How The Patriots Defense Can Become Elite

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It’s difficult to take much away from the Patriots recent mandatory minicamp.  While some players can certainly stand out, it’s easier to do so when you’re not in full pads, and the physicality and contact is at a minimum.  However, one theme that seemed evident among many who were at the practices was how good the secondary looked. 

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Again, easier to do so when you’re attempting to cover guys in just a helmet, practice jersey and shorts, but nonetheless they impressed.  That shouldn’t come as a major surprise though.  The secondary is far and away the most talented group of individuals on the defense, and one of the deepest groups the team has had in a long time. 

The defense as a whole surprised many with its performance in the playoffs last year; capped off by one of its most dominant efforts in recent memory in Super Bowl LIII.  Now, can they play that way for an entire season?

Just about the entire unit returns this year.  Losing Trey Flowers hurts, but Michael Bennett is a viable replacement.  We expect the pass defense to be strong.  That alone will make this a good defensive unit.  However, how can this defense take that next step; from good, to great, and maybe are I say, elite?  It starts and ends with the pass rush.

NFLShop.com - Customized NFL GearThe Pats don’t have the luxury of an elite, individual pass rusher.  They don’t have a J.J. Watt, or a Von Miller.  Bennett proved last year in Philly that he's still got something left in the tank - nine sacks and 30 quarterback hits.  Statistically, it was one of the best seasons of his career.  However, he will turn 34 years old during this season.  He's bound to slow down at some point.

Also, he's not going to have the free reign to pin his ears back and go get the quarterback, like he may have had in previous seasons.  As good as a push rusher Bennett has been over his career, he has had only one season where he recorded double digit sacks; he had 10 in 2015.  All that is to say that he is going to need some help. 

For New England to reach that next level, the young guys need to keep improving.  Deatrich Wise enters his third year in the league.  He had five sacks as a rookie, and four and a half last year.  A fourth round pick, he's been a solid contributor for the Pats.  However, if he can make the jump to an eight or nine sack guy, things change drastically for the defense.

Then there's Derek Rivers.  Rivers was a highly regarded third-round pick out of Youngstown State three years ago.  When he left college, he was Youngstown State's all-time sack leader, and was in the top five in FCS history.  Unfortunately, a torn ACL in training camp ended his rookie season prematurely.  With last year virtually his rookie season, he struggled to find the field, appearing in only six games and recording just one sack.  Having made it through one full NFL season, is he ready to make the jump to everyday player and contributor?

Can Kyle Van Noy become a consistent pass rush threat?  He played his best football in his two and a half seasons in New England during last year's playoff run.  After recording three and a half sacks over 16 games in the regular season, he had three in just three postseason games. 

Teams that aren’t able to generate pressure consistently will blitz more often.  That’s never really been the style of the Patriots; or at least has never been the style of Bill Belichick.  That’s part of what made them so successful in last year’s postseason.  I think the schemes and blitzes that Brian Flores dialed up caught some teams off guard. 

So it will be interesting to see how things look with Belichick calling the shots once again this year.  Will the Patriots stay aggressive, or will they revert back to their bend, don't break days?  They have a strong secondary.  An improved pass rush is the key to this defense taking the next step.  There are some guys with potential, it's just a matter of them reaching it.


Follow Derek on Twitter - @mcvay34


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Boston Sports Syndicate: How The Patriots Defense Can Become Elite
How The Patriots Defense Can Become Elite
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