The New England Patriots featured the best scoring defense in football during the 2019 season, and much of the unit’s success was built on the play of its secondary. Led by the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, cornerback Stephon Gilmore, the unit posted some impressive numbers: it surrendered a completion percentage of 56.4% (311 of 551) on the year, and just 2,958 passing yards in 17 combined regular season and playoff games.
The most impressive statistic, however, might have been the defense’s ability to limit big plays and produce turnovers on a consistent basis.
Opposing quarterbacks were therefore able to throw a mere 14 touchdown passes all season against New England’s defense, compared to a league-leading 26 interceptions. The passer rating that results by adding all the numbers up and running them through the league’s formula is worse than that of the NFL’s least efficient qualifying QB in 2019: the Cincinnati Bengals’ Andy Dalton finished the season with a 78.3, the Patriots with 60.3.
2019 is already in the rear-view mirror, however, and the focus for the unit — one that retained all its core players with the exception of number three safety Duron Harmon — has to shift towards the challenges that lie ahead: playing one of the most difficult schedules in the league on paper during the 2020 season, and having to once again serve as the backbone of not just the defense but possibly the Patriots’ new-look offense as well.
With that in mind, cornerback Jonathan Jones recently spoke about what the unit can do to not just stay on its current high level of play but potentially get even better.
“I think, individually, it just starts with improvement,” he said during a recent conference call with the New England media. “I think every guy kind of goes back to some of his plays that he didn’t make or that he was close to making the year before and just finding a way, whether it’s mentally or physically, to get closer to making those plays.”
“As far as it goes as a unit, communicate everything. Communication, every aspect — nothing in life is 100 percent, but that’s always our goal is to be 100 percent. So, just finding those areas that we have had in the past and trying to fix those,” Jones continued. “We have a lot of veteran leadership and a lot of guys that are up to the task of just continuing to strive for perfection.”
Jones, entering his fifth season in the Patriots’ system, is one of those veteran leaders. A former undrafted rookie free agent, who quickly established himself as a viable slot cornerback, he appeared in 71 games since arriving in New England in 2016 and helped the club win two Super Bowls. Along the way, he earned himself a three-year, $21 million contract extension that reflects his status as one of the best interior coverage defenders in the league.
And yet, Jones also sees room for growth in his own personal performance entering 2020 especially in one area: turnovers.
“A big personal goal of mine this year is to help contribute on the team as far as more turnovers in that aspect,” he said coming off a season in which he did force a pair of fumbles and had nine pass-breakups but did not register any takeaways. Being able to get his hands on the football to turn it over would help make Jones an even more dangerous defender after he allowed just 32 of 56 passes thrown his way to be completed over the course of the 2019 season.
As for the team as a whole, on the other hand, the 26-year-old sees being on the same page as a priority.
“I think the whole team — it starts up front, the secondary — just all working together as one group,” Jones said. “That’s what we have to start this year to get anywhere close to where we were last year. It’s a whole new year, a whole new defense, a whole new team. So, just figuring out who we are as a team and how we win best on defense is our task this year.”
“I know we use the word communication over and over, because in football that’s so key to making sure you get 11 guys to see the same picture at the same time,” he added. “So, in the back end, just having those guys who have seen the same thing over and over, and there’s subtle communication between each other that we’ve grown an understanding. Just getting back to that once we get on the field, I think we’ll be a step ahead.”