New England Patriots

New England Patriots

New England Patriots

Miami's Jevon Holland is someone the Patriots have to account for in coverage and as a blitzer. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)

  • When former Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew looked at Oregon safety Jevon Holland in the spring of 2021, he saw more than, in his words as an NFL Network analyst, “the best defensive player in the (upcoming) draft.”

    In Jones-Drew’s eyes, the versatilely-skilled Holland resembled no less than Hall of Famer Charles Woodson. With a personal interest in Holland, having coached him as a youth, Jones-Drew went so far as to publicly punctuate his bold comparison on Twitter with triple exclamation marks.

    Expectedly, Jones-Drew viewed his one-time football pupil Holland as a perfect fit for his former team in Jacksonville, mocking him to the Jags with their second pick of the first round, at No. 25 overall, in the 2021 NFL Draft. Alas, when cards were submitted, Jacksonville opted to pair running back Travis Etienne with its top pick, his ex-Clemson teammate Trevor Lawrence. Eight slots later, atop the second round, the Jaguars passed on Holland again, selecting Alabama cornerback Tyson Campbell.

    Three-hundred and fifty miles to the south, Miami general manager Chris Grier waited to make his choice, 36th overall, as he’d later tell reporters, “nervous this player (Holland) might not be there.” Then Dolphins head coach Brian Flores had also taken a special liking to Holland, calling him “one of, honestly, my favorite players to watch” in the class of ’21 prospects.

    After neither the Jets nor Broncos chose Holland, Grier and Flores got their — and Jones-Drew’s — guy. Twenty months and nearly two full seasons later, Flores successor Mike McDaniel is grateful they did.

    “I like having him, especially on the team I play for and not the team I play against,” McDaniel said weeks before coaching his first game in Miami. “I didn’t know much about him before studying our tape here and his playing as a beginner was very impressive.”

    Holland began by taking over for an injured Jason McCourty as a full-time starter in the fifth week of his rookie season. At year’s end, he was the lone AFC player with multiple sacks, interceptions and fumble recoveries.

    Opening his second season as the youngest of the Fins seven co-captains, the 22-year-old Holland immediately impacted the Week 1 win over the Patriots. Eight plays into the first series, quarterback Mac Jones dropped back from Miami’s 22-yard line and hoisted a pass to the near right corner of the end zone.

    Jones was throwing for DeVante Parker, smothered by Xavien Howard. According to NextGen Stats, Holland, as a single-high safety, was more than 25 yards away on the snap. He closed quickly enough to not only catch a carom off Howard’s left hand, but also round his path to get a running start out of the end zone for a 31-yard interception return up the sideline.

    Holland is known by teammates as “Snowman,” because his jersey number is an “8” and his birthplace is in Canada’s British Columbia (Coquitlam). He plays like a chameleon, morphing from a ‘robber’ in coverage on one snap to blitzer bringing pressure on the next. In 31 pro games, he’s been in on 150 tackles, including four sacks, and intercepted four passes.

    As part of a secondary starring four-time Pro Bowler Howard, Holland is less acclaimed nationally. Not for long, as they say in the NFL. Already, he commands the attention of his next opponent.

    “He’s really good. He’s really good,” Patriots tight ends coach Nick Caley double-spoke on a Tuesday Zoom, adding nods for even more emphasis. “He’s a fantastic football player. You’re talking about a guy who can really do a lot of things, right. (When) he’s in the deep part of the field, he has range, he can play the ball.

    “He’s one of the premier safeties in the National Football League. He’s a great blitzer. He’s a very good tackler. He can cover. He can play at all levels, from the deep part of the field, 18-to-22 yards back, to the second level to the line of scrimmage. You better know where he is, you better get a hat on him and you better protect the throw in the passing game.”

    Caley’s boss concurs.

    “Yeh, good player,” head coach Bill Belichick said on Wednesday. “(Holland’s) instinctive, reads the quarterback well, reads the pass pattern well. Does a good job of taking away some routes that maybe not every safety would take away. It’s from his instinctiveness and anticipation.”

  • Patience vs. Pressure

    Jones

    Mac Jones must deal with both the reality and illusion of Miami’s pressure packages. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

    Back in September, Jakobi Meyers spoke of a personal offshoot from Matt Patricia’s unconventional switch from play-calling on one side of the ball to the other: having been there and done that, Patricia should have a good idea of how opposing defensive coordinators see the game.

    “For me, personally, just hearing him talk about (defense), it allows me to kind of see what defensive guys are thinking,” Meyers said to Dakota Randall of NESN.com. “Just why they would do this — not just what they’re doing, but why they would do it and, like, how I could possibly beat it if I know why they’re doing it. So, I think his defensive perspective is a great help.”

    To date, as it’s turned out, any possible benefit in that regard has been outweighed by the inefficiencies and deficiencies of the Pats offense. But if there’s ever a time sideline mind games between Patricia and his counterpart might be relevant, it’s this Sunday’s matchup with Miami.

    The Dolphins defense is coordinated by Josh Boyer, a contemporary of Patricia and his longtime colleague in Foxborough. Both broke into the NFL with the Patriots. When Patricia rose to defensive coordinator in 2012 and remained in the role through 2017, Boyer was under him coaching the team’s cornerbacks.

    “Josh and I are very close,” an under-the-weather Patricia said hoarsely on Tuesday. “We have a great friendship and respect for each other, certainly through football but also through family. We’ve been around each other for a long, long time.”

    That’s the personal side. Then there’s Sunday’s business.

    “He’ll have something for us that we haven’t seen before,” Patricia promised. “He’ll have some matchups. He’ll have some pressure, for sure, different fronts and (he’ll) spin the dial on some of that stuff.”

    Boyer became Miami’s coordinator in 2020, after accompanying Flores from Foxborough the previous year and succeeding Patrick Graham in the role. He was retained by McDaniel.

    Son of a high school coach whose focus was defense, Boyer worked under much-respected Dean Pees at Kent State and in New England. He also paid dues coaching at places like King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. and the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in Rapid City.

    Slightly built and outwardly unassuming, Boyer quietly helped Malcom Butler develop from Division II unknown to Super Bowl hero and J.C. Jackson rise eventually from undrafted rookie to the upper fifth of the NFL’s “Top 100.” 

    Unlike his public demeanor, Boyer’s defense is aggressive. Miami’s cornerbacks man up more than most and its blizters rush from all levels and angles. In Week 1, a turning point was a perfectly-timed safety blitz by Brandon Jones, who drilled Mac Jones within roughly two seconds of the snap and forced a fumbled returned by Melvin Ingram for a score.

    “You look at last year, they really, as a defense as a whole, really evolved into a very aggressive, blitz-zero (coverage) team,” Patriots quarterbacks coach Joe Judge says. “When you watch other teams play them this year, you have to deal with the element of pressure with this team, just the way it is.

    “(Josh is) going to find different ways of bringing it to you, different ways to disguise it, but you know it’s gonna show up. It’s going to show up a little on early downs, it’s going to show up a lot on critical downs, situational football. He does a good job of showing pressure, then dropping out and playing coverage behind it.”

    Judge’s last point is especially important and easily overlooked. By teasing pressure pre-snap, the Dolphins can induce a quarterback to preemptively check to a different play. Maybe that means changing pass protections or keeping receivers in as extra blockers for extra rushers. Then, come to find out, after the play fails, there were no extra rushers because they all bailed into coverage.

    “From a quarterback’s standpoint, you just have to play each play on through, understand what the check is per play, what the rules are per play and how we’re going to handle it,” Judge continues. “And just be patient with it, not try to assume, because they really do a good job of disguising.”

  • Beginnings & Endings

    Scoreboard

    Again last Sunday the Patriots found themselves scoreless and trailing after the opening quarter. (Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

    Last Sunday vs. Cincinnati marked the third straight game and sixth in the last eight weeks in which the Patriots failed to score in the opening quarter. Falling behind, 22-0, they fell to 2-7 when their opponent strikes first.

    Despite their 18 unanswered points that followed in the final 18 minutes, 51 seconds, the Pats dropped to 0-6 this season after trailing through three quarters. In fact, they’ve now lost nine games in a row when entering the fourth quarter behind on the scoreboard.

    According to Stats Perform, only the Panthers (41 consecutive losses) and Seahawks (13 straight) have gone longer without winning a contest they were losing after three.

    By the way, the Dolphins are just 3-4 when they score first and 2-4 when trailing into the fourth quarter.

    Bob Socci is in his 10th season calling play-by-play for the Patriots Radio Network on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Bob will join Scott Zolak for the call of Sunday’s game at 1 p.m.

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