By pretty much any objective statistical measure, the New England Patriots defense in 2021 was kicking ass and taking names, until the point where they, um, didn’t in the playoffs.
New England’s D ended the season ranked fourth in both of Football Outsiders’ DVOA and Weighted DVOA metrics, with the squad surprisingly ranked third in Passing Defense DVOA and a respectable ninth against the run. If old-school stats are more your bag, the Pats finished second in the entire league in points allowed, allowed the league’s second-fewest passing yards per game at a mere 187.1, while the run defense was decidedly meh, averaging 123.7 yards a game on the ground.
Then, well, against the Buffalo Bills with their season on the line, saying the team melted down is probably still giving them too much credit because “melting down” would imply that the decline in performance was at least somewhat gradual. All due credit and respect to Josh Allen and friends and all that, but the Pats’ defensive performance in their first playoff game since 2019 was somewhere between Jaguars-level and 11 dudes all manually controlling a separate defensive player in Madden.
Even if it looked like the Patriots D knew what was coming, they simply couldn’t stop it, and it’s really a coin flip on any given play whether coverage busts were simply being outclassed athletically, players’ nerves and/or bad habits getting the best of them, or varying combinations of both. I mean, you saw it. It was bad.
So now, we’ve got a whole freakin’ offseason to undertake the Zelda quest of retooling the defense to simply be able to hang in there punch for punch with the AFC’s finest. And just like a Zelda quest, there’s probably more than one way to get to where we want to be, but it sure seems like pretty much everyone from the fans to the talking heads to the Patriots alumni to, well, us, is arriving at the same conclusion.
Including Rodney Harrison, who certainly needs no introduction ‘round these parts, except maybe the part where we wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t shout from the rooftops that it’s a travesty, a sham, and a mockery — a traveshamockery — that he continues to be snubbed by the Hall of Fame because he was mean to your favorite team back in the day. Ask Bill Belichick, he’ll be happy to tell you.
Anyway, Rodney hopped on Tom E. Curran’s Patriots Talk podcast on Tuesday and after talking Mac Jones for a few minutes, the conversation moved on to Harrison’s most beloved wheelhouse of elite defense. As always, Rod didn’t lack for “geez, tell us how you really feel” analysis.
Tom: Was it distressing to watch the way the Patriots defense - we’re going to stay on the state of the Patriots topic — was it distressing to see — well, I can already see, let it loose.
Rodney: It hurt, you know, to see the Patriots defense just get run over, just get pushed, just get bullied. And I’m just like, where’s that guy, where’s that stud in the secondary, where’s that linebacker, where’s that tough guy up front that’s going to say “You know what? I’m going to come up and just pop Josh Allen, and knock the living piss out of him, so we can send a message”. They don’t have that guy, and if I’m coach Belichick, I’m getting younger, I’m getting younger at linebacker, I’m getting a little younger at the secondary, but I’m bringing the enforcer in, a guy that can hit in the secondary, but also an athletic guy like a Nakobe Dean from the University of Georgia, an athletic linebacker that can go from sideline to sideline, that can blitz, that can just take over the defense. That’s what they need.
Tom: You know, I think Dugger can be that. He was diminished a little bit at the end of the year, there were comparisons to you, which were obviously premature, but just more in a playing style. But I think I agree with you in that they need that second level guy, who can go sideline to sideline. I mean, Dont’a Hightower is an older player now, Jamie Collins is an older player. You need somebody - Micah Parsons doesn’t grow on trees, but is that kind of what you’re driving at?
Rodney: Yeah, I mean, you need an athletic linebacker, someone that can come in like the kid from Georgia, like I talked about, someone that can come in right away and play, and not only play but play at a high level, and take over that defense, and take over that defense and show a level of enthusiasm, show some speed, show some athleticism. That’s what the Patriots need. When you watch them, they look slow. And it’s nothing worse than a slow team that’s not a very super-tough team, that’s not a very physical team. So if it’s me, if I’m coach Belichick, I’m focusing on bringing in some of those dogs. I gotta get me a dog up in that huddle, somebody that’s going to grab somebody, somebody that’s not afraid to get in everybody’s face, hell, somebody that might take a late hit, and it might be 15 yards, but so what? You send a message! You know, I just need that guy.
Before you write this all off as a bunch of hardo overcompensating, recall that Bill Belichick himself has said on multiple occasions that Rodney’s intensity that someone turned the knob to 110 percent and then broke off the key made everyone on the defense better and got everyone competing harder.
Anyway. Back to Rodney’s five-point plan...
Tom: Yeah, I mean, as I told you soon after you joined the team, you are a player who I would have happily paid the price of admission to watch, because there was always chaos around you, and the other team knew that as well. I’m wondering too: we’ve seen such an outflow of brainpower from the Patriots, whether it be coaching staff with Dante Scarnecchia, um, Ernie Adams leaving, Ivan Fears may leave soon, he’s getting older, McDaniels is gone, Ziegler is gone, Caserio is gone. Does that leave a dent? Does that leave you concerned about the future, and the end of Bill’s tenure? Obviously, he’s in the autumn of his career.
Rodney: Well, I mean, obviously when you have a lot of success, guys are going to have opportunities, you know that. For me, Bill’s structure, he’s going to continue to implement his son, and some younger people. And I’m not really worried about it because those guys will fall in line, but it’s definitely going to affect not only just the football team immediately, but the organization long-term, if you don’t get those guys in there. I don’t care how much experience you go out and get, you still have to have the continuity. They still have to know how your system works. So, it’s going to be a bit of a transition, but I do believe that coach Belichick, he’s going to hire capable guys around him. Hey, he might be hiring Brian Flores as the defensive coordinator as a defensive coordinator again! I would give him another opportunity, why not if he doesn’t get another head coaching job?”
Younger. Faster. More athletic. Sideline-to-sideline versatility. Meaner. Dictating the terms of the game instead of being dictated to. It may not be rocket science, but surely tape grinders, analytics guys, and casual fans alike can agree that what Rodney Harrison’s describing could be exactly what the doctor ordered for a 2021 defense that seems perfectly comfortable boat-racing the lesser teams in football and then got knocked around at will when they faced playoff-caliber competition like the Cowboys, the Colts, or (ugh) the Bills.
(yes, the Indianapolis Colts eventually ended up missing the playoffs, but them not being able to take care of business against the freakin’ Jaguars in Week 18 is the 2014 AFC Finalist’s problem, not ours)
First and foremost, Rodney’s dream scenario of Nakobe Dean almost certainly won’t happen; aside from Nakobe being off the board well before the Patriots pick at 21 in most mock drafts so far, the odds of Bill Belichick drafting a linebacker that’s within a few pounds of the aforementioned Kyle Dugger instead of his preferred 240+lb thumpers at the second level seems like a snowball’s chance at best. Plus, like our boy Pat Lane’s mock draft last week pointed out, there’s more than a couple linebacker prospects out there that check the size + speed box like Wisconsin’s Leo Chenal far better than some of the vintage-safety-size linebackers we see in college ball now.
Second, regardless of whether you think Bill’s archetypes for D-line, linebacker, and secondary players is permanently stuck in the mid-2000s or not, more athleticism is an absolute must. Rodney’s dead-on-balls-accurate about that, and while it seems armchair-quarterback-y to call the 1 percent of the 1 percent of freak athletes that make it to the NFL “not athletic enough”, after watching New England’s D get Mossed and run over by the league’s elite, it’s really the only conclusion you can come to. Like Rodney said, guys like younger, mid-20s Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins (and Devin McCourty, among others) were literal athletic freaks that also happened to be some of the smartest guys in football, and even now in their early/mid-30s it’s not like those guys play badly, they’re just outclassed at this point by dudes that are somewhere between five, eight, and ten years their junior. There’s no shame in that, it’s just acknowledging it’s time for a rebuild similar to the very same one that Rodney himself retired during when those guys that are now considered part of the old guard were brought into the system in the first place.
And finally, as far as leadership, intensity, being a dog, whatever you want to call it is concerned, like Charlie Weis once said about Rodney himself, if you got it, you got it:
Leadership is something that isn’t feigned. Either you have it or you don’t have it. Rodney obviously had the leadership. It didn’t take but a short time for the team to recognize and look to him for guidance.
Certainly, there’s the possibility that either rookie DT Christian Barmore, newcomer EDGE Matt Judon, or Kyle Dugger in his third season could take up that mantle. Could some newfound swag and badassery come via the draft, a la the Cincinnati Bengals, or veteran BAMFs, like the Los Angeles Rams, both of whom are going to square off while we’re housing nachos on Sunday night did it? Also certainly. The one thing that’s for certain, though, is like Charlie Weis said, no matter who provides the fire and proves it on the field to push everyone harder, it can’t be faked. Faking it is how you end up eating a W.
Respectfully, nobody’s suggesting that the 2022 New England Patriots will win with stingy defense. Any team in the modern (old-timey voice) NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE that thinks they can win that way deserves to be laughed out of whatever watering hole they’re inhabiting. That being said, a defense that can at least give you an edge, play sticky man coverage, and make even the elite of the elitest quarterbacks feel some pain every once in a while is still worth its weight in gold, era be damned. And whether that player or players that can do that are already in the New England locker room or will be arriving just a few weeks from now, it’s not at all hyperbole to say the defense is a dog or two away from being the oxidizer that lets the offense and Mac Jones do their thing and pew-pew-pew our way to... whatever we’re calling this next phase of the dynasty.