As Bill Belichick took the podium Tuesday morning, the New England Patriots’ linebackers were at the center of attention. While Jahlani Tavai’s new two-year contract extension was a large part of that, the position group could be the center of attention against a high-powered Bills offense Thursday night.
After not forcing a punt against Buffalo in their past two games last season, New England spent the offseason remodeling their second level with the focus on team speed. Now with Buffalo on tap, the unit will be put to the test.
“I think our linebacker group has been a good, productive group for us,” Belichick said Tuesday. “I think they’ve all been productive for us. Raekwon [McMillian] and Mack [Wilson] certainly have but so has Jahlani [Tavai] and [Ja’Whaun Bentley]. Played on the end of the line, they’ve played off the ball, played in line at times. So the multiples that they’ve been able to give us and individually is definitely beneficial.”
As the Patriots learned last year, allowing Josh Allen to play in a clean pocket or extend plays with his leg is a recipe for disaster. New England’s pass rush must get after Allen while staying true to their rush lanes to not allow him outside of the pocket.
“Win percentage against a tackle don't really matter if you let your guy run through the B gap,” Matthew Judon said Monday.
“All four of us, or whoever is rushing, have to work together. We have to work together up front to try and keep him in front of us. Force him to be a passer — he’s a very dangerous passer — but I think we’ll stand with that instead of him running all over us. We just got to be discipline with our rush lanes and try not to just run past him and keep him in front of us.”
One way they can do this is using one of those new linebackers, Mack Wilson Sr. The Patriots have had success this year using a four-man rush with Wilson serving as a spy behind them. Wilson would then be able to move with Allen and let the Patriots traditional pass rushers pin their ears back.
“He’s fast, he’s very athletic. He gets to a lot of plays,” Belichick said. “One of the faster linebackers that we’ve had, probably around the league to tell you the truth. He gets to a lot of plays. So big advantage on some of the perimeter catch and runs or outside plays. Definitely a strength of his. And he’s a contact player. He’s had some explosive hits on runners and on blockers. He brings a level of physicality that's good.”
Last week against Minnesota, the Vikings’ passing attack picked on the Patriots’ middle-of-the-field coverage. It’s a similar tactic as to what Buffalo had success with last year targeting Bentley and Dont’a Hightower in pass coverage.
It would not be surprise if the Patriots opt to use their safeties more at the linebacker level to help with coverage this go around, but the new-look linebacking core will face the test they were ultimately built for Thursday night.