Matthew Judon was a revelation for the New England Patriots in 2021. Joining the team on a four-year, $54.5 million contract in free agency, he delivered arguably the best season of his career and was a core member of one of the league’s top defenses.
Appearing in all 18 of the Patriots’ games and taking the field for 900 of a possible 1,135 defensive snaps (79.3%), Judon led the team in virtually every pass rushing category. He notched 12.5 sacks — seventh in the NFL — as well as 14.5 quarterback hits and 18 additional hurries. He also was a productive run defender and eventually voted to his third straight Pro Bowl.
For as good as Judon was, his season was a tale of two halves: the ultra-productive first one from Week 1 through Week 13, and the quiet second half after New England’s Week 14 bye.
Up until that point, Judon had already set a new record for sacks in a single season under head coach Bill Belichick with 12.5 sacks. However, his production took a nosedive down the stretch and he ended the year going sack-less in five straight games.
So, what happened? To find out, we first need to take a look at what went right for Judon early in the season and how he generated his production.
Most of his sacks came against right tackles from a two-point stance (although he also brought down Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold from a three-point stance off the right edge in Week 9). Judon won by ripping through and around offensive tackles or by using his speed to set up inside counters.
Judon was also able to land a few quarterback hits versus left tackles by faking inside to set up outside chop-swipe-rip moves.
He additionally exposed an open chest with a bull rush against the Dallas Cowboys and later in that game even flashed a Dwight Freeney-esque spin move versus right tackle Terence Steele. On top of it all, he also showed great effort on a few of the disruptions he landed.
Of the 26 times Judon officially sacked or hit the opposing quarterback, 10 came when he was blocked by either a skill player or no one at all. While that might not be as impressive as beating an offensive lineman on an island, credit goes to Judon for capitalizing on these opportunities whenever they came around.
What happened from Week 15 on, though? Long story short, it had a lot to do with the opponents and circumstances.
For starters, Judon faced lethal scramblers in the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen and the Indianapolis Colts’ Carson Wentz in three of his final five games — scramblers who needed to be contained in the pocket rather than attacked straight-up. This led to more conservative edge rushes out of the veteran, and to working through blockers instead of around them, where Judon thrives.
Additionally, Judon also saw some double teams and chips on the line of scrimmage. Teams simply did their best to try to contain him and limit his impact as a pass rusher, even though he was a bit more effective when pinning his ears back or working around blockers (at one point nearly stripping Allen).
That said, Bills left tackle Dion Dawkins dominated him when he initiated contact and shut rushes down early. Judon also lost a bad rep against Colts tight end Mo Alie-Cox in Week 15.
Individual matchups aside, Indianapolis and Buffalo both contributed to Judon’s statistical ineffectiveness by using concepts meant to move the pocket and nullify the Patriots’ potent rush. Both teams used boot, sprint and option plays to move the pocket and make it more difficult for pressure to materialize.
Judon also bit hard on a few naked bootlegs where he was left unblocked play-side. In fairness, though, those plays are difficult to stop by design.
Both the Colts and the Bills simply did a good job of scheming up plays that limited Judon’s effectiveness, and by extension that of New England’s pass rush as a whole. What about the contests against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins in Weeks 17 and 18, though?
Against the Jaguars, Judon barely took the field. He was activated off the Covid-19 reserve list on the eve of the game and ended up playing just 10 snaps; he rushed the passer on just three of them but was able to breach the pocket on the first of his reps.
Versus Miami, meanwhile, Judon also saw a lack of pass rushing opportunities due to quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s tendency to get the ball out quickly. With Tagovailoa being more of a pocket passer, though, Judon was able to be aggressive at times and capitalized on his chances: he affected or got close to the second-year QB multiple times.
As with anything in football, there was more to Judon’s stat sheet disappearance than the data suggests.
He was rarely able to play to his strengths versus dual-threat quarterback Josh Allen and a formidable left tackle in Dion Dawkins, and had very few pass rushing opportunities versus the run-, RPO- and boot-heavy Colts and quick-hitting Dolphins. He also, as noted above, played only 10 defensive snaps versus the Jaguars.
Though there were certainly reps where he could have played better, Judon was still effective throughout the late-season dry spell. The numbers may not reflect it, but the film does: Judon did not suddenly fall off the cliff in December and January.
Instead, he faced obstacles in a short period of time he simply did not see all that often earlier during the season.