Coming off a Super Bowl performance for the ages, the New England Patriots’ defense entered the 2019 season with plenty of hype. Five games in, the unit certainly has lived up to it: while not exactly meeting the league’s elite offenses, the Patriots’ defense did what it is supposed to do. It dominated its opposition from start to finish in all of its contests, and surrendered only a combined 20 points along the way — by far the fewest in the NFL.
There are numerous reasons for the Patriots’ outstanding defensive performance week-in and week-out, but head coach Bill Belichick pointed out two in particular during a press conference on Tuesday: versatility and depth. Both have allowed his team to stay on top of the opposition through five weeks, and to adapt on the fly to whatever is happening on the field. Just take last week’s 33-7 win over the Washington Redskins.
“We have a lot of good players. [The usage] depends on the situation, it depends on the game plan, sometimes it depends on how they play the game,” said Belichick when talking about how the Patriots have employed their defensive personnel over the early portions of the regular season. “I didn’t know that Washington was going to be in 10 personnel for 30-something plays. That changed some of our play time.”
“We try to do what we think is best,” Belichick pointed out when talking about the overall defensive depth and how it impacts playing time. “We rotate a lot [...] I mean, we’ve played 20 players on defense the last four or five weeks. So, naturally, you start splitting it up between 20 guys, that’s what you’re going to get. Show me how many teams play 20 players on defense. I don’t know, there’s not too many.”
The Patriots indeed have used a lot of defenders over the course of the season so far: exactly 20 players have been on the field for at least 20% of New England’s 324 defensive snaps, with a 21st — defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr. — just a hair below at 19.4%. Having this level of depth across the board has allowed New England’s defense to stay flexible every week, while also keeping players’ workloads manageable on game day and in practice.
“We have crazy depth. It helps us, it’s great for our room, it’s great for the defense, it’s great for the team,” said Dont’a Hightower. As noted above, however, depth is only one of the pillars upon which the Patriots’ defensive success is built as players’ versatility also is an important contributing factor — something that is especially true at the linebacker position: New England arguably fields the best and most versatile linebacker group in all of football.
Led by Hightower as well as fellow veteran defenders Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins, the group has no problems wearing multiple hats as the 29-year-old pointed out after the Patriots’ win in Washington: “In that room alone we have guys that can play outside linebacker, inside linebacker, defensive end. You can put John Simon at the nose; I’m at the nose, Jamie’s at the nose... the three, the four, the five [techniques].”
“‘The more you can do,’ Bill [Belichick] always says. We’re able to be versatile, we’re able to communicate, we’re able to give the offense different looks each and every week because we’re smart enough to make changes on the move,” Hightower added. He himself is the best example of that: not only is he responsible for calling the defensive signals on the field, he also regularly moves between different spots while effectively defending the run, rushing the passer, and playing in coverage.
“It’s huge. We face a different offense every week. Even if they’re the same, they’re different because of the different personnel. So, to be able to have players that can do multiple things and do them well, it gives you a tremendous advantage,” added Belichick. “We have the ability to sub if we want to, or if we don’t want to, we can let the players play where they normally play and they can certainly handle that adequately.”
This approach has served the Patriots well this season, and allowed them to match up well against whichever opponent they have faced. While the most difficult offenses on the schedule have yet to be played — think: Kansas City Chiefs, Baltimore Ravens, Philadelphia Eagles — the unit certainly has the depth and versatility, let alone the talent, to help slow down those potent attacks as well.