The New England Patriots defense had a big hole to fill along its defensive edge this offseason. While Matthew Judon was locked into one end-of-the-line spot, the one opposite him had been left unoccupied since veteran Kyle Van Noy was released in March.
There were several replacement candidates on the roster, and most of them have indeed contributed five weeks into the season. Anfernee Jennings has quietly put together a solid campaign; Josh Uche has as well and is on pace to double his quarterback pressures from last year; Jahlani Tavai has carved out a versatile role both on and off the line of scrimmage.
Matthew Judon’s No. 1 running mate, however, has been Deatrich Wise Jr.
A fourth-round draft pick by the Patriots in 2017, Wise Jr. is in the middle of his best career to date — making that famous sixth-year jump, it seems. His emergence has not only helped the team address one of its biggest holes, it also has helped Judon return to the Pro Bowl-level play he has shown in 2021.
Five weeks into the season, the veteran edge is tied for the NFL led with six sacks. He is the lone player to register at least one quarterback takedown in every game so far, has also forced a fumble that was returned for a touchdown, and was named AFC Defensive Player of Week 5 just recently.
Judon is an outstanding player, there is no question about it. According to head coach Bill Belichick, though, the role Wise Jr. has played opposite him should also not be understated.
“Ju’s a force on the end of the line of scrimmage, we know that, and Wise has done a really good job for us this year. He’s been extremely productive,” Belichick told reporters earlier this week. “So, when you have one, having another one helps that player.
“I learned that at the Giants. Having Carl Banks helped Lawrence Taylor more than anything. Lawrence Taylor was a great player before Banks, and with or without Banks, he was a great player — tremendous, greatest defensive player. But with Banks, he became even more of a force, because of Banks on the other side. Wise on the other side.”
Comparing the Judon-Wise combo to Lawrence-Banks is some high praise coming from Belichick; Lawrence is a Hall of Famer and both were voted to the NFL’s Team of the 1980s. That said, the situation is somewhat comparable: one quality player can only do so much as part of a defense were all 11 pieces are of immense value.
Having a high-profile running mate therefore makes the job of said player easier. Wise Jr. has proven himself that running mate for Judon this year, just as Banks was for Taylor three decades ago.
“Having the balance at the other positions does a lot for any good player, honestly,” Belichick said. “The other complimentary pieces there, I think, they’re important too.”
The production Belichick’s team has received out of Judon and Wise Jr. speaks for itself. The duo has combined to register 10 sacks as well as 25 additional quarterback pressures, per Pro Football Focus. Its reliability extends beyond the stats, though: Wise Jr. and Judon are also ranked second and fifth on the team in defensive snaps.
Their ability to play quality football on a snap-to-snap basis has helped New England again field one of the NFL’s better defensive units — one that just shut out the league’s highest-scoring offense, the Detroit Lions’, in Week 5.
So, how have they done it? According to Wise Jr. himself, the chemistry between him and Judon has been the foundation of it.
“We have great chemistry, I believe, on the field,” he said. “He’ll say something, I’ll say something, and we just kind of know where we are. We know who we are — I know who he is, he knows who I am. He’ll just tell me a word and I’ll do it, and vice versa.”
While the way the Patriots filled that Van Noy-sized hole along their edge might have been a surprising one given how Wise Jr. was employed the last few seasons, but the newly minted team captain has shown himself capable of producing in a prominent role. Same as his running mate, really.