In this series we’ll rank the positional groups for each of the thirteen teams on the Patriots’ 2017 regular season schedule. We’ll start at the core of the defensive front seven and work outward throughout the defense. Then we’ll do the same for the offense, ultimately finishing at the quarterback position.
How do you beat Tom Brady?
The answer to that question isn't a mystery. There isn't some hidden code to crack. There is no secret formula or combination of coverages and personnel packages. There isn't some special Brady-blueprint. His weakness is the same as any other quarterback's: pressure.
In Tom Brady’s case, pressure up the middle.
Winning on the interior allows defenses to negate Brady’s instinctive ability to sense pressure from the edges, step up in the pocket, and deliver the football downfield with accuracy. The successful examples range from players like Justin Tuck and Linval Joseph in the Patriots’ two Super Bowl losses to the Giants, to Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe dominating the trenches in Denver two seasons ago. Interior pressure has been the common thread sewn throughout most of the major defeats in the Brady-Belichick era.
The 2016 postseason was no different. David Andrews and Joe Thuney struggled in Foxborough against a Houston Texans interior pass rush anchored by D.J. Reader who was lethally supplemented by Whitney Mercilus kicking inside on passing downs. Three weeks later Grady Jarrett’s three-sack performance in Super Bowl LI helped the Falcons amass a twenty-five point lead.
Clearly the Patriots’ intra-division rivals have been well aware of this pattern. Marcell Dareus, Muhammad Wilkerson, and Ndamukong Suh — all interior defensive linemen — currently hold the three largest contracts in the AFC East, totaling over $295 million.
Here are the units the Patriots will face in the 2017 regular season.
1. Houston Texans
Go ahead and throw all of that “Whitney Mercilus kicking inside on passing downs” stuff out the window. It won’t be necessary in 2017. The promising young duo of D.J. Reader and Chris Covington gets a substantial addition — a healthy, hungry Justin James Watt.
No further analysis required.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave, a standout rookie in 2016, were serviceable last season. The addition of a healthy Cameron Heyward to the mix immediately vaults the unit into a potential top-five unit in the NFL.
3. Los Angeles Chargers
A down year from Cory Liuget in 2016 keeps this unit from reaching the number two spot on this list. Veteran Brandon Mebane provided solid early-down work last season. Emerging second-year super star Joey Bosa has already shown the ability to play every position on the defensive front, including on the interior.
4. New York Jets
The only sliver of talent remaining on this decrepit roster lies on the defensive line. Leonard Williams might be the best defensive player in the division. Muhammad Wilkerson heads into the second year of his five-year, $86 million contract looking to rebound from a 2016 performance where he appeared to completely mail it in.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Gerald McCoy is wrongfully overlooked in the top five-to-ten ten defensive tackle conversation. The departure of Akeem Spence to Detroit should be easily absorbed with the unheralded addition of fiery unrestricted free agent Chris Baker from Washington.
6. Atlanta Falcons
With the addition of Dontari Poe, coupled with the anticipated second-year jump for Grady Jarrett, many would expect this unit to have been thrust nearly to the top of this list. Many would have also expected the Falcons to capitalize on a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl as well. Think twice before being sold on this unit — one that was mediocre against the run in 2016 and found itself in an abundance of pass rushing situations as the offense buried its opponents in multiple touchdown deficits.
7. Kansas City Chiefs
Chris Jones. Chris Jones. Chris Jones. Chris Jones. Chris Jones. Chris Jones. Chris Jones.
Also, Chris Jones.
8. Carolina Panthers
With the promotion of Defensive Backs Coach Steve Wilks following the departure of Sean McDermott to Buffalo, it appears that not much will change scheme-wise in Carolina. Since being taken in the second round of the 2013 draft, defensive tackle Kawann Short’s stellar play has propelled him into the upper echelon of players at the position — and this offseason the Panthers paid that way. Short signed a five-year, $80.5 million contract with $35 million fully guaranteed at signing, making him the fifth highest paid interior defensive lineman in the NFL based on average money per year. He’ll earn $26 million in cash in 2017. He’s joined on the interior by two first-round picks: Star Lotulelei (2013) and Vernon Butler (2016), the latter of which will look to build on a lackluster rookie campaign that was slowed from the start with a nagging ankle injury.
9. Buffalo Bills
With Kyle Williams’ retirement looming on the horizon, the Bills desperately need players like 2016 third-round pick Adolphus Washington to take a giant step forward in 2017. A suspension-free season from Marcell Dareus, their highest-paid player, would certainly do wonders for the unit.
10. Miami Dolphins
Per usual in Miami, everything depends on which NDamukong Suh shows up each week. For this unit to have any upward mobility on this list, former Oklahoma Sooner Jordan Phillips needs to consistently produce at the level he showed in the second half of last year’s week 17 tilt against the Patriots.
11. New Orleans Saints
The loss of Nick Fairley for the entire 2017 season to a heart condition cripples this group’s ranking. The only player remaining on the interior worthy of hanging a hat in any capacity is 2016 first-round pick Sheldon Rankins — whose sophomore season expectations were high before the news of Fairley.
12. Denver Broncos
The departure of Malik Jackson left a void that couldn’t be filled only by and injured Derek Wolfe and an over-matched Jared Crick in 2016. Moving forward they’ll also be without Sylvester Williams, who landed in Tennessee during free agency.
13. Oakland Raiders
There will be other positions in this series where the Raiders will be at around the top of the list, but the interior defensive line Oakland’s biggest deficiency in 2016, and with the UCLA’s Eddie Vanderdoes as the only addition to the group for 2017, there simply isn’t enough upside to be ranked ahead of other units on the Patriots’ schedule in 2017.
Follow Brian Phillips on Twitter - @Bphillips_PP