FOXBOROUGH — Patriots players say that defensive end Michael Bennett is quirky and funny, just like his younger brother, Martellus.
“They’re the same size, they have the same voice,” said Tom Brady. “There’s a lot of similarities, and [I] just really enjoy him.”
But Michael Bennett, acquired in a trade with Philadelphia this summer, has been surprisingly quiet this year.
He often is not seen in the locker room during media time. And when he is around, he usually has a reason for not wanting to give an interview. He had to go to the bathroom one day; something about tacos another day.
“It’s not that I don’t want to do interviews, I just don’t have time,” Bennett said last week after I was able to pin him down for about 90 seconds.
Bennett has been quiet about his national anthem protests as well. He said in March when the Patriots acquired him that he would continue to stay in the locker room during the anthem, and he has been true to his word. Before Thursday night’s game against the Giants, Bennett didn’t emerge from the locker room until AC/DC’s “For Those About to Rock” started blaring right before kickoff.
“I don’t want to talk about it right now,” Bennett said after the game.
It’s a marked difference from his brother’s one full season in Foxborough (2016), when Martellus Bennett displayed a strange but endearing sense of humor. At any moment, he would launch into a tangent about unicorns or his love of children’s books or drop a string of curse words that he knew would have to be bleeped out on the nightly news. The spotlight loved Marty B, and he loved it back.
Michael Bennett, the older brother by a year, has been doing his best to avoid it.
“I’m just trying to be a Patriot,” said Bennett, 33. “Put my head down and go to work. Go home when I get the opportunity. That’s it, really.”
Bennett, now in his 11th NFL season, has been surprisingly quiet on the field, too. Through six games, he has 2.5 sacks, but only five tackles, four quarterback hits, three tackles for loss, and no forced fumbles or batted passes. His pace for sacks (6.7) is in line with his worst two seasons since becoming a full-time starter in 2012, and he is on pace for career lows in those other stats. Against the Giants, Bennett didn’t register a single defensive stat.
Most surprisingly, Bennett is playing only 21.7 snaps per game, or less than half of what he played last year in Philadelphia (45).
|Year||Team||Snaps per game||Percentage|
From 2015-17 in Seattle, Bennett played 50-52 snaps per game each season. He is playing the fifth-most snaps among Patriots defensive linemen, behind Adam Butler, John Simon, Danny Shelton, and Lawrence Guy.
|Defensive linemen||Snaps||Snaps per game||Percentage|
It’s an unexpected part-time role for a player many expected to take over for the departed Trey Flowers and be one of the Patriots’ best defensive players. After trading for Bennett in March, the Patriots gave him a two-year deal that will pay him $8.5 million this year. Bennett’s cap number of $6.5 million is sixth-highest on the team.
Bill Belichick bristled Tuesday when asked why Bennett isn’t playing as much as he did in previous years.
“Yeah, well, he’s on our team,” said Belichick. “I don’t really care what happened on some other team. We’ll try to do what’s best for our team, and that’s everybody. It’s him, that’s everybody else. I mean, Devin McCourty’s snap count is down, too.”
Belichick had compliments for Bennett, too, and said his production is down because he is learning a new role with the Patriots. Belichick implied that Bennett and the Patriots are still figuring out how to best use him.
“Michael’s a smart player. He’s got a lot of experience,” Belichick said. “He’s been in different systems, so he’s trying to adapt into our system.
“But we’ve also talked to him about some of the things that he’s done, and he obviously has a lot of experience and a lot of input. Not just as an individual player, but also schematically.
“He’s really tried hard and worked hard to embrace what we’ve asked him to do, which again is quite different than what he’s done in Seattle and Philly, even in Tampa. So, yeah, he’s been fun.”
Belichick didn’t say how Bennett’s role is different. But in watching the All-22 film, and taking Bennett’s production and Belichick’s explanation into account, a theory emerges.
Because the Patriots asked Bennett to play a new role, perhaps he wasn’t comfortable doing it the first few weeks of the season. So they allowed him to suggest better ways for him to contribute, and in recent weeks, he has been doing more of what he used to do in Seattle and Philadelphia. But that new role has led to a reduction in playing time.
Bennett played a total of 25 snaps the last two games against the Redskins and Giants.
“I’m just trying to do the best I can, really,” Bennett said. “It’s all on Bill. If he thinks I’m doing good, then I must be doing good.
“The toughest thing is getting to try to fit in and get to know everybody. That’s the hardest thing — figure out how your teammates play.”
In Seattle and Philadelphia, where they played a 4-3 front, Bennett’s job was to get upfield at the snap and attack offensive linemen at angles. He usually lined up out wide. If he was playing defensive end, he would line up way outside the offensive tackle; if he was at defensive tackle, he would line up way outside the guard, and sometimes even outside the tackle.
In New England, where the Patriots have transitioned to a 3-4 base defense this year, they asked Bennett to line up directly across from defensive linemen, and grapple with them head-on. Occasionally, he would line up directly over the center.
His job was to tie up offensive linemen and allow linebackers to get free rushes at the quarterback or tackle the running back.
But in the last two games, Bennett has noticeably lined up out wide and attacked at angles, as he did in Seattle and Philadelphia. But he played just 14 snaps against Washington, and a season-low 11 against the Giants.
Bennett declined to take questions after Thursday night’s game. When asked if he’s a little bummed right now, he responded, “What do you think?”
It’s certainly possible the Patriots are monitoring Bennett’s playing time to ensure that he’s healthy for the second half of the season. They also may not have much more use for him; trading him this week would save them about $3 million in cash and salary cap, and releasing him would save them about $1 million (as a veteran, his salary is fully guaranteed since he was on the Week 1 roster).
But even if Bennett isn’t producing on the field yet, his teammates still appreciate the impact he is having. Bennett is the wise old man of the front seven, with 65.5 career sacks and three Pro Bowls on his résumé.
Rookie Chase Winovich, second on the team with four sacks, said Bennett has been a great mentor.
“Good resource doesn’t do it justice. He’s a great resource,” Winovich said. “He always leads by example in his technique and his prowess and understanding of pass-rush techniques. He’s always keeping an eye on me and guiding me to make sure I’m using proper technique, always there to lend that advice.”
And Bennett’s teammates are holding out hope that he can start playing like the guy they remember in Philadelphia and Seattle.
“Love the football player that he is, the level of talent he brings,” Brady said. “He’s a big, powerful guy. I’ve played against him. I mean, he knocked the crap out of me in the 2014 Super Bowl. So I know what kind of player he is, and I’m glad he’s on our team.”