An NFL defense is primarily defined by statistical categories: from the big one — points allowed — to other ones such as sacks, yards, and takeaways. How teams accomplish success in all these different areas varies with talent and scheme as two of the most prominent factors impacting it. Among the underrated yet not any less important ones, however, also is a defense’s ability to communicate.
The New England Patriots have one big advantage in this area over other teams: they field one of the most experienced defensive units in all of football. The group, which is built around a nucleus that has won three Super Bowls in the last five years, features fourteen players with five or more seasons of NFL play on their respective résumés. Furthermore, much of the starting lineup has remained intact heading towards the 2019 season.
According to linebacker Dont’a Hightower, a member of that aforementioned nucleus, this makes life noticeably easier for the entire defense. “Guys know what to expect — the accountability that we put on each other and the ownership that we take whenever we come out to the field, and whatever we do when we go back in and watch film,” the 29-year-old told reporters after the Patriots opened their training camp on Thursday.
This familiarity with the system and each other helps improve the entire unit, added Hightower: “The more you communicate and the more you talk, the more confirmation and I guess being comfortable being with everyone that’s around you. There might be some times where somebody doesn’t know what to do, but that communication can kind of get them back on track. So as long as all eleven guys are out there talking, we’re on the right roll.”
Hightower, of course, plays a crucial role in the communication within New England’s defense: he is the unit’s on-field signal caller and as such has to make sure every one of his teammates knows the situation and lines up in the right spot. That being said, the Patriots do rely not just on him to communicate. Every player on the field needs to be able to receive and relay information consistently.
“Everybody in that linebacker room is a big communicator, from me to Jamie [Collins] to Kyle [Van Noy] to [Christian] Sam to [Ja’Whaun] Bentley to Calvin Munson to Brandon King,” added Hightower while speaking about the role New England’s linebackers play when it comes to defensive communication. “Everybody’s able to communicate and talk. I think that’s a big thing especially being a linebacker you’ve got to be able to communicate.”
As noted above, of course, communication extends beyond the linebackers — and beyond the field, really. The coaching staff also needs to be on the same page as the players, and as Kyle Van Noy pointed out last week, one of them has a solid foundation to build upon: outside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo, who served as New England’s on-field signal caller for large portions of his eight-year playing career with the Patriots.
“I think him and all the coaches are helping out as best as they can. Mayo is very smart, really good coach, great at communication — and that will help us during the season,” said Van Noy about the 33-year-old who is in his first season as an assistant coach. Despite his comparative lack of coaching experience, however, Mayo has regularly called the defensive plays from the sideline during practice. He will not be the unit’s coordinator this year, but his career path as a coach seems to be predetermined.
Mayo’s position group consists of multiple experienced players, but it is not the only such unit on the team: the Patriots’ secondary also features plenty of veterans. According to cornerback Jason McCourty, who joined the team via trade last offseason and was re-signed to a two-year deal this year, the familiarity the defensive backs have with each other is one of the reasons why the unit enjoyed tremendous success last year — and why it is expected to again be among the NFL’s best in 2019.
“Having those relationships, the communication, I think it helps us there,” said 31-year-old. “We’ve gone through a lot of things together especially for us in the secondary being able to return a lot of guys. You’re saying terms and different things that a lot of guys are already used to. I know for myself last year, sometimes they say something and I’m just like, ‘Hey, everybody wasn’t here two years ago.’ I think now having those relationships and guys being here, you kind of can pick up where you left off as far as terminology and things of that nature.”
In this regard, the entire Patriots secondary is well assembled: the unit has experience across the board, which in turn should guarantee that communication works well heading into the new season. And if it does, success should follow.