Bill Belichick, the eternal optimist, doesn’t look at his defense as having lost five starters from a year ago.
“Well, we haven’t had a lot of changes here since we started in July,” the Patriots coach said this week.
That is certainly true. The Patriots have been practicing with the same group of players for the last six-plus weeks, and are figuring out the new faces and new roles.
But this is definitely not the same Patriots defense that finished No. 1 in the NFL last year in points per game (14.1 allowed), yards per game (276), and interceptions (25). All three starting linebackers are gone: Kyle Van Noy signed with Miami, Jamie Collins signed with Detroit, and Dont’a Hightower opted out of the season. Two key defensive backs also are gone, with safety Duron Harmon traded to Detroit and strong safety Patrick Chung opting out.
Those five starters combined for 3,732 snaps last year, or 32.8 percent of the Patriots' total defensive snaps. Collins (7 sacks) and Van Noy (6.5) led the team in sacks. Hightower was the defensive captain and play-caller.
“Losing Hightower to me was really the biggest loss,” said NBC analyst and former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison. “This is the guy that’s making the calls in the huddle, sacking the quarterback, stopping the run, all the different things he does.”
The replacements are decidedly less accomplished. Instead of plugging holes in free agency, Belichick is trying to replace from within. Third-year pro Ja’Whaun Bentley, injured as a rookie and a backup last year, is now a captain and play-caller. Second-year pro Chase Winovich gets bumped up from a sub role to a prominent one. Rookies Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings, and Kyle Dugger will likely play a significant number of snaps.
“Not a ton of experience,” conceded outside linebackers coach Steve Belichick. “But a ton of young guys, hard-working guys. We’re having a lot of fun, and we’ll see what the production looks like once the game comes.”
Uche and Jennings may not have experience, but they will be asked to do the same things that Van Noy and Collins did — that is, a little bit of everything, from pass rush to run force to pass coverage.
“Everything that we ask our linebackers to do, we’ve tried to put on their plate, and we’ll see what they can handle,” Steve Belichick said.
Bill Belichick’s defense has always revolved around players knowing multiple schemes and roles, and that won’t change even though the faces are new this year.
“They have a lot of versatility,” Belichick said of Uche and Jennings. “We’ll have a plan, we’ll have an idea of how we think it would go or the areas that we want to use them, and that may change from week to week.”
Jennings said he has been shown a lot of Hightower film this year — just like at Alabama, where Hightower also starred.
“There’s a lot of carryover from my Bama days,” Jennings said.
While the linebacker corps is almost entirely new, the secondary still has many familiar faces. Devin McCourty is back on a two-year deal, and he gives the Patriots Pro Bowl-caliber play whether he’s playing deep center field or covering tight ends near the line of scrimmage. Chung’s versatility will be tough to replace, but former Chargers safety Adrian Phillips has a decent amount of experience playing a similar role, and Dugger is a high-upside rookie with elite athleticism.
And the Patriots are absolutely loaded at cornerback. Stephon Gilmore is the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, J.C. Jackson is a budding superstar entering his third season, and Jason McCourty and Jonathan Jones are steady veterans. Joejuan Williams, last year’s second-round pick, can barely crack the rotation and may have to contribute at safety if he wants to get on the field.
“They’re going to have to depend and lean on their secondary,” Harrison said.
The Patriots have always been built back to front, with Belichick believing that sacks can be schemed with blitzes and good pass coverage. The Patriots finished seventh in the NFL in sacks last year (47) despite having no player with more than seven.
This year, the personnel up front are pretty much the same. Nose tackle Danny Shelton was replaced by Beau Allen, who starts the season on injured reserve. Otherwise, Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, Deatrich Wise, John Simon, and Winovich all return, giving the Patriots no great one-on-one pass rushers, but a lot of size up front to defend the run.
The Patriots will likely have a tough time replicating last year’s success on defense. The schedule of quarterbacks is much tougher, and they have lost too much experience and savvy in the missing players.
But with Bill Belichick calling the shots, the Patriots should still expect to have a top-10 defense, even as they figure out new faces and new roles.
“It’s totally different than it was last year,” inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo said. “Obviously, it’s not going to be perfect the first time around, but I will say those aren’t really repeat-error guys. I think the group is working hard. It’s not where we need to be, but they are progressing the right way.”