The most vital role in Patriots head coach Bill Belichick’s front seven is the elephant position, and some of New England’s legendary linebackers played the role over the years.
For example, Patriots Hall of Famer Willie McGinest was the best elephant, playing as an outside linebacker-defensive end hybrid on the strong side of the formation (over the tight end).
“You know what an elephant is?” McGinest asked in 2014. “It’s a linebacker that’s a big linebacker. I played at 265. It’s a really big linebacker, and the guy can play D-end too, but he’s an undersized defensive end. It’s kind of a tweener.”
The primary responsibilities of the elephant are setting the edge against the run, rushing the passer, and occasionally dropping into coverage as a stand-up linebacker or hand in the dirt DE.
After receiving the fourth-highest Pro Football Focus grade on defense in the preseason, free-agent addition Matt Judon is bringing the elephant back to the Patriots defense.
Judon, like McGinest, plays at 265 pounds as a strong-side hybrid linebacker with the play strength to set the edge, the skill to rush the passer, and the athleticism to drop in coverage.
Plus, he allows the Pats to blur the lines between stand-up outside linebacker and defensive end positions. Above, the Patriots are in a 4-3 over front with Judon outside the tackle in a two-point stance, a role typically played by a hand-in-the-dirt defensive end (three-point stance).
Seeing Judon’s fit this preseason quickly makes sense of the four-year, $54.5 million mega-deal the Patriots handed him in free agency.
“I’m glad we have him,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said of Judon. “He’s got a lot of skill in the running game, in the passing game. He’s a very instinctive player. He seems to figure things out pretty quickly and has fit in well with the group.”
“That’s a good thing for all of us to build off of and try to emulate the attitude and the toughness and the effort that he comes in with on a consistent basis, whether it be game day, meetings, practices, walkthroughs. He’s been a good addition, and glad we have him on the team.”
Judon registered three quarterback pressures, three run stops, a forced fumble, and caused an incompletion on one target in coverage in just 34 snaps this preseason.
One of the biggest shortcomings on defense against the run was setting the edge, as the Patriots ranked dead-last, 32nd, in off-tackle yards per attempt last season.
As we know from following Belichick’s defense, setting the edge is rule number one, and it’s an area where the Pats struggled with smaller linebackers a year ago.
With Judon in the mix, New England’s defense against outside runs should improve significantly.
Here, Judon lines up over the right tackle and tight end to the strength of the formation. He gets into the body of right tackle Matt Pryor, resets the line into the backfield, and forces running back Jordan Howard to cut back inside to the teeth of the defense for a short gain.
The Patriots’ free-agent signing is a natural at setting the edge, a must in Belichick’s defense, and a powerful and intuitive pass rusher.
In this play, Judon sets starting left tackle Charles Leno up for an inside rush move. First, he takes two hard steps at Leno’s outside hip to get Leno to set outside. Then, he changes directions inside and uses a rip move to get underneath Leno’s punch to beat Washington’s left tackle clean for a quarterback hit on Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Along with one-on-one pass-rush moves, Judon is good on schemed rushes such as defensive line stunts, which are a big part of the Patriots’ pass-rush packages.
This time, Judon works with defensive tackle Montravius Adams on a T/E stunt. Adams’s job is to occupy the right guard and center (penetrator) so that Judon can wrap around Adams’s rush, sort of like a teammate setting a pick for a ball-handler in basketball. Adams gets a good initial get-off to occupy the interior blockers, and Judon does his part to hurry Joe Flacco.
The last piece to the “elephant” role is dropping off the line of scrimmage into coverage. It doesn’t happen as often as the first two elements, but Judon dropped into coverage four times this summer.
Here, he makes an impressive instinctive play where he initially joined the rush, saw the running back release out of the backfield, and forced an incompletion.
The 29-year-old veteran’s athleticism and hustle is something that stood out to his new teammates immediately, mainly captain Devin McCourty took note of Judon’s speed.
“We all finally got here in minicamp, and this guy’s running with the skill [players], but not just running like ten yards behind – because I’ve seen guys do that. I mean, it’s cool, but you can run another side and lose by 10, 15 yards, but he’s actually competing, talking trash. I think that set the tone for the rest of the team,” McCourty said.
Among all of Belichick’s big-ticket signings in free agency, Judon is fitting in the best and making the most immediate impact on his side of the ball.
The Patriots’ run defense struggled with undersized outside linebackers such as John Simon (255 pounds), Chase Winovich (250 pounds), and Josh Uche (245 pounds) trying to set the edge.
Although Winovich and Uche are standout pass rushers, it was challenging to keep them on the field in all situations because of their issues against the run. Judon, on the other hand, is good at everything.
With Judon on board, the “elephant” linebacker role is back in the Patriots’ defense.