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There is reason for optimism with Patriots linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley

Related: Film room: Patriots defense stands its ground at the goal line

Arizona Cardinals v New England Patriots Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images

Ja’Whaun Bentley has had been the target of almost non-stop criticism from New England Patriots fans since the beginning of the season. For the most part, it was warranted, because he simply has not played well. That was not the case on against the Arizona Cardinals last Sunday, though, as he was not just the Patriots’ leading tackler but instrumental in helping to make some huge plays that led to the team’s 20-17 victory.

This is encouraging news for a New England defense that has been struggling without a consistent player in the middle of the defense this season. And there is some actual reason for optimism that we might be seeing the start of a new trend from the much-maligned defender.

But, why would we think that Sunday might be the start of something good for Bentley moving forward? A look at recent history is all it takes.

The Patriots traded up to select Dont’a Hightower in the first round of the 2012 draft, and he became an immediate starter on defense. He even scored a touchdown in his first game, when he recovered a fumble and returned it for six points against the Tennessee Titans. However, Hightower was actually rather underwhelming during his first season-and-a-half in the league. He looked slow and really never flashed as much as you would expect from a first-round investment.

That all changed on a November night against the Broncos in 2013. He only finished with three tackles in the Patriots’ come-from-behind victory, but was all over the field covering running backs and making smart plays. Since that night, he has been one of the most important and consistent players on the New England defense. It hasn’t always shown up on the stat sheet, but he always seems to be in the right spot at the right time.

In case you’re wondering, that was the 25th game of Hightower’s career. Sunday was the 27th game of Bentley’s career.

I’m not going to pretend that Hightower and Bentley were close to the same players coming out of school, but scouts did have concerns about the former’s agility and athleticism in space. If Bentley can make a leap similar to Hightower’s, he can turn into a competent player for the Patriots moving forward. No one, including me, thinks that he can be a Hightower-type player, but he could be a decent off-the-ball linebacker nonetheless, which is a lot more than most people think is possible.

Bentley led the team in tackles on Sunday, and he now has 63 of them on the season — good for second most on the team. He has physical limitations, and we all know that, but if his experience playing in the middle of the defense can put him in the right position to make plays, he might be able to shake off some of the negative comments made by fans and analysts alike.

For the Patriots’ sake, let’s hope he’s able to build on this solid game.

Pat is a host of The Patriot Nation Podcast. Interact with him on Twitter @plane_pats.