Friday, September 10, 2021

Pats Preview 2021: The Defense

The Patriots didn't just improve on offense. The defense looks a lot better overall, though the absence of corner Stephon Gilmore is a glaring problem.

Here is how the D got better and how they'll look different than last season.

1. Improvement At (Nearly) Every Position

The front seven is much improved across the board. Free agent lineman Davon Godchaux and rookie lineman Christian Barmore both look like perfect fits for a 4-3 Belichick defense. Tough, big, run stuffers who can one- or two-gap and allow the team to let the linebackers and safeties run free to the ball.

The linebackers went from non-existent (they actually started 1 linebacker twice last season!) to a huge strength. Dont'a Hightower returned from a COVID-year opt-out, Kyle Van Noy came back after a year in Miami, second-year 'backer Josh Uche looks like a play-destroyer, and free agent Matthew Judon (from Baltimore) made play after play in the preseason.

This group is so good that Harvey Langi flashed in the preseason and Ja'Whaun Bentley looked great -- and neither cracked the starting lineup!

More later on the secondary, the one place where the team took a step back

2. MJ9

The two MJ's, Mac Jones and Matthew Judon, will be the most significant off-season acquisitions. Judon was a play destroyer in the preseason, showed a great understanding of the defensive concepts, and even though he's undersized, he did a good job holding the edge against the run.

For the old-timers here, Judon looks like Adalius Thomas with a coaching staff more willing to use his versatility and to blitz on more plays. In other words, Judon looks like the real deal; so watch out for #9 on your scorecard.

3. 'Backers Are Back

Last year's linebackers were an embarrassment. When Bentley is your best and you have to play a rookie safety (Kyle Duggar) at LB for multiple games, you know you've shorted yourself at the position.

Bring back Hightower and Van Noy, add Judon, and get another year of improvement from Bentley and especially Uche, and suddenly it looks like a real strength.

And it's important, because Belichick has traditionally based his defense a line that occupies space and players and linebackers who rush the passer, hold the edge against the run, and fly to the football. It was tough to watch last year. This year it'll look a lot more like a normal BB defense.

4. Safety Switch

Patrick Chung retired after quite the career and three Super Bowl championships. But the Patriots are about as ready as they can be for the transition.

Adrian Phillips and Kyle Duggar are both in their second years with the team, and both picked up the defense quickly and were tough on receivers over the middle. Duggar did play some linebacker last year, which makes me respect him even more, because he isn't really built to take on tight ends or O-linemen.

5. The Elephant In The Room: Cornerback

With Gilmore sidelined to start the year (out until at least week 6), JC Jackson is your new #1 corner, with a bunch of JAGs ("just another guy") behind him. Many in the media speculate that Gilmore is sorta-holding-out, claiming an injury so he only has to play half a year to earn his dough.

I'm not convinced; he'd make a lot more next season if he played the entire year. But if it's true, then the Patriots get him back for the tougher part of their schedule and any potential playoff games. Not all bad.

If Jackson is the best corner, expect him to take their opponent's #2 receiver and the team to double-up on the #1. They've done that with players as great at Darrelle Revis, when it made sense, and it isn't a bad way to go. It mostly means the other team has to beat you with their #3 wideout, and not many teams have enough talent to make that work.

6. Putting It Together

The new big guys on the D-line should shore up the running defense, which was suspect last year. Though IMO it was mostly suspect because they didn't have any decent linebackers. So pairing the new linemen with LBs could make the front seven something special.

The vastly improved linebacking corps, along with the hitters at safety, should be able to help cover up the issues at corner. 

New England might have the most talented front seven in the league. And given that, I don't expect as much blitzing as last year. The 2020 team had to take chances that the 2021 team shouldn't need to take to slow down teams.

Next post: Special Teams, Coaching, and The Schedule!

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!

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