Although nothing is ever perfect, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has a pretty good track record of handing out big paydays in free agency.
Stephon Gilmore, Rodney Harrison, and Darrelle Revis are all in the conversation for best free-agent signings by Belichick, with the hits outweighing the misses (Adalius Thomas, Roosevelt Colvin) on the whole.
Quickly joining the list of Belichick hits is linebacker Matt Judon, an instant success with 6.5 sacks and eight tackles for loss in his first five games with the Patriots.
According to Pro Football Focus, Judon is tied for first in pass-rush productivity and is eighth in pass-rush win rate against true pass sets, which is a more stable way to measure pass rushers.
(Note: true pass sets – traditional drop-backs not including screens, play-action, or RPOs)
“I think I’ve put in the time. I think I’m a smart player,” Judon told CLNS Media. “As well as myself, just the guys in that locker room. It’s really not me. I’m making the plays and all that stuff. But me and Josh [Uche], we talk about pass rush and tackle placements, all that stuff. As we watch film apart, then we bring it back together. The coaches are making it easy on me. Just giving me hints, giving me tips. Just give me everything that I need to make plays and play fast.”
Judon is among the NFL’s premier one-on-one pass-rushers and is putting up stats in a defense that doesn’t typically lend itself to huge sack totals. Currently, the single-season high for sacks in the Belichick era is 12.5 by Chandler Jones in 2012. Judon is on-pace to shatter that.
“When you get the one-on-one, that’s when you really get to see what you got. The type of work you got. If I can win those matchups more than not, it’ll help the defense, especially if I’m getting pressure and making the quarterback hurry up or getting my hand in a throwing lane,” Judon said.
Furthermore, Judon is a well-rounded edge defender adding 12 stops and a 79.5 coverage grade to his impact plays near the line of scrimmage.
“Matt’s [Judon] an explosive player. He’s certainly given us a number of significant plays,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. “He’s made a number of big plays. He’s strong. He’s fast, and he’s instinctive, so he’s got some good tools to work with.”
In Bill Belichick’s defense, edge defenders have three primary responsibilities, and the importance of those assignments are in the following order: 1. Set the edge against the run and contain the quarterback, 2. Pressure the passer, and 3. Occasionally drop off the line into coverage.
Typically, jobs one and three prevent Pats’ edge rushers from racking up sacks and quarterback pressures (number two) at a high rate, but not Judon.
Looking at Judon’s pass-rush repertoire, his go-to move is a rip move that he pairs with different combinations to take advantage of an explosive first step and bend to turn the corner on tackles.
Here, Judon uses an inside-out cross-chop move to soften the edge and then finishes using the rip move to beat the tackles’ punch. Once he gets his body free, Judon has the flexibility to turn the corner and explosiveness to hit the quarterback as he throws.
To keep tackles off-balance, Judon will pair the inside-out movement in the QB hit on Wilson with a counter where he flashes outside at the snap and then swims inside to beat the tackle.
On his second sack in a three-play sequence against the Texans, Judon threatens the edge and uses an inside arm over to run Davis Mills off his spot. The coverage then holds up long enough in the backend for Judon to chase Mills down.
Along with pressuring quarterbacks on one-on-one’s, Judon has excellent instincts to take advantage of his play speed when the offense tries to block him with play-action schemes.
This time, the Bucs try to pull the right guard to block Judon on the edge and simulate a run off play-action. Judon isn’t fooled by the fake and immediately comes downhill to beat the pulling guard to the spot and sack Bucs quarterback Tom Brady.
New England will take all the sacks and quarterback pressures they can get from Judon, but his ability to set a stout edge against the run makes him a truly great fit in the defense.
The veteran linebacker’s ability to hold his ground against tackles and defeat tight ends against the run allows him to play 82.5% of the defensive snaps; Judon isn’t a situational pass-rusher.
Here, Judon presses the right tackle into the backfield and influences the running back to cut back inside to the teeth of the defense, which leads to a short gain for the Texans.
In this play, the Dolphins pull the center and guard towards Judon. He stacks up the pulling right guard and makes the tackle behind the line of scrimmage.
Judon’s ability to set the edge and make explosive plays behind the line of scrimmage is so good that it’s influencing teams to run away from him.
With Judon on the field, the Patriots are only allowing 3.2 yards per rush this season.
Rounding out his skill set, Judon has also dropped into coverage 44 times. Above, he causes traffic with a jam on Bucs wide receiver Chris Godwin before dropping into a low zone to bracket the running back out of the backfield.
After signing a four-year, $54.5 million deal with the Patriots in the offseason, Judon is emerging as a superstar on the field and a leader inside New England’s locker room.
Although you’d never know it based on his competitive demeanor on the field, Judon exudes positive energy behind the scenes with his sense of humor and is even the locker room DJ for the Patriots. Judon’s emerging leadership role had some players tell CLNS Media that if the team had a vote right now on captains, Judon would be one in his first season in New England.
From the locker room to the game field, Judon is a perfect fit in the Patriots’ system and makes Bill Belichick’s decision to sign him in free agency one of his best in years.
Now the Patriots hope that Judon ushers in a new era of winning football in New England.