looks like he may be starting to shake off the rust of his opt-out season. While his east-west ability hasn’t popped like it did at 2019, he’s still a menace coming downhill. The same can be said for Ja’Whaun Bentley, who is second on the team with 49 tackles despite playing just under 54 percent of the defensive snaps this year.

    Jamie Collins has been a key depth contributor when he’s been on the field, although that hasn’t been much. He’s yet to play more than 17 defensive snaps in a game for the Patriots this year, yet in 44 total plays on the field he’s accounted for seven tackles, including two for losses, two QB hits, a pass breakup, and an interception.

  • Cornerbacks: B

    Nov 7, 2021; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; New England Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson (27) returns an interception for a touchdown as Carolina Panthers wide receiver Robby Anderson (11) defends in the third quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

    Nov 7, 2021; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; New England Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson (27) returns an interception for a touchdown as Carolina Panthers wide receiver Robby Anderson (11) defends in the third quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

    Without Stephon Gilmore, it looked like this could be the year the Patriots’ cornerbacks finally took a step back after constant improvement over the last half-decade. Yet you could count the individual moments the Patriots have missed Gilmore this year on one hand.

    At the halfway point of the season the Patriots are allowing 231.4 passing yards per game, which ranks 10th in the NFL. And while some of that is due to the improved pass rush, the secondary has certainly done its part. Their 13 interceptions are the most in the league, and their 46 deflected passes rank second.

    J.C. Jackson was arguably the Patriots’ best player in training camp, and hasn’t missed a beat since. He has the lowest opposing completion percentage of all cornerbacks to be targeted at least 60 times, and the 11th best opposing passer rating (51.1) of all qualified NFL corners. Jonathan Jones played well to start the season, before having season ending shoulder surgery.

    The unknown with this group is who is playing alongside Jackson moving forwards. Jalen Mills and Joejuan Williams have gone back-and-forth for the second outside cornerback spot. Mills had a hot start but has had lapses in coverage the past few weeks as Williams has come on strong. Myles Bryant is playing very well in the slot and may prove to be an heir apparent for Jones, although it is still early. Shaun Wade, who missed the first half of the season with a concussion, remains an unknown with promising upside.

  • Safeties: B+

    EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY - SEPTEMBER 19: Devin McCourty #32 of the New England Patriots runs with the ball after intercepting a pass by quarterback Zach Wilson #2 of the New York Jets in the third quarter of the game at MetLife Stadium on September 19, 2021 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

    EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY – SEPTEMBER 19: Devin McCourty #32 of the New England Patriots runs with the ball after intercepting a pass by quarterback Zach Wilson #2 of the New York Jets in the third quarter of the game at MetLife Stadium on September 19, 2021 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

    Once again, the safeties have been the foundational players for the Patriots’ defense. Three of the top five most-used defensive players play this position.

    Outside of one miscue against the Texans Devin McCourty is having another great season. His 551 defensive snaps lead  the team, and he’s second on the roster with six pass breakups.

    In the box Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips have both been active, playing over 80 percent of the team’s snaps. Phillips in particular has stood out – he leads the team with 109 tackles including seven for a loss. Add that to his four pass breakups and two picks and it’s been a strong all-around year his second year in the system.

  • Special Teams: B+

    Oct 31, 2021; Inglewood, California, USA; New England Patriots kicker Nick Folk (6) celebrates with holder Jake Bailey (7) after a field goal against the Los Angeles Chargers during the first half at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

    Starting field position is a great measuring stick for a team’s overall special teams acumen. Through nine games, the Patriots’ average starting field position is the 33 yard line, which is the second-best in the NFL. Their opponents are starting on average on average at the 26.8 yard line, which is the sixth best mark putting both in the top 10.

    Gunner Olszewski has time and time again given the Patriots excellent starting field position by his constant explosiveness in the punt return game. His 13.78 yards per return ranks second in the NFL, and he hasn’t shied away from opportunity with just three fair catches.

    After beating out Quinn Nordin for the starting job in camp, Nick Folk has missed just two kicks – both from 54-plus yards – and his 91.3 field goal percentage is the best in the NFL among kickers with at least 20 attempts. The 37-year-old continues to be one of the most reliable legs in the league.

    If anybody from the special teams unit is having a down year, its 2020 All-Pro Jake Bailey. ‘Down’ is a relative term here given just how good Bailey was last season, but he already has four touchbacks compared to the five he had all of last season. In addition, he’s had 10 punts returned through nine games, after having 12 runbacks in 2020. He’s also on pace to fall short of  his inside-20 punts and 50-plus yard punts from last season, with a comparable number of kicks.

    Still, he’s a weapon on kickoffs as evidenced by the Patriots’ opponents weak starting field position. And when he’s set up Matthew SlaterJustin BethelCody Davis, and the rest of the coverage team, they’ve made the most of their opportunities.