The New England Patriots had multiple issues in 2020, but the lack of proper defensive tackle depth was among the most glaring. Sure, Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler played some solid football, but the team was lacking the big-bodied space eaters it had available in years past — the Vince Wilforks, Teddy Washingtons or Danny Sheltons.
The Patriots tried multiple players at the nose position, but they were either miscast or unable to hold down the fort for an extended period of time. A do-over was needed, and New England invested considerable resources to get it done.
The first few days of the NFL’s free agency period already saw the team make some big moves. Davon Godchaux was signed to a two-year deal, while Carl Davis was brought back for one more year. Furthermore, the Patriots bolstered their defensive line depth depth by adding the likes of Henry Anderson and re-signing Lawrence Guy and Deatrich Wise Jr. — and they were not done either.
In the second round of the draft, New England moved up to select Alabama’s Christian Barmore. Seven months later, he and the rest of the offseason investments have helped the Patriots put their defensive tackle issues behind them.
“They really do a good job, and to have more than one of them so that you can have somewhat of a rotation, keep them fresh, and attack the middle of the offensive line, whether it’s run or pass from the guard to the guard-center gap to the center in different ways, it can be very disruptive,” said head coach Bill Belichick about the group following Thursday’s 25-0 win over the Atlanta Falcons.
That game against Atlanta saw the Patriots’ interior D-line play some strong football, most prominently in short yardage situations. After giving up a 10-yard run on 4th-and-1 earlier in the game, the group generated a considerable push in three subsequent “and-1” situations: one led to a 13-yard Kyle Van Noy sack, the other to consecutive runs for no gain on third and fourth down in the New England red zone.
“You have to block them on every play,” Belichick added about his team’s interior defenders. “It’s not like a corner or an outside linebacker; somebody you can run away from or work the other side on. Those guys in the middle of the formation, the defensive tackles, the middle linebackers, they’ve got to deal with them on every play. The depth and the ability to have more than one guy do that has been huge. They’ve all done a good job.”
The story of the defensive tackle position is therefore one reflective of New England’s 2021 as a whole: the team identified an issue coming off a disappointing campaign, made proper investments over the course of the offseason, and is now reaping the benefits.