Matthew Judon elevating a surprisingly competent Patriots defense in midterm grade

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For the latest Patriots postgame recap, check out WEEI and Audacy's "1st and Foxborough."

Without playing a game this weekend, the Patriots have found themselves a playoff team, snapping up the final wildcard spot in the AFC East.

Where they go from there might well depend on how much their defense is able to carry the load for the other side of the ball.

Last week, we graded the offensive side of the ball. Not surprisingly, that wasn’t fun.

Fortunately, going through the defense, which is top-ten in points surrendered, third in total defensive DVOA and the best defense in football by EPA/play allowed, was a lot less painful.

Overall: B+

Defensive Line: B

Christian Barmore has missed three games in a row now, which has given us a chance to see what the defensive line is without him.

The Bears game was bad, but the next two? Better than you’d have figured.

Once again, Davon Godchaux and Lawrence Guy — recently returned from his own injury — aren’t going to find their way into a lot of headlines or rack up stats. Godchaux’s 16 stops are tied for 24th in the league — the highest of any Patriots interior defender. But they keep taking up space enough for the guys behind them to make plays.

Usually, anyway.

They still get moved around with a bit too much ease against more athletic offensive lines, and they don’t rush the passer too well outside of Barmore, whose 11 pressures still lead New England despite his playing only six games. Daniel Ekuale is next with nine pressures.

Complementary football is the name of the game for this group. As long as they keep doing their jobs, that’s enough.

Edge Rushers: A-

Matthew Judon is once again playing at a Pro Bowl level and currently leads the league in sacks (11.5). He might not be as dominant overall as the Nick Bosas and Myles Garretts of the world, but he does everything well and attacks the ball-carrier every play with the intention of changing the game. He alone would bring make this unit well-graded.

But what really makes this group better than last year’s is the emergence of Deatrich Wise Jr., who has thrived in an expanded, full-time role out on the edge. His dominant three-sack first half against the Baltimore Ravens was a level of play no one aside from Judon could’ve accomplished last season, and that’s a huge deal considering how quiet things got for Judon late in 2021.

On top of that, Josh Uche (three sacks against the Colts) has started to come on, and Anfernee Jennings has played well in an early-down run-stopping role.

Judon is still the only bluechip talent, but this position is much more well-rounded than it was last year. That could serve the Patriots well when the going gets tough.

Linebackers: C-

Things have looked a lot better from this position group of late. Give them the credit. Ja’Whaun Bentley has been as solid as ever, and Jahlani Tavai has honestly come into his own over the past month or so. Every once in a while, you’ll see a flash of the speed and athleticism the Patriots valued in Mack Wilson when they traded for him this offseason.

But this unit looks like it will still be a relative weakness when it has to face off against better offenses.

Take the Chicago Bears game for example. The Patriots knew the Bears were going to run all night long, and their big thumping linebackers couldn’t do a thing to match the speed of Justin Fields and Khalil Herbert. They’re simply not fast enough, and they’re not going to get any faster by the time this season ends.

The best this team can do is keep trying to use its safeties to mitigate their linebackers’ coverage limitations as best they can and hope their defensive looks dare opposing offenses to run the ball enough to keep playing into the strengths of Bentley and company. Once teams start making them cover, this is going to get ugly.

It could be worse, and some teams deciding to stubbornly run it into the teeth of this defense have kept it from getting worse. Hopefully, it doesn’t actually get worse.

Cornerbacks: B+

Given what we expected from this group to start the season, a B+ is basically an A++.

The Patriots literally have Pro Football Focus’ top-graded coverage cornerback in the league right now (Jack Jones; 90.4). Who saw that coming?

What the Jones brothers (Jack, Jonathan and Marcus) lack in size, they make up for in sticky coverage, speed and tenacity no matter where they line up. Jonathan (ninth-highest coverage grade in NFL; 82.1), in particular, has been a revelation in his solid play switching from the slot to outside corner. Even Myles Bryant, who’s spent plenty of time getting picked on by bigger, faster matchups, has had his moments of solid play this season.

This is still a unit that probably lacks the size and physicality needed to truly shut down the best skill positions in football. They gave up some chunk plays to the New York Jets in their first meeting, and one shudders to think of what could happen when this defense faces the Bills and their receiver group. If the pass rush doesn’t get home, this secondary will eventually get diced up by a real passing attack.

But again, you can’t deny this group has been infinitely better than it could’ve been.

Safeties: A

No position group has lived up to standards quite like this one.

Devin McCourty has once again been an iron man for this defense, playing almost every snap and doing so at a high level. He logged a multi-interception game against the Jets in a Week 8 rout.

Adrian Phillips might just be one of the five best players on the entire team. He does literally everything well, from locking up tight ends in man coverage to thumping running backs like he’s a baby linebacker.

Kyle Dugger has been a game-wrecking force in his own right when he’s played. When he or Phillips have been out, Jabrill Peppers has jumped in and provided his own electric jolt to the defense with his physical style of play.

No matter who is playing, the Patriots are getting top-notch play from their safeties, who remain the best position group on the team.

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