Despite its disappointing performance in the playoffs, the New England Patriots defense is coming off a solid overall season. Not counting scores given up by the offense or special teams, the unit surrendered only 15.8 points per game during the regular season — best in the league.
But while that performance was enough to bring the team back into the playoffs as the sixth seed in the AFC, it did not help the Patriots overcome Buffalo on wild card weekend: the Bills hung 47 points on a defense unable to get off the field.
Heading into the offseason, New England now will have to find a way to improve this side of the ball to be able to keep up with the elite offenses in the NFL today. The goal, at least according to inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo, is three-fold: get faster, get more explosive, get more playmakers onto the field.
“You always want to get faster, especially in today’s game. That’s at all spots, not only at linebacker or defensive line or in the backend,” Mayo said during an appearance on 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Zolak & Bertrand on Wednesday. “You always want to get faster, but what we covet here is just versatility and smarts, football intelligence. Those are things you definitely want to have on your team.
“Now, we have some guys who were new to the system last year which I expect going forward they’ll have a better understanding of that. Also through the draft and through free agency we’ll definitely look to get faster, look to get more explosive, and look to put more playmakers on the field.”
Led by a pair of Pro Bowlers — outside linebacker Matthew Judon and cornerback J.C. Jackson — the Patriots had a lot of playmakers on their defensive roster in 2021. The group finished the regular season ranked third in the league with 30 takeaways.
Heading into 2022, however, some turnover might be on the horizon. While Judon and a large portion of the starters remain under contract, key players such as Jackson, linebacker Dont’a Hightower or safety Devin McCourty are all headed towards unrestricted free agency. Given New England’s comparative lack of financial resources, retaining all of them as well as other in-house free agents will not be easy.
Mayo’s linebacker position in particular is one that could see some personnel changes. Hightower is joined on the free agents list by Ja’Whaun Bentley and Jamie Collins, while Kyle Van Noy’s $7.4 million salary cap hit might force the team into another tough decision.
What the future will hold at linebacker remains to be seen, but the Patriots are not oblivious to recent trends across the league. That said, Mayo pointed out that getting smaller might not be the answer New England is looking for to address the aforementioned issues of speed and explosiveness.
“The teams that are contrarians are really the ones causing these other guys problems,” Mayo said. “A lot of teams get smaller, they’re like, ‘We have to get smaller players out here.’ And then in the playoffs you run into a Tennessee Titans team where the running back is bigger than your linebackers. That’s a problem. So, are you preparing for the regular season or are you preparing for the playoffs? That’s how you have to think about it.
“You have to have a combination of the two. You want to have the perfect linebacker — big, fast, strong and do all those things — but those guys don’t come along, especially where we draft. When you think about it that way, the game is obviously getting faster. Teams are coming out in 11-personnel or smaller personnel groups, so you have to put more speed on the field to match that.”
Mayo added that the Patriots would be trying to keep their bigger linebackers on the field regardless of situation, and possibly use them to attack the pocket versus teams coming out to pass the ball. However, he also acknowledged that opponents found success by putting those same linebackers into run/pass conflicts.
The Bills and Miami Dolphins, for example, found success running RPO concepts late during the season. If the linebackers stayed back in their coverage zones, they would just run the ball versus lighter defensive fronts; if not, they would attack the underneath areas with the pass.
So, what will the answer look like for the Patriots? The next few months will tell. If Mayo is to be believed, however, an influx of talent better suited to counter those recent play-calling tendencies could be on the horizon. New England moving away from its core principles, on the other hand, probably not.