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Patriots’ week 17 Defensive Film Review: A new beginning

Publish Date: 01/06/2023
Fact checked by: Mike Goodpaster

The New England Patriots defense has been the strong point of this team all season long. That does not mean that it was always smooth sailing for this defense. After consecutive losses to the Minnesota Vikings and the Buffalo Bills, in which the defense allowed wide receivers Justin Jefferson and Stefon Diggs to have excellent performances, there was an identity crisis.

The coaching staff returned to the drawing board and flipped their defensive strategy upside down. They changed from a defense that frequently played man to man coverage to a defense that plays zone coverage almost exclusively. The results? So far, they have been impressive.

Since the 24-10 loss to the Bills in week 13, the Patriots have played more zone coverage than any other team in the NFL, according to Sports Info Solutions. In their 23-21 win over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, they utilized zone coverage more than 80 per cent of the time.

How exactly has this helped the defense, and who has benefited the most? Well, the pass rush has been revitalized. In the initial three games after their week ten bye, the Patriots defense combined for 21 total pressures (sacks, QB hits and hurries), generating pressure at a 19.6 per cent clip. Since their philosophy changed, the defense has had 64 total pressures in their last four games, generating pressure at a 33.5 per cent clip.

It remains unknown whether this style of defense can hold up against the more explosive offenses in the league. Typically, zone coverage is very strong when the pass rush gets home but can be gashed if the offensive protection holds up. With all that being said, letโ€™s take a closer look at some individual performances:

Defensive Tackle Christian Barmore

ย Barmore was a one-man wrecking crew on Sunday afternoon. On 28 pass rush snaps, Barmore registered one sack, three QB hits and three hurries. He was only in on five run defense snaps and recorded one stuff.

Returning from injury in week 15, Barmore did not look to be at full strength in the last two matchups. Against the Dolphins, he reminded fans why there was so much optimism around the second-year defensive tackle heading into the season.

Matthew Judon and Josh Uche have done an incredible job this season generating pressure from the edge, but the lack of interior pressure allowed opposing quarterbacks to step into the pocket and throw without much pressure in their face. Barmore changed that on Sunday and was constantly in the Miami backfield. The hope is Barmore has a strong finish to this season and can carry his momentum into next season.

Safety Kyle Dugger

ย Two pick-sixes in three weeks have Kyle Duggerโ€™s name all over social media and NFL highlight reels, but Patriots fans have been patiently waiting for Dugger to round out into an all-around defensive back. He has been a difference-maker in the run game since he was drafted, but Duggerโ€™s plays in space in recent weeks have Patriots fans very excited.

Duggerโ€™s improved play in coverage is a testament to his work ethic, both on the field and in the film room. He is learning to read the eyes of the quarterback but is not overreacting to any action by the offense. He showed great poise and anticipation on the pick-six against Miami, dropping to his middle zone and quickly recognising where Teddy Bridgewater wanted to go with the ball. He used his great athleticism to make yet another game-changing play.

Defensive Backs Jonathan Jones, Myles Bryant and Jabrill Peppers

ย I grouped these three defensive backs together because I thought they were excellent at doing their jobs. It has been some time since that mantra echoed in Foxborough, but it was evident this time around.

The Patriots defensive coaching staff has done a great job in changing the defenseโ€™s structure seemingly overnight and playing to their playersโ€™ strengths. Instead of asking their defensive backs to play in press-man coverage, they were asked to disguise their alignment and make tackles in space. Both of those boxes were checked.

Jones, Bryant and Peppers combined for 14 tackles, and none allowed a broken tackle. They also consistently changed their defensive alignment to not tip their hand coverage-wise pre-snap. All in all, a really solid performance by the Patriots’ secondary.

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