Hackett: Bend but don't break Patriots defense could be thing of past


So old friend Jamie Collins is returning to the Patriots this year, adding another ball-hawking playmaker to their Super Bowl winning defense. While many people are wondering about the offense, specifically integrating the new receivers into the passing game and how to replace Gronk and his irreplaceable production, I find myself more intrigued with what’s happening on defense.

Newsflash – the Pats defense looks stacked and here’s hoping the days of ‘bend don’t break’ are a distant memory.

This defense screams for aggression and I say, “Dogs loose!”

It’s a shame that former defensive play caller, Brian Flores is now in Miami. I really enjoyed the aggressive stamp he put on the defense after years of watching Matt Patricia’s more conservative approach. That and I hate Miami, but that’s neither here nor there, simply said, Flores went for it. He showed a lot of different looks starting in the 2018 preseason, new blitz packages and had a fearless approach to getting after the passer from various levels of the defense. It was a more mistake prone approach but that defense didn’t make a ton of mistakes. He trusted his veterans and put his players in positions to make plays. With Patricia, it was more of a game of attrition. Do the right thing. Be in the right position. Do what Bill Belichick says. Wash, rinse, repeat and the opposition will make a mistake. For the most part, it worked with wild success, but I enjoyed the Flores approach better and that team won it all too. More impressively I might add…

The thing is, neither Patricia nor Flores had the depth of playmakers this defense appears to have at every level. It’s got me thinking that we may be able to see the absolute best of Belichick’s defensive tricks now that he has an abundance of talent to get more creative. This Patriots run over the last 18 years has been incredible for sure, but I for one am craving to see some of that defensive dominance that was the hallmark of the earliest entrants of the Patriots dynasty. With many of these Patriots teams over the last several years, the defense has been along for the ride, but this year likes look a complete reversal of that trend. 2019 projects to look like those 2001-2004 teams that kicked all this off. Defense could be the key ingredient to their success while the offense slowly comes to a boil. I think Belichick liked what he saw in Super Bowl LIII and I’m guessing we see more of it.

It’s really classic Belichick. While everyone is looking one way he looks the other way and voila! A dominant defense appears. With the quarterback position getting stronger within the division, the Patriots hold serve with a reenergized defense. Now there’s an infusion of youth, speed and playmaking ability that will grow just as their developing gun slinging foes Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and newcomer Josh Rosen come into their own. It’s vintage Belichick and don’t forget, the Patriots have plenty of offense of their own as well. Tom Brady will get his and they’ll move the ball just fine, but if they open the flood gates as I think they may, the Patriots defense will be winning games for this team all year long.

Let’s break it down back to front.

The Secondary: Dear AFC offenses, good luck. This unit has it all. All-Pro shut down corner Stephon Gilmore is your anchor and leads the cornerbacks. He’s flanked by the veteran smarts in Jason McCourty and two younger players in Jonathan Jones and J.C Jackson. Last year’s second-round pick Duke Dawson adds to the youth and upside, and another second round pick in this year’s draft Joejuan Williams boasts all the measurables draftniks salivate over. He’s big, fast and gutsy. Times are good in the Patriots secondary and I didn’t even mention the safeties yet whom to a man are reliable, experienced and have championship pedigree. Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon are all dependable players and leaders on the field. Simply said the Patriots have invested well in their secondary and it is now the foundation of their defense, from which everything else will flow. This could be the best Patriots secondary since the Chuck Fairbanks teams of the late 70’s.  It’s potentially that good.

Linebacker: For years people have screamed for more playmakers at this position and I’m in that camp. Back in the day, Tedy Bruschi had a nose for the ball and Mike Vrabel coupled great timing with a knack to get to the quarterback. In more recent times Dont’a Hightower has been a beast when healthy and is always clutch on the biggest stage but help has been needed in this spot for a while.

Fast forward to today; Kyle Van Noy has taken a level jump in the last year and some key additions have been made. Now suddenly, there are playmakers all over the middle of the field. Hightower, Van Noy, Jamie Collins and 2018 draft hopeful Ja’Whaun Bentley look like a potentially formidable group at the head of this linebacking core. There is also plenty of depth beyond them with guys we know like Elandon Roberts and Christian Sam. This unit could be fun to watch. Belichick loves his linebackers and now he has a full cupboard of them to choose from and game plan with.

Defensive Line: This unit is more solid than spectacular and that’s just fine. They will have all day to pass rush with the coverage they should get on the back end and there’s enough talent to scheme creatively from both levels behind them. That is not all however. This unit has talent and playmaking ability too. A healthy Derek Rivers shows promise as an end rusher and the wind of popularity seems fully at the back of rookie third round draft pick Chase Winovich. His tape looks exciting and adds an element of speed off the edge that could cause offenses lots of problems. Guys like Deatrich Wise, Lawrence Guy, John Simon, Adam Butler and Keionta Davis all contributed in the last season plus and newcomer Michael Bennett brings attitude and a heck of an on-field resume in his own right.

So my expectations are a little higher than the old “bend don’t break” adage. I think that tired phrase needs a refresh, to “won’t bend or break.” You saw the new template for success in Super LIII and now their defense should be better. There’s lots of talent here.