FOXBOROUGH — Michael Bennett was acquired to be one of the centerpieces of New England’s defense. That was obvious.
Michael Bennett lining up in the center of New England’s defense? Few could have seen that coming.
Well, except for Bill Belichick.
Bennett made his NFL bones by being a terrorizing menace off the edge, blending a quick step with powerful arms to shatter the psyche of offensive tackles and rattle the nerves of quarterbacks.
Yet there was Bennett and his Pop Warner-sized shoulder pads smack dab on the nose during the Patriots’ preseason game against the Panthers, wreaking havoc and ruining schemes.
It’s the latest example of Belichick seeing the potential of the player — even an 11-year veteran — and expanding his skill set and résumé.
“The thing I love about being around Coach and being around his packages,” said defensive line coach Bret Bielema, “is he’s got, obviously a set agenda, but also the ability to do different things with different players, but really his ability to maximize a player’s strengths, that’s what it’s all about.”
And it’s not just Bennett. There is versatility all over the front seven. And all over the defense.
“There’s a lot of interchanging parts, guys that can move around, do different things,” said Bielema. “Not just within the defensive front, but for instance, [Lawrence Guy] playing a certain defensive end position on one play and the next play he’s playing the nose or the same thing with Michael.
“The ability of these guys to play in different roles and bring different strengths is something that hopefully we’re going to be able to maximize.’’
This Patriot philosophy prevents opponents from being able to prepare ways to beat it. New England can flash a 4-3 front, swap to a 3-4 look, or morph into a 3-3, 2-4, or a 1-5. And this isn’t from game to game or series to series, it’s play to play.
Bielema isn’t into labeling New England’s box-of-chocolates approach. He just appreciates the results.
“You know, everybody wants to have the buzzwords,’’ he said. “Twenty years ago, it was the same thing; it was the 3-4 rage back then and then it went to a 4-3 look forever and now it’s a little bit of both. And now, watching us, we really need to be anything from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and everything in between. I think our guys just line up and play the roles they’re supposed to play and do the job.’’
One of the reasons New England’s defense is able to have success in multiple looks is the level of competition it faces in practice every day.
“Any time you’re going against Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady on the other side of the ball, it’s always going to be competitive,’’ said inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo. “So we go out there and we run all of our stuff every day, so when we need it in a game, we’re ready to go.
“So, just practicing hard — the preparation part of it — we try to put as much stress on ourselves as we can so when we do get to the game, it’s not that hard.’’
For the third straight season, the defense will be taking its cues from a new voice. Actually, “new” is not quite accurate. And neither is “voice.” This year, it’ll be a combo effort when it comes to play calling.
“It’s a new guy, but it’s not somebody who’s brand new coming in,’’ said safety Devin McCourty. “One of the biggest things, relationship-wise, is it’s been very consistent as far as our relationship with Matty [Patricia] and then [Brian Flores] had been here 15 years, so once he stepped in, it was like, ‘OK, B-Flo’s now calling the plays,’ we all know him pretty well already.
“Now, with Steve [Belichick], Bill, and Mayo, all of these guys have been here. Bill and Steve have been here a while and Mayo’s only really known this system. So it’s new but it’s not really new. So I think that’s kind of taken away any new adjustment issues. We’ve been able to stick together and keep moving forward.’’
Against the Panthers, the Patriots showed the ability to create pocket pressure, which starts up front but works only if there’s consistent coverage at the second and third levels.
“We always say pressure and coverage go hand-in-hand,’’ said McCourty.
In the trenches, the Patriots have Guy, Danny Shelton, Adam Butler, and Byron Cowart as traditional inside guys.
Guy has been a consistent force since arriving in 2017. He gets off the ball and his blocks quickly and is solid at both finding the ball and preventing offensive linemen from getting to the second level.
Shelton has had a tremendous summer. He has found comfort in the system while making opponents uncomfortable. He has excellent strength and deceptive quickness.
Butler is a powerful and relentless pass rusher (see his sack of Cam Newton for an example). Cowart, a rookie, has ridiculous athleticism for a 6-foot-3-inch, 300-pound man and rode a powerful summer surge to a roster spot.
On the edges, Bennett is a monster and Chase Winovich has shown excellent instincts to go with his high-revving engine. Deatrich Wise can turn the corner on passing downs and John Simon excels at setting the edge against the run.
The Patriots are loaded at the second level with a versatile and valuable corps of linebackers. It’s difficult to label any of them as strictly inside or outside guys because they don’t really fit in a mold. All can rush, drop, or defend the run.
Dont’a Hightower calls the shots and can dish them out, too. Kyle Van Noy has a knack for being around the ball, and Jamie Collins still possesses off-the-charts athleticism.
Elandon Roberts and Ja’Whaun Bentley are real thumpers and Shilique Calhoun looks like he’ll be a contributor based on his preinjury summer performance.
On the back end, the Patriots are stacked with excellence and experience. The safety trio of Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and Duron Harmon can cover and help in run support. Terrence Brooks and Obi Melifonwu provide depth and intriguing matchup possibilities.
Stephon Gilmore was the league’s top cornerback in 2018, and if his camp performance is any indication, he’s going to be even better. Jason McCourty and J.C. Jackson are terrific on the perimeter, while Jonathan Jones can fill a variety of roles, from nickel corner to extra safety. Rookie Joejuan Williams (6-3, 212) has outstanding size for the position and could rotate in on sub packages.
“We have a lot of guys that can do a lot of different things, so you’ve got to go do those things,” said Devin McCourty. “You’ve got to figure out what we’re going to be really good at, who can do what within the defense.
“I’m excited. We’ve been going at it for a while. I think a lot of people are excited about some of the things we can do, but I’m always cautious because you’ve got to go and do those things. That’s what playing in the NFL is all about; everyone’s always coming in to win, and our defense is going to be a target, so we’ve got to be ready.
“I’m excited about our ability to adjust. We’ve got a lot of guys that have played a lot of football.’’