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Grading the Patriots Defense Exiting the Bye

Expectations were high for the Patriots’ defense this season. There would be some dropoff with Devin McCourty retired, but every other starter from a formidable 2022 squad was returning. That group would also be boosted by one of the draft’s most talented cornerbacks, a high-upside defensive lineman with stunning athleticism and a Swiss Army knife known for devastating hits.

After living up to the hype through their first three games, injuries sent New England’s defense crashing back down to Earth. The run defense bounced back from a leaky 2022 to a top-10 unit, but a nonexistent pass rush and unreliable defensive backs have resulted in a bottom-10 scoring defense. But through all this season’s disappointment, a handful of career campaigns have buoyed battered position groups.

Here are my deep dives and grades for each position group through ten weeks.

Defensive Line

The Patriots’ defense had one of the league’s deepest fronts entering 2023, as shown in an impressive performance against the Eagles.  Daniel Ekuale going down in Week 3 was a tough blow, as he’s been an underrated rotational player for the past few seasons. But losing Matthew Judon, who had key sacks in the previous three games, felt like a bad omen, especially after Christin Gonzalez’s torn labrum a few quarters earlier.

New England’s line was a big part of their improved run defense, but the pass rush has suffered significantly in Judon and Ekuale’s absences.

One of the most disappointing developments has been a down year for Deatrich Wise, one of the group’s few every-down contributors. The two-time captain has posted career lows in overall PFF grade (47.6), run defense grade (46.5), and pass rush grade (56.0), and his 9.4% pressure rate is also his lowest since his rookie season (9.4%). Run-stopper Lawrence Guy is also in a slump, with his 38.9 run defense grade being the lowest of his career.

Anfernee Jennings and rookie Keion White have been thrust into larger roles than expected due to Judon’s injury.

Jennings has been excellent against the run, tying for 4th among edge defenders with 23 run stops since his debut in Week 3. His impact getting after quarterbacks has been limited, though, as he ranks bottom-10 in pass rush win rate (4.2%) and pressure rate (6.8%) among edge defenders with at least 100 pass rushes.

White’s physical gifts flash weekly, but he’s still a raw prospect learning to finish plays and attack with a plan.

Josh Uche was expected to continue his ascension after breaking out in the second half of last season. But despite generating pressure at a top-10 rate among edge defenders, he hasn’t been the same since injuring his foot against the Raiders. There have been a couple of solid reps a game, but he doesn’t seem as explosive or twitchy.

Quality depth from the defensive interior has been lacking this season, but a dominant season from Christian Barmore and a strong surge from Davon Godchaux have anchored the group.

Godchaux has long been scrutinized for his work in the middle of New England’s front, but he’s been rock solid for most of this season and is wracking up the tackles to prove it. He also continued his annual trend of harassing Josh Allen and the Bills’ front in New England’s Week 6 upset.

Christian Barmore has been a one-man wrecking crew in his first healthy season.

Despite regularly drawing extra attention, he’s managed to hold his ground against the run and apply quick pressure when getting after quarterbacks. From Weeks 7-10, Barmore ranked top-10 in pass rush win rate (12.3%, 5th) and pressure rate (10.8%, 6th) among interior defensive linemen with at least 100 pass rushes over that span. He’s also tied for 3rd in the NFL with four batted passes and was 1st at his position in run stops (13) from Weeks 6-10.

The Patriots’ stout run defense and Barmore’s impact have carried this unit, and the third-year defensive tackle should be a top extension candidate. The pass rush problems aren’t entirely on the team, as Judon and Ekuale’s versatility kept them competitive from run-conscious fronts. However, Wise and Uche’s lack of impact plays have been palpable and hurt the front’s overall grade.

Grade: B-

Linebacker

The Patriots entered this season with one of the more underrated linebacker duos in the NFL. Ja’Whaun Bentley was known as a top-tier run defender at the position but didn’t get enough credit for his recent improvements in coverage. Jahlani Tavai had a quietly good 2022 after struggling with the Lions and early in his Patriots tenure but garnered little attention entering 2023. Mack Wilson was relegated to special teams last season after proving to be a liability against the run, who didn’t do enough on passing downs to move the needle.

But after ten weeks, each player is trending in different directions than most likely expected.

Three-time captain Ja’Whaun Bentley, fresh from a two-year extension, has made his share of plays. Through ten weeks, he ranked 10th among linebackers in run stops (21) and was tied with Tavai and two others for 4th in quarterback hits (3). He’s also one of five Patriots with multiple pass breakups (2).  But overall, 2023 has been a down year by his standards.

Bentley’s on-field impact is tough to quantify, as he does a lot of dirty work that doesn’t appear in the box score. For a downhill player known as a lineman at the second level, he’s been getting pushed around more than you’d expect. His coverage has also taken a step back, and he’s struggled to chase down ball carriers. These have contributed to the usually reliable tackler setting a career-high in missed tackles despite missing two games with a hamstring injury. I’m not sure what’s caused this dip in play, and it hasn’t kept New England from dominating against the run, but the number of big gains in his vicinity has been a bit alarming.

Luckily, Tavai has picked up much of the slack with a career-best season.

The former Lion is known as an “adjuster” in the Patriots’ scheme, tasked with dropping from off-ball linebacker to edge defender in certain fronts. It’s a difficult role that asks one to be physical against charging linemen, adept in coverage, and see the game through two different lenses.

Tavai hasn’t been the perfect edge-setter, but he’s a highly competitive run defender with a knack for bouncing back from mistakes. He’s also emerged as a playmaker and one of the league’s best coverage linebackers, filling a larger role on passing downs with Bentley’s recent absences. Tavai’s even looked good in limited opportunities as a pass rusher.

Mack Wilson Sr., who I had as a cut candidate in late roster projections, has also taken a step in his development, serving as a primary pass-down linebacker and filling in on early downs when Bentley has gone down. After being relegated to special teams in 2022, he’s earned career-high PFF grades in run defense (73.9) and coverage (70.1). He hasn’t had nearly as many lapses as last season, and the size he put on this offseason has led to improved run defense.

Wilson was also asked to take on pass-rushing duties with Uche out and has been solid at times, generating five pressures over the past three games. Don’t be surprised to see him back next season.

Calvin Munson played nearly a dozen snaps against the Colts, making a tackle on a checkdown and plugging a couple of gaps in the ground game.

As a core defender, Bentley not playing well brings this unit’s grade down. That said, Tavai has been a revelation, and his role on the team has grown in recent weeks. Wilson becoming a serviceable and occasionally impactful role player has also been a pleasant surprise in a season short on them.

Grade: B+

Cornerback

After stealing Christian Gonzalez with the 17th pick, New England’s undersized cornerback room went from scrappy to potentially quite scary. The group was competitive all summer while furiously shuffling players due to injuries but clicked once when September hit.

Gonzalez’s play against elite receivers like A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith, Tyreek Hill, and Garrett Wilson earned him Defensive Rookie of the Month. Depth was tested when Marcus Jones tore his labrum in Week 2 while Jonathan and Jack were sidelined with lower body injuries. Besides a few tough plays, Myles Bryant and Shaun Wade weren’t glaring liabilities. But the straw that broke this group’s back was Gonzalez tearing his labrum early against the Cowboys.

The Patriots’ corners were PFF’s 8th-lowest graded group through ten weeks (59.0), ranking 2nd in run defense grade (82.0) but 6th-lowest in coverage grade (54.4). Injuries have forced the defense to adopt a “bend-but-don’t-break” style of play, but that only works when you’re making plays, and that hasn’t been the case with New England’s corners.

J.C. Jackson, who the team acquired to replace Gonzalez in Week 5, has been a prime example of this disparity. “Mr. INT” hasn’t lived up to his name through five games while allowing three touchdowns and a 103.2 passer rating.

Jackson’s had at least one breakdown in every game since re-joining the team, including a blown bracket for a deep Tyreek Hill score in Week 8 and another against Stefon Diggs that was overthrown. His tackling and recognition have been poor, resulting in a touchdown where he didn’t touch Diggs down in the Red Zone and another on a late run read against the Commanders. Jackson was benched early in Week 9 for his play and conduct before not traveling in Week 10. The team hopes the break will do some good, but it’s a troubling sign for a player who just flamed out in a disastrous fashion with the Chargers.

After a quick but drama-filled stint, Jack Jones was recently waived for similar reasons. After spending the first six weeks on injured reserve, he allowed a 136.6 passer rating, six conversions, and a touchdown on 11 targets.

Myles Bryant has also been just okay after a solid start to the season. His reliable tackling and competitiveness have made him a serviceable player at a tough spot. He’s setting career worsts in passer rating (115.7) and yards per coverage snap allowed (6.39), has given up as many touchdowns (3) as he did in 2022, and has three more missed tackles (6) than his previous career-high. Bryant deserves credit for forcing two fumbles in Dallas and intercepting a pass in Germany. But neither punch-out was recovered, and he was more opportunistic than impactful on the pick. He had some tough assignments early this season covering Jaylen Waddle and CeeDee Lamb, but there have been other notable lapses since then.

Outside of Gonzalez’s interception against the Dolphins, no other Patriots corner has forced a turnover this season. Marcus Jones recovered a late fumble against the Eagles but didn’t play enough to gauge his growth or regression in year two.

Jonathan Jones has been his usual reliable self, but he’s also been in and out of the lineup with injuries, and Week 10 was the first time since the opener that he played 80% of snaps.

Gonzalez’s early-season efforts and Jon Jones’ play saved this grade from D territory. Despite being arguably the most talented position on the Patriots’ roster, there are a lot of long-term questions stemming from injuries and inconsistency.

Grade: C-

Safety

Seen as the deepest position on the Patriots’ roster entering this season, questionable use and poor tackling have taken them from loaded to lopsided.

Jabrill Peppers has emerged as a defensive leader and the group’s primary centerfielder while heavily mixing in near the line of scrimmage.

And while his aggressive style has led to some misses, Peppers has made up for it with consistent playmaking and tone-setting physicality.

Peppers broke a three-game turnover drought early this season with a crushing hit on Davante Adams that led to an interception. He also intercepted Josh Allen on his first pass in Week 7 and forced a Jalen Hurts fumble late in the opener. The 2025 free agent should be up there with Barmore on New England’s list of extension candidates.

One of New England’s top extension candidates this season, Kyle Dugger sharing deep coverage duties with Peppers has led to a dip in play during a contract season.

He did have a timely sack in Miami and a great breakup in their first matchup, and his five tackles for loss or no gain are nothing to scoff at. But lining up further from the box more often has kept Dugger from being the force he usually is. It isn’t a fit for his skill set, which could be seen on the blown bracket with JC Jackson against Buffalo. And while Dugger’s tackling has always been spotty, there have been more glaring lapses in fundamentals this season than I’ve seen from the safety in years. Playing deep has only exacerbated these issues, with one of the prime examples being a long touchdown run from Raheem Mostert in Week 2.

Adrian Phillips was expected to be part of the top safety trio this offseason, and Jalen Mills’ re-signing as a safety seemed to hint at a tight-end eraser role. Through ten weeks, Phillips has been the fifth safety behind Mapu and Mills, while the former Eagle has seen a recent uptick in early downs snaps after almost exclusively playing in dime early on. Unfortunately, like Dugger, their tackling has been problematic in limited opportunities, and neither is making enough impact plays to cover them up. Mills has also struggled in coverage despite his previous role at cornerback, leading to multiple lapses over the past couple of weeks.

Marte Mapu has struggled mightily in year one, but I’m not sure it’s entirely the rookie’s fault. Designated as a linebacker on the roster, it was immediately clear the Mapu was considered more of a moveable safety this summer. His closing speed and athleticism popped, making him a top projection for the dime linebacker spot. But through ten weeks, Mapu’s been a deep safety/box safety/linebacker on run-downs with Peppers and Dugger. He isn’t cut out to play deep consistently at this point in his career, as evidenced by the broken bracket in Miami, but he isn’t physical enough to regularly play the run, either. I think he’d be better utilized as a coverage player closer to the line, shadowing tight ends or spying quarterbacks, but New England has opted for veterans in each of those roles. Becoming an impact player will be tough until the flexible defender adjusts to multiple roles or is better utilized.

Peppers’ elite playmaking and fire would make this grade an A. But this group has been slightly above average, between Dugger making fewer plays and others playing just so much ball. The group also desperately needs a true free safety next season so everyone else can slide into their natural roles.

Grade: C+

Taylor Kyles

Taylor Kyles is the lead NFL Analyst for CLNS Media covering players, schemes, and tendencies through a New England Patriots-centric lens.

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