Patriots Training Camp Preview: Defensive Line

The Patriots are expecting big things out of Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler this season.

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New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick’s scheme along the defensive front is one of the most unique systems in both the NFL and high-level college football. 

The first component of playing defensive line in Belichick’s defense is versatility, as Pats defenders toggle between fronts and alignments based on the game plan and situation. 

Then, there’s the type of techniques and the approach to pass-rushing that makes the scheme different, such as staying level with the quarterback, and most importantly, setting the edge. 

Instead of relying on one-on-one pass rushing, the Patriots take more of a team approach to pressuring the quarterback that includes defensive lines stunts and picks, blitzes from their off-ball linebackers, and zero blitzes involving the secondary.

“It’s such a unique system here — the way that we play games and what we ask guys to do, the way we rush the passer,” former defensive line coach Bret Bielema said last season. 

In 2019, the Patriots were a base odd front team (3-4) but played a lion share of their defensive snaps with two or fewer defensive linemen on the field (68.9%) in their pass-rushing fronts. 

Thanks to double-team eaters like Lawrence Guy, New England’s defense was sixth against the run in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric and was one of two teams to improve in rank in all five run defense categories (adjusted line yards, power, stuff, second-level, and open-field) despite playing so many snaps with so few defensive linemen. 

Lazy narratives stemming from a few bad games, mainly a rainstorm against the Browns and the Wild Card loss to the Titans, incorrectly labeled what was a stout run defense in 2019. 

By marrying pass-rushing linebackers with sticky defensive backs in coverage, the Patriots also led the NFL in pressure rate with their run-stuffers leaving the field in obvious passing situations. 

The Patriots’ veteran depth at linebacker is gone after several offseason departures and opt-outs, so there’s a chance that Belichick could go to a 4-3 base as we saw in the middle part of the last decade. 

The Patriots have Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, and Beau Allen, who can play defensive tackle in a 4-3, and 4-3 ends in Deatrich Wise, John Simon, Chase Winovich, and Anfernee Jennings. 

Either way, the scheme is built for their defensive line to eat up blocks and clog running lanes while they get pressure off the edge by blitzing from their back seven up the middle. 

New England’s front might look a little different to fit their new personnel after leaning heavily on their veteran linebackers a year ago, but the schemes base principles will stay the same. 

PLAYER REPORTS

Lawrence Guy

The leader of the three roster locks along the defensive line, Guy checked in at number nine in our most important Patriots series for the 2020 season. Guy, a classic Belichick diamond in the rough discovery, ranked eighth among interior defenders in run-stop percentage last season. The Pats All-Decade team honoree has found a home as a five-technique rushing over the tackle or in the B-Gap in Belichick’s defense. Guy uses excellent block anticipation and awareness, pad level, play strength, and technique to dominate at the point of attack and work through double-teams on the line of scrimmage. He also has the scheme versatility to line up anywhere on the defensive line from a zero technique (over the center) to over the tackles and had 21 quarterback pressures on just 262 pass-rush snaps in 2019. Guy is in the elite tier of defensive linemen when it comes to defeating double-teams and will be the anchor of New England’s run defense once again this season. They’ll need him to be even better without Dont’a Hightower in the middle of the defense.

Adam Butler

Butler has a unique skill set as an interior pass rusher who fits perfectly in Belichick’s scheme. In 2019, Butler had the highest double-team rate of any interior defender on his pass-rush snaps, even higher than Aaron Donald, because the system asks him to occupy blockers to free up his teammates. Butler is excellent as the penetrator on stunts or pick plays inside where he’ll knife into the offensive line and eat two blockers while a wrap player goes around him like a pick-and-roll in basketball. He also has a great first step off the ball and overwhelms offensive linemen with his length in one-on-one situations. 

As a run defender, Butler is improving, registering a run stop on a position-best 14.6 percent of his run-defense snaps in 2019. Butler also had a career-high run defense grade of 60.5, signaling that he could be rounding into an every-down player. At times, he still struggles with pad level and leveraging his gaps, which might stem from a lack of block anticipation due to inexperience. Once he starts sniffing out running plays earlier, he should keep his pads down and win with body positioning more regularly. Butler is an excellent interior pass rusher who fits the scheme to a tee and is developing nicely as a run defender. The Patriots were wise to sign him to a second-round restricted free-agent tender. He’s now poised for an even larger role alongside Guy, and potentially a long-term extension. 

Deatrich Wise 

The Pats fourth-round pick in 2017 is an interesting case study. On the one hand, Wise is one of the most effective interior pass rushers in the league when he’s out there. But his snap count is on the decline, and he continues to struggle against the run and was bullied at the point of attack by Tennessee last January. Believe it or not, Wise led all interior defensive linemen in both pressure rate (23.1) and pass-rush win rate (24.8) last season, making the most of his opportunities. His length, hand usage, and quick snap reactions are difficult to contain. In particular, he’s very active and heavy with his hands using stabs and swipe moves to defeat blocks and get into the backfield. The odds are that Wise isn’t going to develop into an every-down player due to his struggles in run defense. However, he’s a useful situational pass rusher that was extremely disruptive in limited pass-rush snaps last season. 

Beau Allen

The Patriots replaced free-agent loss Danny Shelton with Allen, formerly of the Buccaneers, who could have a similar jump in recognition as Lawrence Guy with an increased role. According to Pro Football Focus, Allen only played 179 snaps as a key reserve for the Bucs in 2019 but registered a respectable 72.6 overall grade with a 73.9 run-defense grade. Plus, his 85 percent run stop rate in 2018 ranked 12th in the league. There’s hope that Allen will be a better scheme fit than Shelton in New England, who, despite his massive stature, was better in a one-gapping system that let him shoot gaps. Allen is more of a two-gapper that could thrive as a good system fit with the Patriots.  

Byron Cowart

Cowart only played 43 snaps during his rookie campaign in 2019, but the fifth-round pick made the roster as a preseason standout. During his rookie preseason, Cowart registered nine quarterback pressures and three run stops thanks to dominant power at the point of attack. But he’s still learning how to play under control and with proper pad level to be a capable two-way player. At the University of Maryland, the Terps let Cowart run loose and use his grown man strength to rush the passer. In New England, he’ll need to work on his fundamentals and technique to become a more well-rounded player who uses hand-fighting along with raw athleticism. There’s huge upside with Cowart who could leap-frog Wise on the depth chart if he can out-play his teammate as a run defender this season. The Patriots need another playmaker in run defense. Cowart’s effectiveness at overpowering opposing offensive linemen and making plays behind the line of scrimmage could be just what the doctor ordered. 

Nick Thurman 

Thurman spent the entire 2019 season on New England’s practice squad after generating a little buzz in camp. In four preseason games, he had eight pressures and four run stops. Thurman has some pass-rush upside and had a few “wow” moments last summer in one-on-ones with an effective chop and rip move. He got pushed around in run defense against backups in the preseason, though, and shouldn’t be counted on other than for depth purposes. With Thurman’s experience in the system, he could end up back on the practice squad in a year where familiar depth is a necessity. 

Nick Coe (UDFA)

There was a lot of negative feedback from scouts and former Auburn coaches on Coe during the draft process. After losing his starting job in fall camp, Coe was frustrated with his role. He routinely showed up late to meetings and had people questioning his commitment to the team. However, Coe was a draftable NFL talent with a similar athletic profile to Deatrich Wise. He’s not the most fluid mover but can use his length and hand power to soften the edge or bull-rush opposing tackles. Against the run, Coe has the skillset and body type to develop into a useful two-gapper in New England’s system. He has plenty of sand in his pants to drop anchor and use that length to punch, separate and shed. Auburn’s scheme put Coe out in space too often, and a move inside the tackles will suit him best, which is where he’ll likely play for the Pats as a 3-4 end. Coe is a moldable piece of clay if he can buy into the program. 

Bill Murray (UDFA)

The comedian is a dark-horse candidate to extend New England’s 16-year UDFA streak. There’s no questioning Murray’s motor or play strength on the football field. At times, he can get out of control, but his play speed and production were off the charts at William and Mary. Murray’s career stat line at the FCS level was ridiculous: 19.0 sacks, 32.0 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and ten, yes, ten, blocked kicks. Along with natural pad level and leverage, Murray has noticeable upper-body power to post up as a two-gapper. Plus, Murray’s knack for blocking field goals gives him a clear path to make the roster as a special teams ace. Let’s be honest, Belichick is going to love this guy.