When false narratives catch wind in today’s sports world, there’s no slowing it down regardless of how much we may try to debunk a myth.
One of those myths involving the Patriots defense and roster construction that drives us particularly crazy is that the Pats lack speed and coverage ability at linebacker.
If we made a dollar every time someone tweeted or wrote to us that New England needs more athletic inside linebackers, I’d already retire to my house on Martha’s Vineyard.
Let me hit you with some facts and the tape to back it up about the plodding and poor coverage players that make up the Patriots’ linebacker group this season:
First, New England ranks fifth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric in defending passes between the numbers and is the second-best play-action pass defense in the NFL (6.4 pass YPA).
If the Patriots’ linebackers couldn’t cover, it would be impossible to produce those numbers.
Second, above are opposing quarterbacks’ stats on passes targeting the Patriots’ linebackers this season, which are pretty darn good considering what the narratives out there suggest.
Then, there’s the tape where Dont’a Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley execute their play-action zone drops at an extremely high level. Instead of backpedaling to their landmarks, the Pats coach their linebackers to use a “robot” technique where they’ll turn their backs to the line of scrimmage and connect to crossing routes running over the middle.
Both Hightower and Bentley are also dropping underneath routes in traditional spot-drop zones to take away passing lanes. Above, Bentley falls underneath Falcons standout rookie Kyle Pitts’ route and forces Matt Ryan to throw the ball elsewhere.
Although the Pats avoid man coverage situations with their linebackers as all teams do, New England’s ‘backers are getting the job done in coverage.
Plus, there are very few linebackers in today’s NFL that play through contact and stand up running backs in the hole as effortlessly as Bill Belichick’s hard-hitting linebackers.
Although the narrative about the Patriots’ linebackers will persist despite our efforts, the notion that it’s a deficiency in their defense or an outdated team-building approach is inaccurate. Stop the madness.
Let’s empty the notebook as we head into Week 12 of the 2021 NFL season:
Have we seen real growth in Mac over the course of the season. I rewatched the MIA game from week one and didn’t realize how much he pushed the ball downfield in that game. Seems like a false narrative that he’s just now starting to do that. What areas has he really grown?
— Oh Biscuits (@KJH890712) November 24, 2021
Two things make evaluating Mac’s rookie season difficult: 1. He was good right out of the gate, which is rare for a rookie QB and 2. Development isn’t always linear. Although it’s not a constant upward trajectory, there are tons of things Mac has improved on: pre and post-snap processing, pocket mechanics (awareness, poise, movement), aggressiveness into tight windows, timing and anticipation, and learning from mistakes. It’ll be fun to see how Mac continues to maximize his physical tools as he downloads more information into the computer.
ok here's a specific one. I worry about Mac's throwing mechanics. He's all arm, which could present some shoulder issue down the road. If you think that's not an insane question – there you go.
— Colin Mahoney (@ColinMahoney18) November 24, 2021
I don’t share the same concerns with Mac’s throwing mechanics. They are mostly greatly, very repeatable, and a big reason why he’s so accurate. If his mechanics were bad, he wouldn’t have the sixth-best completion percentage over expected among qualified QBs. With that said, there are instances where Mac isn’t stepping into his throws or generating as much velocity as he could from his lower half. Most of that is because there’s pressure that prevents him from fully stepping into it, but you’d like to see him fade away less. That’s not a major concern, though. It’s a coachable thing that’ll come with more time spent in a muddy pocket, which is an adjustment for all rookie QBs.
Browns without Chubb or Hunt. Falcons without Ridley or Patterson. Titans without Julio or Henry. Should we be reading the defensive performance by the Pats against these half strength offenses any differently?
— WheresDBathroom (@d_bathroom) November 24, 2021
It’s fair to question if the Patriots’ defense is “for real” due to the things the question brings up. Yes, the Pats haven’t faced an elite offense during this five-game stretch, and some of their opponents were banged up. And that won’t change this week with the Titans. Buffalo and Indianapolis should give us a better barometer of where the Pats defense stands. But there’s no doubt it’s a great defense, especially if we adjust for the era. Are they an elite defense? We’ll find out in the next month.
How is Barmore not on PFF’s top-15 rookie list? What are they dinging him for?
— Peter Conroy (@ruhlax_guy) November 24, 2021
I’ve debated this topic with a few friends who work at PFF. Although their grading system isn’t perfect, they put a lot of hard work into it, and it’s not easy to grade film.
Plus, Barmore’s grade is steadily improving. They dinged him early on for things like gap control and losing ground in the running game, which was fair. Over the last three games, Barmore’s 80.9 overall grade ranks seventh among IDLs. If he keeps this up, he’ll finish with a strong number in their grading system and will probably land on the all-rookie team at the end of the season.
Stevenson has shown an ability to make a play in the run game impromptu. Do you see him becoming the number one and Harris resorts to spell him!
— Southern Hospitality (@help189) November 24, 2021
Over the last few games, we have seen a more dynamic runner in Rhamondre Stevenson than Damien Harris. Thanks to his vision, acceleration, and ability to finish through contact, Harris is an excellent fit in the Patriots’ downhill running scheme. But Stevenson is more elusive, can create more yards on his own, and looks better in a small sample as a receiver. With that said, the situation still favors a timeshare. The Pats have two good backs, and there’s no reason to overwork either. Splitting carries makes the most sense for everyone besides fantasy football owners.
I’ve been seeing Nkeal Harry out there a little more recently than before. Could he actually carve out a place in this offense at a receiving receiver or will he just block most of the time and catch 1-2 balls as it is right now?
— #1 Pats Mascot fan (@Acasualpatsfan) November 24, 2021
The parallels between N’Keal Harry and Jonnu Smith’s roles in the offense are remarkable. Both players are being used as run-blocking specialists while the fit in the passing offense is a work in progress. Harry and Smith thrive using their raw skill to out-athlete defenders at the catch point and as ball carriers. The issue with that is they’re not tactical route-runners, making it harder for them to thrive in Josh McDaniels’s system. Sure, the Pats can manufacture a touch for Jonnu or throw a contested ball up to N’Keal. But is that a sustainable offense?
Over the last two games, Harry is playing more. He’s on the field for 46.5% of the Pats’ offensive snaps compared to 34.4% in his first five games. But here’s the catch: 38 of Harry’s 59 snaps are as a run blocker in the last two games (64%). He has only run 20 routes and has three targets. The Patriots don’t seem that interested in incorporating Harry into the passing game. If he gets open, he may get the ball. That’s about it. And he’s not playing very often on obvious passing situations.
Smith has very similar splits in his usage: 64.8% of his snaps this season are on either running plays or passing plays where he stays in to block. Smith has only run 122 routes this season compared to 277 routes for Hunter Henry. With Smith’s usage and target share, the Pats are paying him nearly $17 million in total cash this season to be a blocking tight end. To make matters worse, Smith has one of the worst run-blocking grades among all tight ends (87th out of 89 qualified tight ends at 39.6 out of 100, per PFF).
Why is Mills so much better (or less noticeably a liability) in zone coverages? Is Myles Bryant's emergence allowing Mills to play a role more suited to his skill set?
— John K (@JohnK02733480) November 24, 2021
New England’s shift to more zone coverage might benefit Mills more than any player in the Pats secondary. Instead of chasing receivers in man, Mills now has two primary responsibilities: the deep third in cover-three and the flat in cover-two. By giving him an area to cover and allowing him to use his instincts more, Mills is hiding the flaws in his game. During the Pats’ five-game winning streak, opposing quarterbacks have only targeted Mills six times in man coverage (2-of-6 for 37 yards, zero TDs, 55.6 rating). In his first five games, Mills was targeted 17 times in man (12-of-17 for 158 yards, two TDs, 138.8 rating). Fewer exposures mean less damage. It also helps that Mills isn’t covering CeeDee Lamb anytime soon.
Do we see wade or mcgrone in action this season?
— ⚛️KennyMacAttack ⚛️ (@KennyMacAttack) November 24, 2021
Wade was active last week. He played outside corner on the final drive for the Falcons offense and on the punt return unit. My guess is that Wade will continue in a reserve role for the rest of the season as he learns the defense and sits behind the vets. It seems like the team wants to develop Wade as an outside corner rather than in the nickel role. We’ll see if that’s where he sticks long-term, as his best tape in college was in the slot.
As for McGrone, a source said the Pats’ rookie is “feeling good,” but it’s “way too early” to predict if he’ll see the field this season. The Pats could activate him as depth, and with his athleticism, McGrone could contribute in the kicking game. But it’s hard to imagine a role at linebacker with Hightower, Bentley, and Van Noy playing well. Not to mention Jamie Collins hopefully returning. McGrone, a 2021 fifth-round pick, will get valuable on-field experience in practice, but we are still a ways away from him contributing on game day.
We all know BB loves versatility. Do you notice that shining through more so this yr than in recent yrs with the front 7? When they play that under front he really has the ability to give so many looks and be good at all of them. We have seen that 3-4 under with a 5,1 and 3 tech.
— Jeff Scanlon (@jscancoach) November 24, 2021
I believe you are referring to an over front that the Pats are using with Matthew Judon on the line of scrimmage in a two-point stance. This front resembles a 4-3 over alignment. The idea is to shut down runs to the strong side (towards the tight end), forcing ball carriers to either cut back into the defense’s strength or run away from the tight end, where Judon and Hightower are waiting. Plus, Hightower and Bentley’s ability to fit from off the line (backside B-gap and frontside A-gap) allows them to play in this alignment.
The Pats can either play it as they do above with Godchaux (1-tech nose), Guy (three-technique), and Wise (outside the tight end) or use a bigger front with Carl Davis as the shaded nose, Godchaux as the three, and Guy at defensive end. Although we’d need to tag each play and find its success rate, the feeling is that it’s working well.
Jake Bailey has been taking a shorter run up to the kickoff. Is this due to his knee issues or is it a strategy to kick the ball to the goal line to force a return.
— Roger scott (@Rogersc46043937) November 24, 2021
A few weeks ago, Patriots special teams coordinator Cam Achord explained Bailey’s shorter run-ups on kickoffs. Essentially, Achord explained that sometimes it’s a strategy to kick the ball short to force a return rather than a touchback. With the Patriots’ coverage units excelling, they can steal yards that way. Achord also noted that it puts less stress on Bailey’s kicking leg because he’s not striking the ball with as much power, potentially speaking to an injury-related reason. My guess is that’s more the first one than the second one.