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Raiders-Patriots: Previewing New England’s defense

Without many stars this season, Bill Belichick is relying as much as ever on his system

Miami Dolphins v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

On Thursday I previewed the offense of the New England Patriots. Now if you’ll bear with me, I’m going to do something kind of radical. Something a little “out there” and yeah, I guess you could say I’m “weird af.” I’m going to preview the Patriots defense.

Despite being first in points allowed in 2019 and featuring the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, one couldn’t be blamed if they had difficulty naming any New England defenders outside of Stephon Gilmore and Devin McCourty. There are a lot of new names, but does Bill Belichick lower his expectations because of that?

The Patriots allowed 11 points in Week 1 to the Miami Dolphins but 35 in a Week 2 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. These are many of the players who now represent most of Belichick’s options on that side of the ball, so pardon me for the freakish task below of naming some of them.

Defensive Line: John Simon, Chase Winovich, Lawrence Guy, Bryan Cowart, Adam Butler, Deatrich Wise, Derek Rivers

This group is mostly the same from last season with the exception of Danny Shelton being gone and Cowart, a fifth round pick in 2019, getting an increase in reps. Even though people will likely refer to me as an “odd duck” for doing so, let me describe these players in more depth.

Most sacks in 2019: Butler (6), Winovich (5.5), Simon (4), Guy (3), Wise (2)

The Patriots were led in sacks last season by linebacker Jamie Collins, who had seven and is now playing for old defensive coordinator Matt Patricia with the Lions. Dont’a Hightower, who opted out this season, had 5.5.

Through two games this year, Rivers has 1.5, Shilique Calhoun has one and Winovich shared that sack with Rivers. It’s unclear at this point if Belichick will have his team attempt to sack the quarterback or if he’s aiming to prove that pass rushers don’t matter; Belichick traded Chandler Jones in 2016 and went to the next three Super Bowls, winning two. He survived the loss in part thanks to the abilities of Trey Flowers, but he went to Detroit to play for Patricia in 2019 and New England’s defense was even better than it had been with him.

A player “with a lot of sacks” means as much to Belichick as a hoodie with a lot of sleeves. Seven sleeves is too many sleeves. Seven sleeves too many.

NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah shared some of Belichick’s preferences for defensive linemen from when Belichick was coaching the Browns in the early 90s:

“Defense: Defend the middle of the field first. Do not allow offense to run or pass inside. Pressure on the QB up the middle. Force them to go outside. Make sure you have a third-down cover LB or sixth DB to match up on the Metcalfs of the world, etc.”

“DT/NT: Inside guys need explosive quickness and can play well in a fairly confined space,” Jeremiah said, reading his notes on his “Move the Sticks” podcast. “Explode, power, quickness, leverage. If he’s big and has explosive quickness, it’s what you want. 4.8 speed is not the main ingredient. Size can be 275 and up if he has the other ingredients. Need a big, strong guy that you can bring in when you have to go across from the Munchaks and the Munozes.”

“DEs: All-around player. Big, strong and can run,” Jeremiah continued. “These are the hardest guys to find. Would rather have the big strong guy than the faster guy to stop the run first and can substitute in for the pass-rush. 1: You cannot get knocked off the line.

“2. Size over speed at defensive end. 3. Pressure up the middle for the QB can cause more problems than guys running around the corner. 4. Frame and growth potential are very important.”

Last season, the Patriots finished first in points and yards allowed, first in DVOA, first in rushing touchdowns allowed, first in passing touchdowns allowed, first in interceptions, first in net yards per pass attempt, second in passing yards allowed, sixth in rushing yards allowed and 14th in yards per carry allowed. They were first against the pass by DVOA and eighth against the run.

Belichick on John Simon: “Smart guy, has a lot of different skills, he’s very comfortable doing a lot of things, whether it be in-line play, end-of-the-line play, coverage, special teams. He’s a really smart, tough, dependable player, shows up every day, works hard, does a good job. A guy you can count on – whatever you ask him to do, you can count on it. He’s going to give it to you every day, whether it’s Wednesday, Friday or Sunday. That’s a good thing.”

CBS Boston on Winovich’s increased role and versatility: But on Sunday, with Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy and Danny Shelton gone from the defense, Winovich was filling a number of roles on all downs during Sunday’s 21-11 win. He made run stops on back-to-back plays in the first quarter, the second of which resulted in a tackle for a loss. He also spent some time at nose tackle, a position he’d never played before but one which he nevertheless embraced over the summer.

Belichick on Winovich: “I think Chase has been a good player for us and that he played well last year. We had some other experienced players last year, Kyle and Jamie, and so there was just some other players playing ahead of him, and now he’s the most experienced player along with John Simon. So that shifted quickly in a year,” Belichick said. “But Chase has done a good job for us on all downs. When he played last year he was productive on a per-play basis and I thought he showed that [Sunday]. But Chase has got good energy, he’s in good condition, he’s got good stamina, he’s got speed, he’s got power and he’s a very instinctive player. So, I would expect him to be out on the field a good part of the time in all games.”

Belichick on Lawrence Guy: “Lawrence played well again [on Saturday],” he said after his team’s 24-17 win over the Buffalo Bills. “He’s played well all year. He does a very good job of playing his position, which is really multiple spots across the line. He’s a hard guy to block, he’s got good power, uses his hands well, he’s instinctive, he recognizes plays well and plays very consistently. He’s probably one of the most consistent players we have on our team.”

Belichick on Adam Butler: “He’s been a consistent player for us for three years,” Belichick said during a press conference in October. “Like anybody, he gets better like we all do with experience and reps and technique and so forth. But, he’s been a solid player for us for three years.”

Belichick on Bryan Cowart: “I’d say his development in both areas has been significant, but he’s probably made more growth in the pass rush area, just because he didn’t do it as much,” said Belichick about Cowart’s growth since his rookie season. “He played a lot of four-technique at Maryland, which isn’t the most advantageous position to rush from, but he played it well — I’m not saying that. I’d say we have a little more variety and balance here than what he had in college, or even going back to Auburn.”

The Patriots defensive line is not flashy but I guess you could say that they are, like me right now with this preview, a little left of center.

Linebackers: Ja’Whaun Bentley, Shilique Calhoun, Brandon Copeland

Because of the versatility in his front seven, there is technically only one linebacker who has played in more than 40-percent of the snaps so far this season, and that’s Bentley, who is in on 91-percent so far. That’s somewhat of an increase from the 27-percent he had in 2019.

A fifth round pick out of Purdue in 2018, Bentley immediately won the Patriots over and started in 69-percent of their Week 1 snaps that season, more than Dont’a Hightower. In Week 3, Bentley started and played in 78-percent of the snaps but he tore his bicep and missed the remainder of the season. When Bentley returned in 2019, the team had already brought back veteran Jamie Collins, who played in 81-percent of the snaps last season as one of the defense’s best players.

He was also named as a team captain:

After all, Bentley was also voted one of New England’s team captains this season — another first for him. The players’ decision to elevate him to this status should not be seen as a surprising one, however, given his experience within the system and based on how one of his teammates described him during his own media session on Monday: defensive lineman Deatrich Wise Jr. praised Bentley’s intelligence and leadership skills.

“He’s definitely earned it,” said the fourth-year man about Bentley. “The last three years, he’s definitely shown and proven why he should be our captain this year. Young, but very intelligent, very cerebral, knows how to take the playbook and make it work to where it fits what he’s trying to do. He’s able to command on the field; he has that ‘field general’ mindset which the coaches and players definitely notice and appreciate.”

Collins is in Detroit, Kyle Van Noy is with the Miami Dolphins and Hightower opted out, so Bentley went from the fourth-most important linebacker to Belichick’s unquestioned first option and the only player at the position to see more than 50-percent of the snaps so far. Bentley has 10 tackles and has blitzed eight times, but seven of those came against the Dolphins.

Calhoun, a third round pick of the Raiders in 2016, played in one-quarter of New England’s snaps last season but has been in on 40-percent through two games. He also blitzed seven times in Week 1; clearly Belichick’s game plan was for some reason different for Ryan Fitzpatrick than it was for Russell Wilson.

Copeland has 10 tackles on only 38 snaps, which is exactly as many as he also has on special teams.

Cornerbacks: Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones, Joejuan Williams

J.C. Jackson gets all the attention but it could be Stephon Gilmore who gives Derek Carr the most problems this weekend. Gilmore, the 10th overall pick in 2012, actually won Defensive Player of the Year in 2019 despite the Patriots rarely getting attention in the media. With basically no help in New England for a team that ESPN never talks about, Gilmore managed to overcome the odds and win an award that typically would go to a player on a team that gets national attention. Not from that little old upstart squad of leatherheads from the city of Harvard.

Is Gilmore the best cornerback in the NFL? Potentially. “Best” isn’t a word that means much to me. Is he as good as he needs to be if given the label of “elite”? Yes, he was last season. I don’t think the quarterbacks the Patriots faced gets nearly enough attention (Gilmore picked off Ryan Fitzpatrick, Andy Dalton twice, Daniel Jones, Sam Darnold and Dak Prescott) but as great players do, Gilmore wasn’t just effective, he was dominant.

He’s allowed 97 of 196 targets to be caught over the previous two seasons for 5.7 yards per target and may have given up zero touchdowns in 2019. He gave up one to DK Metcalf in Week 2, but it was an impressive play by Metcalf and Wilson.

Speaking of the competition New England faces within their division, J.C. Jackson has allowed 55 of 107 completions in the last two seasons for under 5.5 yards per target and he has eight interceptions — same as Gilmore. Jackson, undrafted in 2018, wasn’t credited with allowing a touchdown in either 2018 or 2019 but he too has allowed one this season. If Gilmore is “elite” because of his numbers, then what is Jackson?

That is a question people are asking now as they await the results of his third year in the league.

The Patriots actual “number two cornerback” is Jonathan Jones, an undrafted free agent out of Auburn in 2016 and not Johnathan Joseph. Jones went from 41-percent of the snaps in 2017 to 49-percent, then 61-percent and now 84-percent through two games. If advanced stats against corners are your thing, then Jones would stick out as “the problem” for New England’s secondary: 60-percent completions, 7.2 Y/target and nine touchdowns allowed in the last two seasons. But Jones plays almost as much as Gilmore, so what gives?

Jones’ speed helped him shut down Tyreek Hill in the 2018 playoffs to help the Patriots advance to the Super Bowl and he’ll be key in matching up against players like Henry Ruggs in the future, though Ruggs is listed as OUT for Sunday. He’s also had the best start to 2020 of any Patriots cornerback probably.

Jason McCourty is in his 12th season and he too posted elite stats in 2019 (4.8 yards per target, no touchdowns allowed) and I expect any Patriots who had those kind of numbers last season to have worse numbers this season. It is not an attack or a sign of doubt in their abilities, it is a law of nature. Case in point: McCourty has allowed two touchdowns this season already and played in only 48-percent of the snaps last week. McCourty was disappointed in his performance as New England allowed 35 points and five touchdowns by Wilson:

“Oh, without a doubt. Russell Wilson and their offense is a really good outfit, really good players, and he obviously is a tremendous player. I think for us as a secondary, obviously (it was) not a good performance,” he said Tuesday. “I know for myself personally, I’ll speak, to be part of two of those is just a terrible feeling and obviously not good enough. So after watching the film, those are the things that could be corrected.

“I think for me, I know I have to go out there and I have to play better, and I know for us as a whole as a secondary, we feel like we need to go out there and we need to play better. We’ve played better in the past. We have to pick it up, and we have to do a better job when Sunday comes.”

Finally, yet another case to be made for why draft positioning doesn’t as matter as much as we act like it does and why Belichick seems to care less about high picks than the rest of the world: while Jackson and Jones thrive as former UDFAs, Joejuan Williams, a second rounder in 2019, is stuck as the number five corner.

It is early in Williams’ career, but I can’t avoid thinking of names like Darius Butler, Ras-I Dowling, Tavon Wilson, Cyrus Jones and Duke Dawson: all five players were corners drafted by Belichick in the second round since 2009 and all were flops. If the draft was a crapshoot, you’d at least think Belichick would have made one hit out of those five.

Bad streak. Will it hit six?

Safeties: Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger, Terrence Brooks

With only one full time linebacker, we know that mathematically that means more opportunities for defensive ends, corners and safeties. Last season, the Patriots had enough snaps for McCourty, Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung to get over 60-percent of the snaps, with Brooks still getting 27-percent.

With Chung opting out and Harmon also going to play for the Lions because for some reason the one consistency with former Belichick coaches seems to be giving a lot of money to the players he wouldn’t give a lot of money to, the second safety has been Phillips and he’s had a good lead on third place.

Phillips is another former undrafted free agent but also a seven-year veteran who started 24 games for the Chargers in various roles and was an all-pro on special teams in 2018:

Phillips delivered his most notable comment when discussing this importance of playing multiple safeties in today’s game, something he learned in Los Angeles, where the Chargers led the NFL in dime personnel usage (playing six defensive backs) two of the last three years.

“When you have that many guys able to stop the run and cover the pass, it confuses the offense. You can give them so many different looks that they don’t know what’s coming,” Phillips said. “Sometimes when a team is watching film, they can say, ‘OK, when a guy lines up here, it’s always this. When he lines up here, it’s always this.’ The game is changing.

“You’ve got a lot more more speed on the field.”

Kyle Dugger, the 37th overall pick in the draft this year, is one of those versatile safeties that Belichick is looking for and potentially the guy he’ll build his defense around one day if he turns out more like McCourty and Chung and less like those corners I mentioned. He played in 54-percent of the snaps in Week 2 and had a kick return. Terrence Brooks was more heavily used in Week 1 than Week 2.

All nine defensive backs figure to see the field at some point on Sunday against the Raiders. And yeah, maybe that is a little “goofy” and “odd” but Jon Gruden always seems prepared to face something that’s a little out there.