The Patriots lie in an eerily similar position to last year, and it’s hard to tell how this team stacks up to last year’s unit. With a first-year quarterback going into his second and in year three of a post-Brady rebuild, the expectation is improvement, but the reality is somewhat of a mixed bag. Here, I analyze the key differences between the 2021 and 2022 Patriots, starting with the improvements.
The Defense Has Fixed Many Of Last Year’s Issues And Become A Ferocious Unit
Towards the end of last season, the Patriots’ defense was atypically lackluster. Their pass rush, particularly Matt Judon, couldn’t maintain the aggression they had in the first half of the season. Their linebackers, who were smart, good tacklers, but slower players, couldn’t keep up with opposing offenses. The season ended in a culmination of these issues, where the Bills scored a touchdown on every single one of their drives in a disastrous wild-card game. Their speedy playmakers on offense made any schematic decision by the Patriots moot.
Heading into the season, fresh off losing star cornerback JC Jackson to the Chargers in the offseason, expectations were more of the same but worse. However, the Patriots made a shocking stylistic change. They prioritized speed. They let go of trusty but older LB Kyle Van Noy. They drafted two speedy cornerbacks in Marcus and Jack Jones, traded for smaller, faster LB Mack Wilson. They added even more speed to a talented safety group with Jabrill Peppers. Furthermore, in camp, they focused on the development of speedy 2020 and 2021 draft picks that hadn’t quite reached their potential, like Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings and Kyle Dugger. This led to a well-rounded group on defense, with a great balance of speed, experience and football IQ.
The result was astonishing. Judon has completely reversed his late-season downturn from 2021, and is the NFL’s second-leading sacker with 14.5 sacks. The pass rush has been excellent even beyond him, whether it’s Wise on the other side of the edge, linebackers Bentley and Uche. The Patriots are third in sack rate in the NFL, and their ability to get to the quarterback has terminated drives and limited the effectiveness of every offense they’ve faced. Their secondary has created turnovers and made life difficult for opposing QBs (22 takeaways total, including 14 interceptions). Jack Jones has shown his speed and ball-hawking nature right off the bat, while Jonathan Jones and Jalen Mills have successfully handled their elevation to more prominent roles in the defense. While losing a high-profile corner, the secondary has actually gotten better, and their versatile safeties just strengthen that.
More importantly than any of the stats, the defense is keeping the team in games, and is one of the main reasons that they are still alive in the playoff hunt.
The Patriots Are Embracing The Unorthodox – And It’s Working
A safeties group with three players with a linebacker’s skill set and build. A cornerback group with no true superstar. A hybrid WR/S on special teams. A cornerback who’s used on defense, offense AND special teams. A kicker who can barely make it outside of 55 in a league where 60 yard kicks are normal now. A blind backwards lateral in a tie game. The Patriots aren’t doing things conventionally. And yet, it’s (mostly) working.
Brenden Schooler is killing it on special teams and on his way towards being a speedy, athletic, competent complementary piece to Matthew Slater. His game speed, elite blocking and punt coverage, and affinity for the ball are a function of his hybrid experience on offense, defense, and special teams. Dugger, Phillips and Peppers are showing their hybrid skillset, thriving in coverage roles while being able to use their speed, hitting ability and awareness to make plays in the backfield.
Marcus Jones scored a touchdown on his first ever NFL offensive play, has recorded an interception on defense, and scored an electric game-winning punt return TD againt the Jets. Combining speedy legs, evasive agility, and a knack for handling the ball, he’s somehow flourishing in three drastically different roles.
Nick Folk has arguably been one of the biggest contributors for the Patriots. His range isn’t fantastic, especially with a plant leg injury last year, but when he’s this automatic inside of 50 yards, it almost doesn’t matter. The confidence the Patriots can gain from six always turning to seven, and every drive going inside of the opponents’ 32 yard line resulting in at least three points cannot be overstated, and his NFL-record streak of 67 consecutive field goals made inside of 50 yards is a testament to that.
Xavien Howard, JC Jackson, Stefon Gilmore – three players whose contracts are part of a shift in the NFL towards focusing on paying “shutdown” corners high sums of money. Bill Belichick doesn’t buy it. In fact, two of the names on this list were Belichick’s, and he didn’t bite on the pushes for a contract increase. Instead, with two speedy rookies in Marcus and Jack, and a reliable, experienced Jonathan rounding out an excellent trio of Jones, with Jalen Mills settling nicely into a CB1 role, Belichick has built a far better secondary than last year – without the leader of that secondary from 2021.
With a pre-injury tally of one pass deflection and no interceptions and a season-ending injury, JC poses an early risk of joining such names as Sterling Moore and Kyle Arrington in the list of formerly successful Patriots who disappointed in every other system they played in. Even Gilmore, while he gets interceptions here and there, hasn’t been able to play anywhere near the DPOY level he produced in New England. Belichick, on the other hand, can hang his hat on an excellent unit that required no superstars, while allowing enough cap room for Belichick to build a competent roster elsewhere.
Nobody does it like New England does it. And while that’s often a mixed bag, the Patriots’ unconventionality this season has clearly paid off.
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