After falling to 6-7 in an embarrassing 24-3 loss on national television, the New England Patriots defensive line was exposed. The Los Angeles Rams ran New England over with rookie running back, Cam Akers, rushing for 171 yards on 29 attempts. For perspective, Rams quarterback, Jared Goff, finished the day with just 137 passing yards, a touchdown, and an interception. The Rams ability to expose the Patriots weak run defense has been a theme this season as New England’s defense ranks 23rd against the rush, allowing an average of 124 rushing yards per game.
After two decades of watching Bill Belichick coached defenses, the New England fan base certainly understands that allowing 124 rushing yards per game is not a recipe for winning football on any level. At this point in the season, with just three games remaining, the issue with New England’s defensive woes are clear. Their struggles have little to do with coaching or schemes, but rather shine light on a broader issue within the Patriots building. This issue being a failure on the part of Belichick, the general manager, to replace veteran players such as Danny Shelton, Kyle Van Noy, and Jamie Collins. When we talk about a defense getting consistently run over we often want to place blame on the defensive interior. While New England’s defensive tackles certainly have not been great this season, the Patriots real issues up front begin with an inability to set the edge.
Evaluating the New England Patriots Defensive Line
Interior Defensive Line
The Patriots interior defensive line play has been streaky this season, but should not be looked at as the biggest issue on defense. Following the departure of 345-pound Danny Shelton in free-agency, New England has missed having a pot roast sized nose tackle to muck up the trenches. The Patriots leading interior defenders such as Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, and Byron Cowart all hover around 300-pounds and have done a serviceable job. However, the lack of a true nose tackle has certainly been an area of weakness for the Patriots throughout this season.
Poor Edge Play
New England’s inability to set the edge is, without a doubt, the biggest problem along their defensive line. The Rams are just the latest team to have exposed defensive ends such as the 260-pound John Simon, and 270-pound Deatrich Wise. Both players were put on skates last Thursday, getting driven back by the Rams offensive line and failing miserably to set any sort of edge. The Patriots have completely lost their veteran edge presence after the departure of Van Noy and Collins in free-agency. Furthermore, while Dont’a Hightower has lost a step when playing in space, his ability to hunker down and anchor the edge had remained elite before his opt-out last summer. Without replacing these losses, opposing offenses have taken advantage of off-tackle runs, sweeps, and outside zone-runs.
This has also created a trickle down effect in which the Patriots linebackers have been forced to try and run sideline to sideline to make tackles. A skill-set which slow, downhill thumping 250-pound linebackers simply do not have in today’s speedy NFL. The Patriots, and Belichick, certainly recognize this weakness and while I am confident they have attempted to make the proper schematic adjustments, those adjustments simply will not make any difference if their personnel is not good enough. An outcome which has been unfolding before our eyes throughout this season.
Defensive Line Off-Season Quick Fixes
The future does not look as bleak as this current season. For all the criticism Belichick has rightfully taken for his failure to replace key defensive pieces, the Patriots look to be building a solid, young defensive core up front. While second-year defensive end Chase Winovich and rookie defensive end Josh Uche have flashed a lot of promise in pass-rush situations, neither player has been able to consistently set the edge in rush defense. This is to be expected as both players are still quite young and need to add more strength to their 250-pound frames in the weight room this off-season. Furthermore, rookie safety Kyle Dugger has been impressive this season against the run. New England has frequently played the hard-hitting, downhill, and fast safety in the box, close to the line of scrimmage.
I would not be at all surprised to see the 220-pound Dugger add a bit of weight this off-season in order to exclusively play the role of a hybrid nickel linebacker next season. Moreover, the Patriots will have options via the free-agency market if they are willing to spend a moderate amount of money. Players such as the 310-pound Ndamukong Suh, 320-pound DaQuan Jones, 320-pound Johnathan Hankins, and 320-pound Dalvin Tomlinson will all be available. Additionally, the Patriots as of now hold a fair amount of 2021 draft capital with a pick in the first, second, and third rounds along with three fourth-round picks.
New England’s roster has been exposed this season and it seems to have reached a tipping point. The veteran talent on this team can no longer cover up the draft pick misses which has plagued New England for several seasons. However, Belichick looks to be turning a corner and coming out of his draft slump, something which this roster desperately needs.
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