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Patriots willing to trade smarts for speed on defense

Patriots defenders Dont'a Hightower (left) and Trey Flowers wrap up speedy Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt.
Patriots defenders Dont'a Hightower (left) and Trey Flowers wrap up speedy Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt.(Barry Chin/Globe Staff)

FOXBOROUGH — Rodney Harrison thought so last year, ahead of the Super Bowl, and he still thinks so now.

“This is a very, very slow defense,” Harrison said via conference call before the Chiefs game. “So they are going to have to play smart.”

That’s certainly the rap on this Patriots defense and was, to an extent, the rap on last year’s. They’re relatively old or experienced, depending on how polite you’d like to be, which means that what some players bring to the table in savvy, they lack in their quickness.

“My draft stock would drop,” Devin McCourty chuckled, asked how he’d fare today in a 40-yard dash.

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But fast to the ball isn’t the same as just fast. Football speed is different from straight-line speed and it has to be coupled with instinctiveness and awareness.

“I think it’s all of it. I think you can’t be slow and play fast all the time,” McCourty said. “I think anticipating and knowing what you’re doing as a defense, playing confident, knowing if I’ve got a guy setting the edge, I don’t have to worry about running to the sideline, I can run downhill because I know the ball’s not going to get outside.”

It’s fair to ask if the Patriots defense is too slow, but the follow up has to be this: too slow for what? They were too slow to win the Super Bowl last year, but fast enough to get there. Looking at the team’s roster construction indicates a preference for smart, experienced veterans over athletic freaks, and only time will tell whether that was the right decision. What we can say is that the fastest offenses the Patriots have played this year aren’t necessarily the ones they’ve had the most trouble with.

Going by the average 40-yard dash time of the five skill position players who got the most snaps in their team’s game against New England, the Dolphins and Chiefs are the two fastest offenses the Patriots defense has played. The Patriots gave up 446 yards to Kansas City (average 40 time: 4.46 seconds) and a season-low 172 to Miami (average 40 time: 4.462). Exact science this is not, but it’s not a clear indication that speed kills the Patriots, who won both those games.

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The Jaguars defense, which features exceptionally athletic linebackers and cornerbacks, did only 22 yards better than the Patriots against Kansas City, and Jacksonville came out on the losing end of the matchup that Tyreek Hill billed as “the fastest offense against the fastest defense,” to reporters in Kansas City that week.

Where the Patriots have struggled is against speedy running backs, who find mismatches against the team’s linebackers.

McCourty said that, while speed is important, only disciplined defenses can play fast.

“I think it does help having some athleticism but I think mainly knowing where each other’s at and having a confidence of every defense we’re in and what we’re doing, like everyone’s where they’re supposed to be,” McCourty said. “That allows the person next to you to play fast and then the next person to play fast.”

New England has made efforts to inject some burst into the defense with youngsters like corners J.C. Jackson and Keion Crossen, or defensive end Derek Rivers, who had a career-high snap count in Chicago. But the evidence shows they’d rather stick with their experienced, disciplined players than rely on pure speed.

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A heap of analysts suggested an explosive, impact defender might be a good way for Bill Belichick, Nick Caserio and Co. to use with one or both of their first-round draft picks this spring. They used neither that way, selecting offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn and running back Sony Michel.

They also let cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Johnson Bademosi walk in free agency. Bademosi played the fewest snaps of any cornerback last season and Butler had a relatively poor year on the field, but they could both move. According to a New York Times analysis by Sportradar last year, Butler and Bademosi reached some of the top speeds for any defensive players that season. Butler was clocked reaching 22.07 m.p.h. And Bademosi hit 21.72. Devin McCourty hit 21.66 m.p.h.

It might be surprising to see McCourty, 31, in there. He’s been exposed in coverage a few times this season, particularly covering tight ends in the Colts game. In terms of pure speed, though, McCourty can still get there. He caught up to Chiefs returner Tremon Smith, a 22-year-old who ran a 4.3 40-yard dash last year, on Smith’s 97-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter of that game.

So maybe it wouldn’t go so badly if McCourty tried a 40-yard dash tomorrow. Not that the Patriots would care much.

New England has shown a preference for experience and defensive chemistry and, so far, it’s served them pretty well. And though it does give them less room for error, even when they have struggled, it’s not necessarily against the fastest opponent.

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Nora Princiotti can be reached at nora.princiotti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @NoraPrinciotti.