The New England Patriots have faced a lot of good defensive lines this year, but they haven’t faced many great linebackers. Seahawks linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright formed the best duo all year, while Bills linebackers Zach Brown and Preston Brown, Dolphins linebackers Kiko Alonso and Jelani Jenkins, and Ravens linebackers C.J. Mosley and Zach Orr were pretty good, too.
Other teams have had a good linebacker here and there, but it’s Houston Texans linebackers Bernardrick McKinney and Brian Cushing that rank at the top of the list for Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.
“Defensively, they’ve always been one of the top defenses in the league,” Belichick said on Monday morning. “A very athletic group. A lot of linebacker-defensive end types that can run, are long, have good playing strength, quickness, good tacklers. McKinney is a real good player. They got Cushing back, so they’re probably as good as two inside linebackers as we’ve seen all year.”
Cushing missed the week 3 game against the Patriots with a knee injury, while McKinney racked up a ridiculous 16 tackles and a sack against rookie QB Jacoby Brissett. Belichick has done a lot of scouting work on McKinney in particular.
“He’s a very good football player,” Belichick said. “We did a lot of work on him coming out of Mississippi State. He’s the kind of player that played outside and inside linebacker. Also played a little bit at defensive end, is an excellent blitzer, runs very well, is long. He’s 6’4 so he gets to a lot of plays with his length, particularly in pass coverage, a hard guy to throw over or around, a very good tackler, good range, good speed, good instincts, good wrap-up tackler. The guy is a real good football player that does a lot for their defense, plays a lot of positions and is, again, does so many things well. It’s very unusual to find a player with his skills that can do so many things in the running game, in the passing game, on the line, off the line. He’s an excellent player, one of the best players we’ve played against all year. He played well against us.”
The Patriots invested a lot of resources into scouting McKinney, a 2nd round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft out of Mississippi State. Belichick actually discovered LB Deontae Skinner in 2014 while doing draft prep on McKinney, and drafted teammate LB Matthew Wells in 2015. McKinney was considered a perfect fit in New England, but the Patriots were invested in Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins, and Jerod Mayo was still a part of the roster.
Cushing did not play against the Patriots in week 3, but he has re-assumed his role as a starting linebacker. Add in edge rushers Jadeveon Clowney- who Belichick describes as “very productive; long, very athletic, good pass rusher, good run player, good tackler, strip sacks, so he’s got really good awareness”- and Whitney Mercilus and the Texans have the best second-level players the Patriots have seen all year.
When the Patriots faced the Seahawks linebackers, they relied on TE Martellus Bennett and WR Julian Edelman to make plays in the open field, with RB James White’s 4 receptions ranking third on the team. If this same trio, along with RB Dion Lewis, can win their match-ups against the Texans linebackers in the middle of the field, then the Patriots will beat the strength of the Texans defense.