One of my favorite parts of the week is when I get to sit down and watch the All-22 of the Patriots defense. It’s a soundless, emotionless journey into football land. I know the result, I know the post-mortem talking points and I can just sit back and take it all in for what it actually was.
After watching the Pats’ defensive performance against the Jets I feel actually better than I’ve felt all season long about the unit. Of course it was not perfect, but it was starting to look and feel like the usual Patriots defense. You know what that means… Bend Don’t Break.
Still cliches aside, the progress was really keyed by an excellent performance against the run, led by Malcom Brown and aided by a resurgent Alan Branch. When those two players are on, the Pats are dominating the line of scrimmage and that has a positive trickle down effect on the rest of the defense.
Yes, there were still plenty of mistakes, often by the rookies and new guys, but what we saw was that the defense could forget the last plays, the last drives and refocus on the current drive.
All in all I do think things are headed in the right direction. You need to look no further than the run defense jumping from 27th to 23rd in DVOA. There’s still a ways to go, but I do believe the defense should be primed to play well against the Falcons, who will surely have all their attention this week.
Here’s what else stood out from the film review.
— I pointed out Kyle Van Noy had a very good statistical performance in the Posits, and I thought that was backed up with what I saw. He still has his moments, often in run defense and occasionally in coverage where he gets exposed, but he’s starting to look very comfortable in the defense and most importantly, he’s making plays in the biggest moments as evidenced by his pressure and sack on the final game-saving drive.
— Elandon Roberts has yet to see a play action he hasn’t bitten heavily on. If he could ever develop his awareness and eliminate those false steps he could really be a good linebacker. He plays with good aggression, but the process of getting him to recognize when teams are baiting him to bite has been a long one.
— Branch finally showed some of the form he had last year when he was arguably the defensive MVP through the early part of the season. He’s just so big and dominant inside it really prevents teams from getting to the second level and usually destroys plays in the backfield.
— Malcom Brown had one his best games as a Patriot. He’s a really athletic big man, who doesn’t overwhelm with physicality, he just plays with great leverage and technique, enabling him to get off blocks and make consistent plays at or behind the line of scrimmage. He was really the biggest factor in this game shutting down the Jets run game.
— Not sure I’ve seen a more polarized game from a player than Malcolm Butler‘s. He blew a couple coverages, but also made some great pass defenses plus the forced fumble and interception. Despite his inconsistency, which is a hallmark of this defense as a whole so far, I continue to really like Butler’s game. He closes on the ball so quickly and is such a strong player. This up and down year so far might cost him some money this offseason but I’d still bet a team is willing to pay him a good chunk of change for his feisty play.
— Cassius Marsh is another guy who is up and down. The Patriots seem to like him and he makes some plays, but he also gets lost in space and has trouble tackling sometimes. Obviously he’s being asked to do new things in New England, but the Patriots keep giving him chances which tells me he’s working hard and progressing. One of the big issues in this one was not finishing McCown when they had the chance or when he scrambled and Marsh was one of the biggest offenders. Again, it’s a lot different than just being an upfield, “go get the QB” player.
— Dietrich Wise was inserted into the starting lineup and played the most snaps of his young career and like so many others, he was up and down. But the ups far outweighed the downs as I see it. He continues to be a problem for offensive linemen and as he develops he all around game he should develop into an every down player on the right edge.
— I know a lot has been made of Jordan Richards playing linebacker this year, but really it’s a coverage position more than him being a true linebacker. The Patriots used him for one big task — cover the flat. That’s really a strong safety role more than anything, and it’s probably the only spot Richards can play on defense. We saw him get destroyed on the edge earlier this season, but in the middle of the field he’s okay effective. Fingers crossed Shea McClellin comes off IR and can take over that kind of role.
In summation, I think a lot of the Patriots defensive issues can be attributed to the new guys getting adjusted. Those excuses won’t last forever and the vets certainly have their share of brain farts, but overall there’s no question to me that it is getting better.
My main question, as I stated this offseason, is can these new guys rise up and make the big plays. We’ve seen flashes from Marsh, Wise and Butler, and now Van Noy is starting to emerge a bit in that regard, but they really need a breakout game where they start showing up consistently on third down. We’ve seen all levels of the defense play well at times, they just haven’t put it all together for sixty minutes yet.
The Falcons will provide an excellent test that should be right in the defense’s wheelhouse if they play sound and tackle well. This could set the stage for that coming out party.