The Patriots defense is supposed to be one of the foundational strengths of the team in 2021.
To date, though, the veteran-led, rebuilt group probably hasn’t quite lived up to expectations for a New England team with a 2-3 record as it hits mid-October.
Sure the unit is No. 5 in the NFL in both yards and points allowed, but after watching what Houston rookie quarterback Davis Mills did leading the Texans to three first-half scoring drives that covered 75 yards or more it’s hard to say the Patriots defense is playing at as high a level as many expected. It certainly isn’t playing as consistently as it could and probably should be expected to.
Still, Patriots inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo remains confident that the defense’s best performance are ahead of it. Between substitution problems and failures to get off the field on third down, there’s just something lacking at times when compared to past top-notch New England defenses.
“We’re still a work in progress,” Mayo said Tuesday afternoon in a Zoom call with local reporters. “We have a lot of new guys. I would say if you look at our team historically, we’ve had … like if you take like a 20-year slice, very little turnover. We have a bunch of new guys and they are all good players. But we’re still trying to figure each other out. There have been stretches this year we’ve played I would say pretty decent football, especially on defensive side of the ball. If you look at it statistically I’m sure we rank somewhere near the top in a bunch of categories.
“But you’re right, we definitely have a long way to go. We have to get better. And we always talk about, really, September you try to figure yourself out. Even early October you are trying to figure yourself out. Then November, hopefully, November, December, January you’re playing your best football. And by no means do I think we’re playing our best football as a team. We talk about complementary football. And I don’t think we’re playing our best defensively. I think the rest of the guys understand that and know we have a long way to go and a lot of growth and our ceiling is very high.”
One reason to have that hope is the presence of a couple guys in the group that Mayo coaches. Dont’a Hightower may be hitting midseason form after sitting out last season due to COVID, while Jamie Collins’ returns for a third tour through Foxborough to add another unique asset to the front.
“Hightower had a great game (in Houston). Not only, if you were to look at the stat sheet it doesn’t really pop off the stat sheet like, ‘Wow, this guy had a great game.’ But if you were to watch the film and see his overall physicality, I would say it was by far his best game,” Mayo said. “Honestly, now it’s all about stacking it together, right? Stacking these games together.”
Meanwhile, Collins’ role should only evolve as he settles back into New England after the veteran notched a sack in one of his mere three plays on defense against the Texans.
“It’s great to have Jamie back. This is his third time around and it seems like every time he comes here he plays his best football. So hopefully we can kind of run that back again,” Mayo said. “We’ll see how his role develops. I will say this as a linebacker room in general, inside/outside linebackers, on-the-ball/off-the-ball, we’re a pretty deep group. We’ve got a lot of guys that can play football and a lot of guys that have played football for us. So it’s very exciting.”
About a month ago Mayo declared that the New England defense would be very different in October and November than it was in September. He’s not backing down from that optimistic outlook.
“I still feel the same way. Look, we’re barely into October, I guess midway into October at this point. But I do think we’ll be better. I think we’re getting better,” Mayo said. “I think the guys are really starting to come together as far as off the field, studying film, and also just playing with one another. And even if you look at this past game, not trying to look in the past, there were some plays out there which we should have been off the field. It kind of extended drives. If you take away two drives from last game and we’re not even having this conversation. But we are. And we’re here today. The only thing now we can do is look forward to playing against a very talented offense coming in here for the Cowboys.”
It’s a Sunday afternoon Gillette Stadium battle with a Cowboys offense that Mayo says presents the biggest challenge of the season to date, even more challenging than Tom Brady’s Buccaneers two weeks ago. “Bigger than Tampa because it’s the next game,” Mayo said in Belichickian fashion.
After Dak Prescott’s team there will be meetings with Justin Herbert’s high-powered Chargers, Baker Mayfield’s dangerous Browns and a pair of matchups with Josh Allen’s AFC pacesetter Bills still to be played.
It’s a good thing that Mayo and the Patriots defense believe their best football is ahead of them, because it needs to be.
“I think the guys definitely have a sense of urgency, especially when our record is where it is. I think guys know every game, we have to treat this like a playoff game,” Mayo concluded.