The New England Patriots followed a familiar route through free agency this year: they entered it patiently and with an eye on value rather than star power. One player that perfectly falls into this category is defensive tackle Mike Pennel, who the Patriots signed to a two-year, $5.0 million contract on the second official day of free agency to fill the void created by the departure of former first-round draft pick Malcom Brown.
While Pennel does not have the same draft day pedigree as the 32nd overall pick of the 2015 draft, his impact on New England’s defense could very well exceed that of Brown: while the neo-New Orleans Saint had a solid four-year stint with the Patriots, he never quite lived up to the natural expectations of getting selected in the first round. Pennel, meanwhile, never had all that many expectations attached to him to begin with.
In 2019, at least, that should change: now joining the world champions, the 27-year-old is in a prime position to build on what was already an impressive career, from former undrafted rookie free agent to one of the NFL’s better run stuffers. A look at the film shows what exactly it is that the Patriots might have seen in Pennel in order to bring him on board — and how his talents might be harnessed entering the 2019 season.
Let’s break down plays from his performance against New England last season, a good sample size of his talents when going against what might very well have been the NFL’s premier offensive line late during 2018.
Given his size — the Patriots list him at 6’4, 332 lbs — Pennel is best suited to serve as a run-stopper in the mold of Danny Shelton or the aforementioned Malcom Brown. And indeed, he was productive in this area of the game by finishing the 2018 season with 26 tackles against the run as well as a career-high 19 run stops. In week 17 against the Patriots, his prowess in the ground game was on perfect display.
Mike Pennel has impressive quickness for a 330 lber. Gets inside Shaq's pads and stacks the RG, locates the ball, then gets low to rip through Mason's block and helps bring down Michel. Nice balance, too. pic.twitter.com/Ufnsru6uNr— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) March 14, 2019
Pennel (#98) started this particular play in a 2i-technique alignment over the inside shoulder of Patriots right guard Shaq Mason (#69). New England ran a man-blocking scheme, which means that the two neo-teammates had to go at each other one-on-one. Mason, one of the NFL’s best run-blocking linemen, was initially able to get in a good position on the defender by aggressively punching into him at the snap.
However, Pro Football Focus’ 17th best interior defender of the 2018 season was able to successfully counter by displaying tremendous quickness for a player his size. Pennel disengaged from Mason’s block by getting underneath him which allowed him to fill the B-gap between the guard and right tackle. He was then able to locate running back Sony Michel (#26) and grab him by the lower legs to help with the tackle.
Now it's Thuney's turn. Pennel quickly diagnoses the play and braces for the down block. Strong anchor to stand his ground and fends off Thuney with one arm. Uses his free arm to shed and brings down Sony.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) March 14, 2019
This man is powerful as hell. pic.twitter.com/PcfFAqrM4Z
Aligning as a true nose tackle playing the 0-technique, Pennel was again active with his hand usage on this play while also keeping a solid balance in the one-on-one matchup against Patriots left guard Joe Thuney (#62). His sound technique and upper body strength ultimately helped him disengage from Thuney’s block, while his short-area quickness allowed him to take down Sony Michel after a modest gain of only one yard.
Pennel is not just productive in one-on-one situations, but can also hold his own on double teams as the following play illustrates:
Pennel is so good at getting off of blocks. Makes it look easy. Stands up to the double-team from Andrews and Mason, then bench-presses Andrews as Burkhead tries to hit the hole.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) March 14, 2019
Keep in mind that, despite being undersized, David Andrews is one of the game's best centers. pic.twitter.com/6OLurHZCjG
Once again moving to a different spot along the line — he aligned as a 1-technique tackle over the Patriots’ right-side A-gap — Pennel was initially engaged by both Mason and center David Andrews (#60). The duo was unable to drive the defender back substantially, which gave him a chance to get off Andrews’ block once Mason moved to take on linebacker Avery Williamson (#54) coming downhill from the second level.
Throughout all this, Pennel remained active with his feet and was ultimately able to bench-press Andrews away from him to help stop running back Rex Burkhead (#34). Once again his strength and play recognition allowed him to do this; two traits that should help him quickly get up to speed in New England and while playing in a rotation that includes another strong run defender in Lawrence Guy.
As noted above, Pennel is best suited to serve as an early-down run-stopper due to his size and strength. That being said, he also won’t be a liability against the pass if used that way even though he naturally saw most of his action in running and short-yardage situations in the past.
He won't be confused for an elite rusher, but Pennel goes full throttle and gives linemen everything they can handle, especially when he's able to get a good first step. May not look like much, but he manages to move Brady off his spot and gets into a nice hand dual with Thuney. pic.twitter.com/xyQhxzIiaz— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) March 14, 2019
On this play, Pennel aligned as a 1-technique over Andrews’ left shoulder and upon the snap was matched up one-on-one against Joe Thuney. With Tom Brady (#12) faking the hand-off, the defensive tackle was forced to push further up the field. Even though he’s not the fastest interior rusher, Pennel was able to challenge Thuney through his active hands and walk him back to a point at which the quarterback had to slightly step up a bit to deliver a pass.
Excellent first step and swim move to blow by Andrews. Uses Mason to help maintain his balance and gets around the corner to force a low throw from Brady. Pennel and Guy are gonna go great together. pic.twitter.com/a50HY4EwBB— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) March 14, 2019
Again matched up with David Andrews, one of the NFL’s best centers, Pennel was able to get a victory: he used a swim move to get around the lineman and was able to stay upright even through the push from the Patriots team captain. This ability to stay on his feet and keep working up the field was instrumental to get through the A-gap and into the backfield, forcing Brady to get rid of the football immediately.
While Pennel will never be confused with the likes of Aaron Donald or even the Patriots’ own Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler as an interior pass rusher, his skills in this area are evident. This, in turn, makes it harder for teams to successfully employ the play-action passing game against him — something that is easier versus more one-dimensional interior linemen such as Malcom Brown and Danny Shelton.
All in all, Pennel is an intriguing addition to the Patriots’ defense especially for his run-game contributions. He has the size, strength and quickness to successfully hold his ground versus the run, and could flourish alongside a similarly stout Lawrence Guy. New England’s defense, of course, works best when controlling the line of scrimmage through two-gap discipline and Pennel is built for doing that.
“How many 330-pound guys are there?” asked Patriots head coach Bill Belichick ahead of his team’s regular season finale against the New York Jets last season. “There’s just not that many of them. They’re always hard to find. For every guy that’s 330, there’s 20 that are 290. So, if you can find the 330 guys, or whatever the number is, that are as athletic and have the skill of guys that weigh 40 pounds less that play the same position, generally speaking, those guys are probably going to outperform the guys that are lesser.”
For the Patriots, the hope has to be that Pennel does just that. Safe to say that his tape so far looks encouraging as it reveals a player that is able to control the point of attack, be moved around the line and offer plenty of upside particularly versus the run.