The New England Patriots are coming off their third Super Bowl victory in the past five NFL season. With four trips to the Super Bowl in the last five years, ten consecutive AFC East championships and eight consecutive trips to the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots have emerged as the greatest dynasty in NFL history.
Of course, none of that past success matters as the Patriots enter a new season. There was significant turnover in the offseason once again on defense. New England lost the versatility, pass rush and run-stuffing ability of Trey Flowers took his pair of Super Bowl rings to Detroit. While likely not playing in preseason game one, the Patriots have seen plenty of their former teammate during joint practices this week.
To replace Flowers’ pass rush, the Patriots sent a late-round draft pick to Philadelphia for Michael Bennett. Bennett may be eight years older than Flowers, but he is versatile, technically-sound and a pass rushing force that forces opponents to account for him every time he steps on the field.
The Patriots maintained much of their defense bringing back defensive tackle Danny Shelton and keeping cornerback Jason McCourty on inexpensive, short-term deals. Tackle Malcom Brown left in free agency but New England upgraded the position with former New York Jets tackle Mike Pennel.
The Patriots deep linebacking group gets last year’s preseason star Ja’Whaun Bentley back and also brought back old friend Jamie Collins to add to the strong depth at the position. The draft restocked an already ridiculously deep secondary with 2018 second-round draft pick Duke Dawson and 2019 second-round draft pick Joejuan Williams on the practice field.
This week’s game on Thursday night as a preseason game will be broadcast by the Patriots Preseason Television Network, Locally, the preseason network’s flagship station is WBZ-TV CBS in Boston. Familiar faces will be in the booth as Bob Socci provides the play-by-play and is joined by his radio partner and former Patriots quarterback Scott Zolak in the broadcast booth. Former Patriots linebacker and rising local media star Rob Ninkovich will provide sideline analysis along with WBZ’s long-time sportscaster (and son of Patriots Hall of Fame running back the late Ron Burton) Steve Burton.
Each week the game comes down to the match-ups. These are the top match-ups on defense that will determine if the Patriots are the team which emerges victorious.
The New England defense finished 2018 strong holding the potent Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense to just 17 points, the hapless Buffalo Bills’ offense to just 12 points (and the only Buffalo touchdown came with just over a minute to play and the Patriots ahead by three scores) and the New York Jets managed just a field goal in week 17. In the playoffs, the Chargers scored on a defensive breakdown on the first drive but the Chargers did not score again until it was 38-7. The Chiefs scored 31 points but only seven through three quarters. The Rams managed only a field goal in Super Bowl 53.
The New England defense had been solid much of the second-half of the season after a rough start. The defense held their opponents to 17 or fewer points in five of their last six games following their bye week. The defense was temporarily in the top ten in the NFL in points allowed before giving up 34 points to Tennessee in week ten and 34 to Miami in week 14.
The Patriots finished the season seventh in points allowed although the defense was 21st in total yards allowed. The defense was 22nd in passing yards allowed and 11th in rushing yards allowed. However, they were 29th in the NFL in yards per attempt allowing teams to rush for an average of 4.9 yards per attempt. In the playoffs they clamped down holding the Chargers to just 19 yards, Kansas City to 41 yards and the Rams only 62 yards on the ground.
The defense was excellent on third downs in November and December and finished the season 16th in the league in third down defense allowing their opponents to convert 38.6% of the time (76 of 197). The New England defense was 16th in the red zone allowing teams to score 58.7% of the time (27 touchdowns on 46 trips).
How do the Patriots plan to continue their defensive momentum in 2019?
FIND A PASS RUSH:
First and foremost, the Patriots have to generate pressure on the opposing quarterback. With a strong secondary, the defensive ends and linebackers must get into the backfield and help the secondary, particularly on third down.
Derek Rivers, Keionta Davis, Trent Harris, rookie Chase Winovich and camp surprise Nick Thurman (a 2018 undrafted free agent on his third team already) are all battling for two or maybe three roster spots. All five should have plenty of chances to get on the field Thursday and fight for a roster spot and role in 2019.
At defensive tackle, the Patriots may limit new addition Mike Pennel and veterans Danny Shelton and Lawrence Guy early in the preseason. Look for Adam Butler getting the chance to show he can play three downs while rookie Byron Cowart and Ufomba Kamalu and David Parry fight for what will likely be one roster spot.
At linebacker, starters Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower will get plenty of rest. Look for Elandon Roberts and Jamie Collins to be limited in preseason game one. 2018 draft picks Ja’Whaun Bentley and Christian Sam should be able to get plenty of playing time. Also Terez Hall, Calvin Munson and Shilique Calhoun should get plenty of snaps to try and fight their way onto the 53-man roster.
There is one other thing the Patriots’ defense must do in the preseason:
TRUST THE SECONDARY:
Veterans Stephon Gilmore, Devin and Jason McCourty, Patrick Chung (still not 100% healthy), Duron Harmon and Jonathan Jones will probably play a series at most, with most not playing at all. The secondary is so deep behind the veterans, that the competition will be fierce. Expect scouts from 31 other NFL teams watching closely at the secondary and looking to poach any young players that New England tries to sneak through waivers to the practice squad.
J.C. Jackson could be competing with Jason McCourty for starting snaps at cornerback. Last year’s seventh-round pick Keion Crossen has impressed and will be fighting to keep his roster spot. There are two second-round draft picks Joejuan Williams (2019) and Duke Dawson (2018) are also fighting for a role in the secondary.
With seventh-round draft pick Ken Webster on the PUP list, there are more snaps for undrafted free agent D’Angelo Ross. Ross is forcing his way onto the field and should have a showcase in the preseason to further boost his stock.
At safety, look for Obi Melifonwu to get some time along with Terrance Brooks. Behind the young veterans are a pair of undrafted free agents in AJ Howard and Malik Gant who will be using the game as a showcase. With Nate Ebner on the PUP list, it is a chance for one of these four safeties to make an impact on special teams and steal a role.
The game plan on defense is simple for the Patriots: see what the influx of new players on the defensive line and linebacker position can do on the field to get to the quarterback. In addition, an already deep secondary has young new faces fighting to carve out a role. That starts on Thursday night.
-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01