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5 Surprises from revamped Patriots defense

The Patriots defense is rounding into form coming off a second-straight impressive performance against a potent opponent.

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Coming into the 2022 season there were plenty of questions surrounding how the 2022 Patriots defense would come together. Departures by some of their long-term championship-caliber players like J.C. Jackson, Dont'a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy headlined the need for an infusion of fresh personnel, while 2021's late-season collapse opened bigger questions beyond replacing the departed. Hot starts have been commonplace in Foxborough on the defensive side of the ball, but swoons down the stretch and into the playoffs have left the Patriots peaking too early and running out of steam late.

Through six games in 2022, there's reason for optimism that not only has the defense found a good personnel mix that balances their trusted veterans with an infusion of youth, but that this new configuration still has their very best football still ahead of them.

It's not hard to pinpoint the progression. Turnovers helped get the defense off to favorable starts over the last two games, resulting in overall excellent performances, first shutting out the highest-scoring offense in the league vs. Detroit, then holding a vaunted Browns rushing attack to 100 yards less than their previous season low. After allowing opponent touchdowns on nine-of-11 red zone trips in three games, the defense has allowed just one in five red zone trips over the last two games.

Their situational play, long a bastion of strength in New England, has also been outstanding.

While it's not surprising to see the developing results on the field, how Bill Belichick and the defensive coaches have composed the new-look defense has had some interesting twists. Here are five of those surprising factors that have played a role in what is once again an ascending Patriots defense.

Playing with a double edge

After the personnel losses of the offseason, a major question was how the Patriots would man the edge of the defense opposite Matthew Judon. The answer was sitting right before our eyes in veteran Deatrich Wise, who is off to the hottest start of his six-year career, already tying a career-high in sacks with five. Wise has been consistently disruptive, using his unique length and high motor to already log 25 tackles, easily on pace to top his career-high of 49. Of all the pieces on defense, Wise has been the biggest revelation.

Opposite Wise has been a rejuvenated Matthew Judon, who has quickly buried memories of the ending to last season with an even better start than he got in 2021. Judon's closing burst and strength have been on display every game, while his edge-setting was impressive against the Browns, who struggled to get Nick Chubb going. With six sacks, Judon is also on track to top his total of 12.5 last season, and once again looks like one of the most dominant all-around edge players in the game. The team's decision to manage Judon's snaps this year should help him keep this pace.

Winning at the line of scrimmage

Some might've been surprised when Davon Godchaux signed an extension with the team this summer, but through six games the veteran defensive lineman has shown why the team wanted to retain him, as he and his defensive linemates have been consistently dominant in recent weeks, culminating with their performance against the Browns' rushing attack on Sunday. Perhaps more surprising has been the play of nose tackle Carl Davis, who stood out recovering a fumble against Cleveland and has been an immoveable force against interior blockers.

"DG gives us good leadership," said Bill Belichick on Monday morning of Godchaux. "Very professional, always prepared, ready to go. Good fundamental player, good techniques, smart player. Recognizes the interior line play, blocking schemes. Uses his hands well, plays with good fundamentals, very strong. He's a good football player. I'm glad we have him."

With Christian Barmore and Lawrence Guy battling injuries, it has shined an even bigger spotlight on Godchaux, Davis and Wise, while Daniel Ekuale and Sam Roberts have pitched in with quality reps.

This is largely the same group that the Patriots battled through the 2021 season with and while their lack of personnel additions was surprising this offseason, the improvement in performance both on an individual and a team basis is a testament to the development of the players and the confidence that the coaches and staff had in them.

Rookies helping remake secondary

When J.C. Jackson signed with the Chargers it left a significant hole in the secondary, especially when it came to takeaways. But thanks to excellent play from Jalen Mills and Jonathan Jones, along with growing contributions from Myles Bryant and rookies Jack and Marcus Jones, New England's secondary is still forcing turnovers and making every completion difficult for opposing quarterbacks.

Jack Jones has stood out with two interceptions and a forced fumble over the last three games, while seeing an uptick in snaps due to injuries that have held out Mill and Jonathan Jones. Fellow rookie Marcus Jones topped his season snap total against the Browns playing nearly half the snaps and almost coming up with an interception of his own in the game. It's not surprising to see growing contributions from rookie cornerbacks and once again it looks like the Patriots have found two that can raise the level of play at the position. Jack's ball skills and Marcus' sticky coverage quickness should continue to be important factors going forward.

Dugger makes the leap

The most pleasant of surprises in football and all of sports is when a player makes a big jump in his progression and in his third season it looks like Kyle Dugger is one player making that jump. Dugger's interception on the Browns' second offensive snap set the tone for the game, as did his hard-hitting style that was a major factor in shutting down Cleveland's rushing game. Paired with his recovered fumble touchdown the previous week against Detroit and it's clear that Dugger has arrived as a game-changing player.

Perhaps most noticeable is how much of an impact Dugger's absence had against the Ravens, when Lamar Jackson rushed for over 100 yards. Dugger is an ideal hybrid player in today's NFL and he will be counted on heavily when the Patriots play the more mobile quarterbacks in the league.

Tavai rising

Just as with the defensive line, many were clamoring for changes at the linebacker position this offseason. The team retained Raekwon McMillan and traded for Mack Wilson, but otherwise stayed pat, avoiding many of the popular mock draft selections that the pundits had tabbed for them.

While McMillan and Wilson have made growing contributions, the real surprise has been Jahlani Tavai. Tavai is clearly a throwback linebacker due to his size but his versatility and surprising athleticism are starting to shine through. His coverage against the Lions helped set up Jack Jones' interception, as his snaps have continued to grow in recent weeks. Over the last two games Tavai has played more snaps than any other linebacker, including captain Ja'Whaun Bentley.

The Patriots defense has a unique balance of linebackers and safeties. Tavai might not fit what some other teams look for, but since arriving last season and mostly playing special teams, he looks like he is developing into exactly what the Patriots look for at the position where he will continue to play a valuable role both off-the-ball and on the edge.

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