The Patriots are having a down year this season, but there's one area of the team where New England remains among the NFL's elite defenses.
New England's run defense is the best in the NFL by nearly every meaningful metric: yards per carry (3.2), DVOA, EPA, and success rate. A primary reason the Patriots are the league's best run defense is the emergence of fourth-year LB Anfernee Jennings. Jennings ranks third among edge defenders in run stops, making 24 stops in a career-high 67.2% of the defensive snaps this season. The Pats linebacker also leads the team in tackles for loss with eight.
After being selected with a third-round draft pick in 2020, Jennings had to wait his turn behind core contributors in the Patriots defense. However, with Matthew Judon on injured reserve, the Alabama product has gotten more opportunities while building on an under-the-radar 2022 campaign. Although he's getting attention now, Jennings's coaches saw a leap coming.
"I'm not surprised by it, but I'm happy he's getting recognized. He deserves it, works hard, and is a really good football player," linebackers coach Steve Belichick said. "He's played a lot of good football for us. I just think he's had more opportunities. He gave us a lot of really good snaps last year. He's just been playing more."
For Jennings, his football journey in New England also took a longer path because of circumstances when he arrived in Foxborough during the COVID-19 season. Like all rookies in 2020, Jennings didn't have a full offseason program or training camp to adjust to life in the NFL. Plus, the Patriots initially had the 255-pound linebacker playing off the ball rather than his natural position on the line of scrimmage. Eventually, the coaching staff got him in the right spot.
"When Anfernee first got here, he was focusing on off-the-ball linebacker, and we had to, from a coaching perspective, get him in the right spot," linebackers coach Jerod Mayo said. "We feel very good about the spot he's in now, but going back to versatility, he's a very, very smart player. He understands coverages. He understands how the offense is trying to attack you. He's an overall good player for us."
Speaking to Patriots.com inside the Patriots locker room at Gillette Stadium this week, Jennings reflected on his patient approach to seize the opportunity when it presented itself this season.
"I played a little bit my rookie year. I didn't have the success I wanted there. Kind of figuring out a lot of different stuff, too," Jennings said. "Just staying the course, staying working, continuing to work on my craft. I've always been a guy who takes advantage of my opportunity. When those came, I tried to take them. I tried to make the most of them."
As his coaches did earlier in the week, Jennings pointed to his transition from inside linebacker to edge defender as a big reason for his recent surge while explaining how challenging it was to enter the NFL during the pandemic.
"That year was a different type of year because it was the COVID year. It interfered with our preparation. I was playing a totally new position. I had never played it before. I was more of an on-the-ball outside linebacker. In the COVID year, we barely practiced. We didn't have OTAs, we didn't have a legit real training camp, and it was a lot of different factors. But I learned a lot that year, and I'm here now."
"Obviously, that's what I've always done. I've always kind of played a D-End, outside linebacker hybrid type of position. Just being in a natural position you always feel more comfortable and more confident," Jennings told me.
After beginning his career in the linebackers room, Jennings now meets with defensive line coach DeMarcus Covington, who coaches all the on-the-line defenders, including defensive linemen and 3-4 outside linebackers like Jennings. Covington was recently mentioned on NFL Network's "NFL coaches to watch in future years" list, while Mayo was named a prime head coaching candidate for this upcoming cycle. Mayo is a potential successor to head coach Bill Belichick, but Covington deserves a bigger spotlight.
Despite losing their Pro Bowl pass rusher in Week 4, the Patriots are the top-ranked run defense without Judon, a testament to Covington's coaching. Along with Jennings, the Patriots are also getting contributions from third-year DT Christian Barmore, nose tackle Davon Godchaux, DE Deatrich Wise, and others in Covington's position group. Covington credited the players for the Patriots stout run defense, including giving Jennings a chunk of the credit.
"He's a big part of the reason why our run defense has been so successful this year. I'm excited and happy for him because he has put in so much work. He's done a really good job at whatever we asked him to do, he does it well beyond the task. He's a good leader for us up front, setting the edge and doing a good job getting off blocks and making tackles."
"All those dudes being able to play OLB, defensive end, and just his ability to take advantage of opportunities. Every year he has played for us, he has done a hell of a job answering the bell," Covington said.
As a member of the Patriots coaching staff since the 2017 season, Covington began coaching the defensive line in Jennings's rookie season. The Pats assistant coach recalls scouting Jennings as a college prospect.
"When we looked at Anfernee coming out, that's a guy that did a lot of good things at Alabama. Whether it was playing off the ball, on the ball, buck [linebacker], he did a good amount of things for them, and that's how we use him here within our defense where he can do a good amount of things with his athletic ability."
"For us, we just try to plug in the players best that fit our scheme and whoever we are playing and use them to the best of our ability and their ability and then make it fit our puzzle. He's done a great job of carving out a role for himself," Covington said.
Historically, the Patriots strong-side linebacker, who plays on the same side as the tight end, has been called an "elephant" linebacker. In Coach Belichick's 3-4 system, outside linebackers for New England usually play in the 260-pound range to set a sturdy edge to the defense. For Jennings, that means playing a physical brand of football against the run and keeping the quarterback in the pocket to prevent scrambles and extended plays.
In last Thursday night's win over the Steelers, Jennings led the team with three tackles for loss. Pittsburgh tried to run stretch plays to his side of the formation, with the Pats linebacker dominating the matchup against Steelers tight ends Darnell Washington and Pat Freiermuth. Although he had never heard the elephant linebacker term before, Jennings said the Patriots linebackers have another nickname for themselves.
"That was the first time I've ever heard it called the elephant. But it makes sense. Kind of like a hybrid. We like to call ourselves Swiss army knives. We can do a little bit of everything. We can rush, play the run, and drop back into coverage. Just do whatever we need to do for our team. I like it, though. I'm going to start using that one."
"I've always prided myself on stopping the run and being physical. Just getting the opportunity and making the most of it," Jennings told me.
Jennings is approaching unrestricted free agents next offseason. With uncertainty around the team, Jennings is one of four 2020 draft selections who are free agents at the end of the year: Kyle Dugger, Josh Uche, Mike Onwenu, and Jennings.
The Patriots have many difficult decisions regarding the franchise's future this offseason. On a player level, Jennings is quickly becoming a top priority to receive a second contract with New England. Although he's played his way into earning another contract, the questions with Jennings are twofold: 1. What's his price tag and 2. Will the Pats be running a Belichick-style defense in 2024?
"I haven't really thought about it. I'm just trying to go out there and put my best foot forward. All the chips will fall where they fall. When that time comes, handle it then. But I'm just trying to play ball," Jennings said of his pending free agency.
If the Patriots run the same defense we've seen over the 20-plus years next season, New England should retain Jennings to play a pivotal role in the defense moving forward.