The New England Patriots’ busy week continued on Thursday, when the team reportedly sent defensive lineman Michael Bennett to the Dallas Cowboys in exchange for a conditional seventh-round pick in the 2021 draft. Bennett joined the Patriots as a potential replacement for Trey Flowers, but never made the same impact in large part because of the team’s move away from a more traditional 4-3 defensive front.
With Bennett now gone, the Patriots have lost one of their most talented defenders albeit one that saw his playing time decrease as the season progressed and that was coming off a one-week suspension for conduct detrimental to the team. But even without the veteran, New England still has plenty of depth and talent along its defensive front seven. Let’s take a look at the 13 players still around after Bennett’s departure.
In order to better understand responsibilities and roles, it helps to keep the terminology of defensive line techniques in mind — and even then this scratches just the surface, as a lot of the usage depends on the fronts (3-4/4-3; over/under) being used in regards to the different situations. However this should still give a general overview of the roles New England has in mind for its front seven defenders:
With that out of the way, let’s dig a little deeper, shall we?
The players listed here are aligning on the line of scrimmage, primarily in a three-point stance (one hand in the dirt) and usually attacking the offensive line from anywhere between the zero and three-technique spots.
Deatrich Wise Jr.
While Bennett would have been a more traditional end in a 4-3 front — playing primarily from the five-technique position and possibly kicking inside on obvious passing downs, just like Flowers was used — his role in a 3-4 defense looked a bit differently: the 33-year-old was used more as a three-technique defensive end. This role is also played by Deatrich Wise Jr, who joined the Patriots in 2017 originally playing a similar position as Flowers as well.
The other four players listed above are primarily interior defenders, which means that they are closest to the traditional “defensive tackle” label due to their size and usage. Danny Shelton is more of a classic nose tackle/zero-technique-type in the mold of ex-Patriot Vince Wilfork, while Adam Butler and Lawrence Guy are being moved around a bit more.
The players listed here typically are used in a two-point stance on the end of the line of scrimmage, no matter if there are three, four or five men aligning on the line. They usually play from the four-technique to the outside.
Kyle Van Noy
In a 4-3 defense, Simon, Winovich and Calhoun would have shared snaps with Bennett at the five-technique edge spot. With the Patriots moving away and towards a primarily 3-4-based front, however, the three players spend most of their time as outside linebackers — a distinction they share with veteran Kyle Van Noy, who played 274 defensive snaps so far this season on the line of scrimmage compared to just 20 off it.
Van Noy sees plenty of action as a so-called Sam linebacker on the strong/tight end side of the formation with potential coverage responsibilities as well. The other three players, meanwhile, play considerable snaps as Will linebackers on the other, weak side of the formation. But no matter where they align — the labels are not exclusive — their roles are somewhat similar: set the edge in the running game, rush the passer, and drop back into coverage from time to time.
The players listed here play both as traditional inside/middle linebackers off the line of scrimmage and as outside linebackers on the line. Their usage is dependent on formation, play call and personnel group.
Jamie Collins Sr.
The Patriots like to move both Dont’a Hightower, the team’s primary defensive on-field play caller, and Jamie Collins around the formation to create the best possible matchups for them: they play off the line of scrimmage as inside/middle linebackers and are used alongside Van Noy and company on the edge as well. This usage has put both players in a position to perform at a very high level seven games into the 2019 season.
While Hightower was always used in a move role to a certain degree — just look at the impact plays he made in Super Bowls 49, 51 and 53 — Collins was primarily an inside linebacker during his first stint with the Patriots from 2013 to the 2016 trade deadline. With more talent around him, however, he is now free to be used in different spots to take advantage of his athleticism and range. The results speak for themselves as the 30-year-old has played himself into the Defensive Player of the Year discussion.
The players listed here spend most of their time off the line of scrimmage as inside/middle linebackers in the Patriots’ usual 3-4, 3-3, 4-3, 4-2, and 5-1 looks.
With the Patriots using a lot of Hightower and Collins at the inside linebacker positions as well, Elandon Roberts and Ja’Whaun Bentley have seen only limited action so far: they are rotational depth options at this point of the season. This says more about the two men ahead of them on the depth chart and how they performed during the early portions of the season, however, than it does about the two youngsters.