When the Patriots’ defense was rolling, their newly-built front seven was wreaking havoc.
Free-agent addition Matthew Judon made the Pro Bowl thanks to 12.5 sacks in his first 13 games as a Patriot, leading a pass rush that finished the season ninth in pressure rate.
Rookie Christian Barmore, who was consistently productive even when the rest of the defense struggled, was a home run draft pick by Bill Belichick in the second round.
Newcomer Davon Godchaux and steady vet Lawrence Guy were doing the dirty work in the trenches, while Belichick’s thumpers at linebacker were plugging gaps.
However, the cracks in the armor started to show with New England’s loss in Week 15 to the Colts, which started a limp down the finish line of three losses in their final four contests.
The Patriots’ defense, starting with their star players in the front seven that got them to the playoffs, is developing some bad habits that need immediate correction over the last month.
Indianapolis running back Jonathan Taylor first exposed their run defense in mid-December. Then, the Pats let Bills quarterback Josh Allen run around Gillette Stadium in a loss that ultimately cost them the AFC East and capped off their season by Miami’s 195 rushing yards in Week 18 (plus, two first-down scrambles by Tua Tagovailoa on third downs).
Plus, outside of Barmore, impactful pressure on opposing quarterbacks has dwindled, and Judon hasn’t registered a sack or a quarterback hit in the Patriots’ last four games.
The typically stout and gap-sound Patriots are allowing opponents to push them around, and if New England is going to make a playoff run this season, that needs to change in a hurry.
STRUGGLES CONTAINING QUARTERBACKS IN THE POCKET
Let’s start with the Patriots’ issues containing quarterbacks, especially on critical third downs, which must be driving Belichick absolutely nuts.
The Pats’ head coach has strict rules about keeping the QB inside the pocket and “staying level” with the quarterback when you’re rushing the passer off the edge.
During a press conference in 2018, Belichick very emphatically told reporters, “fundamentally, what are you going to do behind the quarterback?”
Belichick’s coaching points to pass rushers led to an amusing exchange between current Pats linebacker Kyle Van Noy and former DE Chris Long.
— Green Light with Chris Long (@greenlight) December 9, 2021
On Long’s podcast, Long joked with Van Noy that Judon “gets carte blanche to run the hoop at nine, ten yards,” past the quarterback. To which Van Noy replied with a laugh, “no comment.”
After the comment from Long, I asked Judon if he has the freedom to rush the passer with an eye towards pressure and sacks, which is why some edge rushers take a wider turn around the arc.
“I get the exact same coaching as everyone else,” Judon told me. “It’s easy to say don’t run past the quarterback until you get a great get-off and the tackle pushes you two more yards. But you just have to be a football player and try to work back [upfield to the quarterback].”
Judon was getting away with rushing past the quarterback earlier in the season because his get-off or explosiveness was allowing him to get around tackles, leading to sacks.
However, tackles are now expecting Judon to explode off the ball to turn the corner and are using his aggressive pass-rushing style against him.
Here, Judon tries a speed rush against Bills left tackle Dion Dawkins, but Dawkins is waiting for the rush move and buries Judon into the ground, allowing Bills QB Josh Allen to step through the pocket and extend the play. Van Noy is dropping into a low robber zone which might have prevented Allen from getting the ball to Stefon Diggs, but KVN is forced to contain the quarterback, and Allen flips the ball to Diggs for a massive play on third down.
In the loss to the Dolphins, the back-breaker came on another third down converted by the quarterback’s legs where Judon got caught too far upfield.
The Pats are in man coverage without a spy to account for the quarterback. The exact scenario that Judon described earlier is what happens here, where he tries for a good get-off, gets pushed past the QB by the tackle, and can’t recover before Tua escapes.
Although it’s easy to pick on Judon, he’s far from the only one hurting the Patriots in this vein.
In this play, the Pats likely don’t execute the pass-rush scheme the way it was drawn up, Deatrich Wise gets washed down by the tackle, and Trevor Lawrence escapes on third down.
Tua also moved the chains when the contain players (Van Noy and Uche) took bad angles to the QB when he started to take off, and Allen was running free all game back in Week 16.
The Pats face Allen for a third time in Buffalo on Saturday night, and if their pass rush looks like it did in Week 16, it’ll be a long night and an early playoff exit.
STRUGGLES IN RUN DEFENSE & VERSUS RUN-PASS OPTIONS (RPOs)
Since Week 15, the Patriots are 24th in expected points added per rush allowed (+0.01) and 16th in rushing success rate (40.5%) after a great start to the year in that department.
In the first 14 weeks, the Pats were eighth in EPA (-0.11) and 11th in success rate (38.3%).
Issues are coming up on traditional runs, but the recurring problems for years under Belichick with defending run-pass options (RPOs) are rearing their ugly heads once again.
On Sunday, Miami averaged 5.5 yards per play on 25 RPOs and was only stuffed once on 17 RPO rush attempts.
The mantra around Gillette Stadium with how they approach RPOs is, “run players are run players, pass players are pass players. Do your job.”
Although that sounds all well and good, the issue is what about the inside linebackers, who are A. both run and pass players and B. In conflict?
The idea of an RPO is to give the quarterback an answer no matter what based on the read. If the read defender(s) plays the pass, you’ll gain positive yards on the ground and vice versa.
In Sunday’s game, the Pats’ off-ball linebackers were playing further back than usual to stay in the passing lanes and were late to come down to combo blocks and pullers.
For example, the Dolphins used this curl/flat route design 12 times and paired it with an inside zone run-blocking scheme here. Usually, we’d see the off-ball linebackers come downhill and press the inside combination blocks off the defensive tackles to let those guys defeat single blocks. Instead, Van Noy and Bentley’s first step is back to the passing lanes, which opens the run.
The issue is exacerbated further by the Patriots’ dime package on third down. Again, the second level moves backward at the snap, and Judon even drops off the edge with the flat route, so Tua hands it off, and Miami gets the first down on the ground.
Then, here comes the cat-and-mouse game with the quarterback and the defenders he is reading. The Pats want to get the ball back to their offense late in the game but leave the flat route uncovered for a big-gainer to the tight end.
In some ways, you can chalk the issues up with the run defense to the Pats allowing Miami to run the ball to stop the pass, likely thinking a typical pass would gain more yards than a run.
But if there’s a big-picture issue at play here for New England’s defense, which might be that they cannot stop the run unless the game plan calls for them to commit to run defense. Then, of course, that leaves them vulnerable against the more dangerous passing games.
Without the athleticism to recover quickly, their thumping linebackers either need to be all-in as run-stuffers or pass defenders because they don’t have the speed to play both effectively.
New England’s defensive line limited the explosive plays, for the most part, stopping the run on their own for the first three or four yards (three explosives on 37 carries). But the Dolphins did enough on the ground to stay ahead of the chains and create manageable third-down situations.
With their current personnel, there might not be a quick-fix to stop RPOs, and Buffalo has run the second-most RPOs of any offense this season (more than Miami). If we had to offer ideas, it would be to play man coverage, rely on hybrid safeties Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips as box defenders to bring recovery speed, unlock their defensive line to become one-gap penetrators to create negative plays behind the line of scrimmage, and attack the mesh point.
Even if the Pats’ personnel’s deficiencies don’t lend themselves to good RPO defense, a more disciplined pass rush and an awakening from Pro Bowler Matthew Judon would also go a long way.
The Patriots need their front seven to return to form on Saturday night.