Last we saw the defense of the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII, it was virtually nonexistent.
The Philadelphia Eagles punted just once in the entire game, rolling up 41 points on 538 yards of total offense for the franchise’s first Super Bowl title.
Though the Patriots finished fifth in the NFL in points allowed in 2017, the Super Bowl revealed that ranking was a mirage. The unit was much closer to the one that finished 29th in yards allowed, after all.
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Ten of the 11 starters in that game for the Patriots are back with the team, only the retired James Harrison moving on.
Saying New England is bringing back the same unit, more or less, wouldn’t be entirely fair. Not with Dont’a Hightower’s return from an injury, and not with the re-ordering of the depth chart beyond the starters. Eric Lee, Marquis Flowers, Johnson Bademosi, Jordan Richards and Ricky Jean-Francois, all of whom played 10 or more snaps in the Super Bowl, have since moved on from Foxboro. So too has former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, off to his first head coaching job in the NFL with the Detroit Lions.
The return of Hightower is far from enough to alleviate concerns, especially considering his own history of health troubles. What else have the Patriots done to address a defense that seemingly lacked playmakers at every level as last season wore on?
The Patriots are banking on low-risk veteran acquisitions Danny Shelton and Adrian Clayborn to shore up the defensive line, but the clear path to improvement at all levels defensively begins and ends with the strides younger players on the roster can make.
“A lot of young guys, a lot of new guys, a lot of old guys came together and the chemistry was built over camp,” defensive end Trey Flowers said. “It’s gonna be a fun season for us.”
It was definitely stunning to see New England bypass the defense with both of its first-round picks in April, waiting until the second round to take defensive back Duke Dawson.
Still, it’s Dawson and five other players yet to take a snap in an NFL game – Derek Rivers, Keionta Davis, Ja’Whaun Bentley, J.C. Jackson and Keion Crossen – that can provide the Patriots with an overdue infusion of youth on the defensive side of the ball.
Rivers, a third-round draft pick of the Patriots in 2017, missed all of last season due to a torn ACL. Given the promising rookie campaign from Deatrich Wise Jr. a season ago, the 2017 draft class is still salvageable yet for New England. Rivers likely won’t be a starter early in the season, but should see plenty of snaps in pass rushing situations to give the Patriots a much-needed compliment to Flowers. Davis went undrafted in 2017 and spent the entire season on the non-football injury list for the Patriots, but there’s surely a reason he’s been kept around this long without any NFL pedigree to go off of.
Bentley, a fifth-round draft pick in April, was the star of the preseason for New England. He led the team in tackles in each of its first two games and should bump Elandon Roberts from the starting lineup as a true thumper in the middle of the defense.
Crossen was the No. 244 overall pick in April’s draft and the very last defensive back off the board, while Jackson went undrafted altogether. If one of them winds up a hit as a compliment to Gilmore or in the No. 3 cornerback/slot corner role, great; if both of them can contribute, be it on special teams or elsewhere, even better.
“I just know this defense, we’re ready,” Flowers said. “We’re getting better each and every day. We’ve got a lot of new faces, new moving parts and things like that. We’re just trying to be as well prepared as we can possibly be.”
Second-year defensive tackle Adam Butler said that he couldn’t gauge how the current iteration of the defense stacks up with the group from a year ago, but noted the chance will be there in Week 1 vs. the Houston Texans to set an early tone for the Patriots.
“It’s always important to build momentum early,” Butler said. “Usually teams cave in later in the game – they either cave in or they come up big. It’s better to have a good start than to have a shaky start.”
Butler said he feels that Houston quarterback DeShaun Watson, returning from an ACL injury after dazzling in seven games as a rookie, has already proven himself as one of the top mobile quarterbacks in the league.
Watson threw for 301 yards and rushed for 41 more against the Patriots in Week 3 last season, a game in which the Texans had the lead in the final minute. An early sign in 2018 to see if New England’s defense has resolved a 2017 issue will be on full display when it comes to collapsing the pocket around Watson.
“He’s good at getting out of the pocket,” Butler said. “His primary goal is to throw it but his running ability is a close second. It’s almost neck and neck. For any quarterback with pressure in their face, it’s not good. It gets you off your game a little bit so hopefully, we can collapse the pocket better.”
The Patriots gave up 42 points to the Kansas City Chiefs in last year’s season opener, the most ever allowed by a Belichick-coached defense. A similar performance this Sunday would be less than ideal, but it’s a scenario that should be avoidable so long as Watson can be contained early on.
“There’s gonna come times when a team game plans for us and makes some plays on us, but we’ve got to stay fundamentally sound,” Flowers said. “We don’t beat ourselves. When it comes down to it, I’m sure we’re going to have some challenges.”