Every summer, there are players on the rise who generate buzz at Patriots training camp in anticipation of a potential breakout season.
Since being selected in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft by New England, edge rusher Josh Uche has routinely wowed observers with his pass rush ability during team and individual drills in the summertime. Although there have been flashes during the season, injuries have often derailed the Michigan product's breakout until now.
With his consistent availability throughout the season, Uche is a budding star in a potent Patriots pass rush that ranks third in the league with 45 sacks and is second in quarterback pressure rate (26.4%) this season. Statistically, arguably the NFL's best defense at pressuring quarterbacks.
Following three sacks and six total pressure against the Cardinals on Monday night, Uche was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week for Week 14. Along with a trio of sacks, the Pats third-year pass rusher also caused a Colt McCoy interception with a QB hit.
"The biggest thing with Josh is just him being out there. He's always put good plays on film and good plays on the practice field. He's flashed. This year he has been out there on a consistent basis," head coach Bill Belichick said before Wednesday's practice at the University of Arizona.
"That's allowed him to continue moving ahead. Build on his repertoire, build on his communication, and execution with his teammates on pass rush games and drops into coverage, which he's involved in to a degree. Just doing it day after day and week after week piles up. It makes you that split-second faster."
In a two-play sequence where he registered a sack and a QB hit on back-to-back plays, Uche used a "hesi" rush that is taking over the league this season. As it turns out, one of his offseason training buddies, Lions pass-rusher James Houston, put the move on Uche's radar.
"Just working it in practice, first and foremost. But I saw James Houston out of Detroit, that's my guy. We train in the offseason together with Brandon Jordan. I saw him work that recently, and I said, okay, cool, let me try it," Uche told reporters.
In an interview with Patriots.com, pass-rush trainer and Michigan State coach Brandon Jordan discussed his work with Uche and NFL sack leader Matthew Judon.
"I had a pass-rush retreat this summer in Miami. I had about 30-40 guys there. Brian Burns, Rashan Gary, Uche, Bud Dupree, and those guys were there. It was good because guys were able to connect with each other and share knowledge," Jordan said in a phone interview on Wednesday. "Seeing James [Houston] do a hesi move one week, and then the next week, Josh does a hesi with an inside move off of it, it's neat to see. It kind of builds a brotherhood."
Along with coaching pass-rushers at Michigan State, Jordan trains with over 200 players that are currently active in the NFL and holds pass-rush summits where players come to train.
"I'm a technique coach. Like basketball players have shooting coaches and quarterbacks have quarterback coaches, I'm a pass-rush coach. I break down games for the guys. I break down movements of the rush and work on footwork and stuff like that. Training eyes, hands, and feet."
With Uche returning to Michigan to train this offseason, the reigning AFC Defensive Player of the Week would drive from Ann Arbor to East Lansing to train with Jordan.
"When I first started working with Josh, I recognized that he was a very explosive guy. He's very powerful, has good get-off, and natural ability. I just started working on his lines, his angle of rush, and different moves that go into it."
Pass-rushers use a move consistently throughout the game and then build counters off that move once offensive linemen adjust. Like a fastball pitcher who keeps hitters off-balance with a good changeup, Jordan and Uche went to work on the Pats pass-rushers long-arm or power rush as his foundational move.
"I wouldn't say it's his favorite move. But we worked a lot of long arm [rushes], and then off the long arm, he has the ghost and cross-chop moves. We worked those three moves a lot."
One of Uche's biggest influences is eight-time Pro Bowler Von Miller, and he has spoken to Miller to pick the veterans' brain. Miller's patented rush is a ghost move, which builds off a power rush by selling that it's a power rush before dipping underneath the tackle.
Two weeks ago, Uche used a "ghost" rush on his strip sack of Bills quarterback Josh Allen, where he flashed his hands and sold a speed-to-power move before dipping underneath the left tackle to turn the corner for the sack and game-changing play.
"Von is a great leader. I think Josh went to Von's pass-rush summit this summer. That was one of the films we watched this summer, me and Josh. We studied Von on tape because they kind of have the same ability with quickness, speed, and being able to bend."
"Every Monday, I go back and watch the film. I've been watching him and Judon out there being explosive. In camp, Josh would send me clips of his rushes during training camp and we would critique it, so we are still in contact."
"He earned it [AFC Defensive Player of the Week]. He said this was his goal this year. I'm excited he's been able to accomplish it. He definitely put in the work this offseason. I see it paying off," said Jordan.
The league is now recognizing Uche, who has ten sacks and ranks tied for sixth with Defensive Player of the Year candidate Micah Parsons in pass-rush win rate (22%), as are his teammates.
Following Monday night's win in Arizona, Judon continued to heap praise on Uche, who Judon refers to as the Patriots best pass rusher. With Judon tied for the league lead in sacks with 14.5, that's high praise, and the duo became the first pair of teammates in the NFL to hit double-digit sacks this season last week against the Cardinals.
"I told y'all I wasn't the best pass rusher. Our best pass rusher is emerging," Judon said of Uche. "People are going to have to block him. And if they don't, and they chip my side, and they worry about me, Uche will do that every week."
The Patriots are practicing in Tucson for the week before heading to Las Vegas for a matchup against former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and the Raiders on Sunday.
The Raiders have a dangerous group of skill players that includes All-Pro receiver Davante Adams and the NFL's leading rusher, Josh Jacobs, so controlling the line of scrimmage and getting after quarterback Derek Carr will be key for the Patriots to get a win.
With the reigning AFC Defensive Player of the Week teaming up with the NFL's sack leader, the Patriots pass rush has been a problem for opposing offenses this season.