One of the most significant weaknesses of the 2017 Patriots was their lack of a serious pass rush. Throughout the course of the season, there was not a single game where New England’s defensive line seemed to have an upper hand against an opposing offensive line, with the most obvious example being the Super Bowl. Nick Foles was virtually untouched in the pocket, which led to his MVP performance and the Patriots defeat.
Although New England finished tied for seventh in the league with 42 team sacks in 2017, those numbers are a little misleading. First, they ranked far outside the top ten in the league in total quarterback pressures, which was evident to anyone watching the team play as it seemed that opposing quarterbacks had all day to complete their passes. Second, over half (23.5/42) of New England’s sacks came from linebackers and defensive backs. For comparison, Jacksonville was second in the league in team sacks, and only 17% (9.5/55) of their sacks came from linebackers and defensive backs, indicating that it was their defensive line that was getting to the quarterback. This is not inherently a bad stat for the Patriots. Obviously, sacks are a positive thing for a defense, regardless of who gets them. However, when a team’s defensive line can pressure quarterback’s consistently without needing extra help from other defenders, it frees up the linebackers and defensive backs to sit back in coverage and prevent a quarterback from having easier throws.
Heading into 2018, the Patriots defensive line looked better on paper than it did in 2017. Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise Jr. combined for 11.5 sacks in 2017, and it is natural to believe that they will improve on those numbers as they enter their fourth and second years, respectively. 2017 third round pick Derek Rivers was set to return from injured reserve. The team signed former Falcon Adrian Clayborn and traded for defensive tackle Danny Shelton. These moves gave the Patriots more depth and talent all across the defensive line.
While there were flashes of a resurgent pass rush throughout the preseason, the regular season is the real test of how much a team has improved from one year to the next. Sunday’s game against the Texans indicated that the Patriots pass rush is set to be extremely better than last season. Flowers and Wise each had impressive performances, finishing with 1.5 sacks each. Flowers, in particular, had a spectacular game. He put consistent pressure on Deshaun Watson throughout the entire contest and was extremely effective against the rush. His combination of a solid bull rush and quickly developing finesse moves has shown that he is taking huge steps in the right direction.
Adrian Clayborn also looked good in his first regular season game with the Patriots. This tweet from Evan Lazar is a great example of Clayborn’s day:
Rushing Watson on the edge was all about power upfield moves while wrapping tight to limit path to QB. Flowers with the straight bull rush. Clayborn with an inside chop move. Both get to Watson on the play. #Patriots pic.twitter.com/cmhGoQoGp9
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) September 11, 2018
As you can see in the video, Clayborn explodes off the line with surprising speed and uses good hand fighting to quickly get around the left tackle. This forced Watson to step right up into the pressure created by Flowers and DT Adam Butler. This is what the Patriots were looking for when they signed Clayborn, and they are getting what they paid for through week one.
The middle pressure was also solid for the Patriots. Last season the team struggled to force pressure up the middle and hurry quarterbacks. Sunday looked different, as Butler, Danny Shelton, Lawrence Guy, and even Malcolm Brown had success bull rushing the Texans interior offensive line.
Most importantly, however, is the way that they kept Watson mostly bottled up in the pocket. In years past the Patriots have struggled against mobile quarterbacks, allowing lanes in the pocket for these quarterbacks to slip out of and wreak havoc on the ground. The video from Evan Lazar’s tweet above shows a good example of Watson being contained in the pocket.
According to ESPN, the Patriots are leading the league in pressure percentage after week one (pressure percentage being defined as the percentage of dropbacks where defense applies pressure to the QB). Their pressure percentage was 53.7% against Houston, which is miles ahead of where they were last season. The 2017 Patriots averaged a 33% pressure percentage, which was good for 25th in the league. It would be a stretch to think that the Patriots will be able to keep up the pace of 50%+ pressure per-game but based on week one, it looks like Patriots fans can expect much more from New England’s defensive line than they have been accustomed to over the past few seasons.
Until next time – B$