When it rains, it pours. The New England Patriots were not just blown out by the Dallas Cowboys in Week 4, losing with a final score of 38-3, they also had to watch to of their starting defenders go down with injuries.
Cornerback Christian Gonzalez was lost in the first quarter due to a shoulder injury, with edge linebacker Matthew Judon suffering a biceps injury in the fourth. Both are reportedly “out indefinitely” while looking for second opinions on their respective ailments.
While it remains to be seen how long the Patriots will have to operate without them, it appears both will be unavailable for the foreseeable future and potentially sent to injured reserve. Needless to say that this is a blow for one of the league’s top defenses: Gonzalez and Judon are three-down players, and among the best and most important players on the team.
Let’s take a look at each situation individually, though, to find out what it means for the Patriots in the grand scheme of things.
CB Christian Gonzalez: Dislocated shoulder
Four of the top five cornerbacks are now injured: Gonzalez is just the latest Patriots cornerback to go down with an injury. The 21-year-old therefore follows a path also traveled by Jonathan Jones, Jack Jones and Marcus Jones: Jonathan missed three straight games with an ankle injury, while Jack (hamstring) and Marcus (torn labrum) are both on injured reserve.
Jack is eligible to return as soon as this week, but so far has not been reactivated. As a consequence, New England is currently down four of its top five cornerbacks. The last man standing is fourth-year man Myles Bryant, who played 100 percent of defensive snaps against the Cowboys.
Myles Bryant and Shaun Wade are the starting cornerbacks, for now: With those four players mentioned above now out, the Patriots’ depth is being tested quite a bit. What this means is that Myles Bryant will continue filling a starting role, possibly even after Jonathan and Jack Jones return from their ailments. Likewise, Shaun Wade will continue to play prominent snaps until the group as a whole gets healthier.
Jalen Mills’ versatility comes into play: Another factor to consider for the Patriots is safety Jalen Mills. The veteran only moved to his current position this offseason, after having spent the last two years as a starting perimeter cornerback. New England might opt to reinsert him into the cornerback depth chart, but it appears his future might be in the slot rather than on the outside: 21 of his season-high 26 defensive snaps on Sunday came inside.
Initially figured Jalen Mills would move back to outside corner with Gonzo out— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) October 2, 2023
But after watching his slot snaps vs the Cowboys, I hope we see more of Mills inside where his physicality and instincts can really shine pic.twitter.com/A4hAkUrKkG
Jerod Mayo will likely remain the last Patriot to win DROY: This has nothing to do with the 2023 team per se, but with Gonzalez set to miss time due to his shoulder injury it seems to eliminate him from the list of candidates to win Defensive Rookie of the Year. DraftKings Sportsbook had him listed with the third-best odds entering Week 4 at +750; now, he is ranked fifth at +3000.
Accordingly, it seems likely that former linebacker and current assistant coach Jerod Mayo remains the last Patriot to win the award. The former first-round draft pick took the trophy home after the 2008 season.
ED Matthew Judon: Lower bicep tendon tear
The Patriots lose their most disruptive defender: Four games into the season, Judon sits atop the Patriots’ internal leaderboard in multiple pass rush categories. He has notched the most sacks (4.0), quarterback hits (5) and total pressures (16) among the team’s defenders so far this season.
While the team also has gotten quality contributions from the likes of Josh Uche, Deatrich Wise Jr. and Christian Barmore, losing the 31-year-old means losing a player offenses have to account for on every down.
Replacing Judon will not be a one-man job: Judon was unique among the Patriots’ edge defenders in that he was able to both set a stout edge in the run game and attack the pocked as a pass rusher at a high level. The other outside linebackers on the roster, meanwhile, are comparatively one-dimensional: Anfernee Jennings is more of a run defender, with Josh Uche a designated pass rusher.
Nonetheless, they will now have to carry the load alongside versatile rookie Keion White. Whether that means more snaps outside their traditional comfort zones, or a more aggressive rotation, remains to be seen.
Keion White’s usage should increase: Speaking of White, he is probably best suited among the three to play a Judon-like role as an all-around edge. If the Patriots trust him to do that, his usage should see a spike in the coming weeks. It also should change a bit: so far the Patriots employed him all over the line, using him on the edge but also as an end similar to Deatrich Wise Jr.
Moving forward, a more clearly-defined role as an edge linebacker à la Judon might be in the cards for the second-round draft pick.
Deatrich Wise Jr. and Jahlani Tavai might also factor into the equation: While the aforementioned Deatrich Wise Jr. has been used primarily on the inside this season — lining up between 1- to the 4i-technique spots — but he has experience on the edge as well and might see some action there in select packages.
They don't play the same position, but Deatrich Wise's versatility and disruptive ability will be big in Judon's absence— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) October 2, 2023
Here's the DL is using good pad level to make plays vs run, then swiping and powering his way into the backfield pic.twitter.com/WYbBxoZc0x
The same is true for Jahlani Tavai, who is no classic off-the-ball linebacker but rather a versatile move option in the mold of ex-Patriots Dont’a Hightower or Kyle Van Noy. He, too, might see more action on the line with Judon absent.