The New England Patriots defense may have had its issues in 2020, but it was able to bring the heat in pass rushing situations. The Patriots generated pressure either through sacks, hits or hurries on 26.4 percent of opponents’ dropbacks, the fifth best such number in the NFL during the regular season.
Not all pressure is the same, however. While New England’s pass rushers were able to repeatedly bring the heat, the group led by second-year linebacker Chase Winovich and defensive tackle Adam Butler made few big plays: opposing quarterbacks were sacked just 24 times all season, tied for 26th in the league.
The goal for 2021 has to be to convert a higher percentage of pressure plays into sacks, and one player who should help New England do that is free agency addition Matthew Judon.
A former fifth-round draft pick out of Grand Valley State who turned into a starter for the Baltimore Ravens over the last five years, Judon was signed to a four-year, $56 million contract at the start of free agency. The deal sends a clear sign: Judon is expected to play a sizable role within the Patriots’ defense this season — one that he should be well-suited to play given his diverse skillset and experience in both the running and passing games.
While his ability to set a stout edge to funnel run plays into the middle of the defense will be immensely valuable for a defense that struggled to consistently do that last season, his pass rush is where he will make the biggest impact. So, what does he offer?
Speed, and plenty of it.
Based on Matthew Judon's 2020 wins in 1v1 situations, he's a speed rusher thru and thru.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) March 19, 2021
Good snap anticipation and burst off the line to get OL spooked early.
From there, he wins with precise hand fighting, leverage, and impressive balance to run the arc and flatten to the QB pic.twitter.com/iM95l3kCuK
Judon (#99) has the skillset to line up in numerous spots all over the Patriots’ front-diverse defense, but his edge rush in particular projects to be one of the main assets. New England, after all, was unable to get consistent contributions out of the group last year: Chase Winovich was solid and finished with a team-leading 5.5 sacks, but the other edge linebackers had a hard time taking down the quarterback.
As can be seen above, Judon knows how to do that due to his ability to time his rushes well and his technical proficiency. He keeps his hands active and has a wide arsenal of countermoves once engaged, and is able to bend well around the corner. His balance in combination with his burst also is impressive: if you allow him to run the arc from a wide technique it is hard to slow him down.
Patriots rookie tackle Michael Onwenu found that out last year, when Judon was able to get around him for a sack against Cam Newton. It was one of the few times Onwenu was beat straight-up during his encouraging 2020 season, with the veteran defender winning the leverage game and getting low around the blocker’s waist.
Onwenu’s burst also is on display when used on stunts like the ones New England loves to run:
Judon's burst and mobility translate well to line stunts, where he's shown to be an effective and disciplined looper.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) March 19, 2021
Hands and motor also flashed when he played the role of penetrator to free up teammates pic.twitter.com/oA8wPYmXMe
New England likes to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks and offensive lines not just due to straight-up rush concepts, but stunts as well. Edge rushers like Judon regularly move behind interior defenders to challenge an offensive line’s communication and chemistry, and force passers — especially inexperienced ones — to make calculated decisions not knowing where pressure might be coming from.
But even when he is not getting home to impact the quarterback, Judon has shown that he can be a playmaker.
Big fan of Judon's intangibles. Instincts and effort all over his tape.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) March 19, 2021
Not an easy guy to run screens against and gives maximum effort whether he's chasing down ball carriers from across the field or recovering from a stalled initial rush pic.twitter.com/edATM786Kr
Judon’s instincts are one of his best traits, and all over his tape. As can be seen on the examples above, he reacts well when unable to get past the offensive line and is quick to get his hands up to block potential passing lanes. He also has the necessary patience not to overrun screen or misdirection plays, waiting for them to develop before making his move.
On top of this, Judon is a high-effort player. As such, he fits in well with the Patriots’ current group of outside linebacker — from Winovich and second-year man Josh Uche to the recently re-signed Kyle Van Noy. They have all shown a hot-running motor in pursuit and when chasing down plays from the backside.
All of this considered, and keeping in mind a solid athletic foundation built around speed and short-area burst, Judon should be an instant upgrade along New England’s defensive edge. Well-suited to fill a starter-level player over both the left and right tackle, the ex-Raven can succeed in multiple roles and should be able to handle diverse responsibilities on all three downs.
BAL gave Judon a lot of different responsibilities, including a good chunk of coverage reps.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) March 19, 2021
Think he's the perfect guy to fill John Simon's shoes at ROLB, as the two are smart, disciplined veterans with Judon being an upgrade athletically pic.twitter.com/y0KcFXQg4I
All in all, Judon brings a well-rounded skillset to the Patriots’ defensive edge. His potential as a run defender and pass rusher in New England’s scheme, as well as his versatility and experience, makes him an intriguing addition whose impact should be felt from Day One.
The team identified a weakness, and invested in a player who just screams “Patriot” before even having played one down for his new club.