Shortly after the Patriots walked off the field at Highmark Stadium on Wild Card weekend, linebackers coach Jerod Mayo began talking about the need to get faster on defense.
"We are going to look to get faster, more explosive, and put more playmakers on the field," Mayo told 98.5 The Sports Hub during an appearance last February.
Although the Patriots didn't draft any linebackers in April, the team acquired Mack Wilson via trade with the Browns, and veteran Raekwon McMillan is returning to the field after spending last season on injured reserve. The two veteran linebackers, one an offseason acquisition and the other a de facto addition, brought a fresh perspective to the defense.
As younger, smaller, and more explosive players at the second level of the defense, McMillan and Wilson are making a strong impression.
"We have this thing going called loose screws. Every time we go on the field, we loosen our screws up and play as hard as we can. Mack has been fun to play with, flying around to the ball. He's an energetic player, and hopefully, sometimes we can get on the field together and show what we can do," McMillan told Patriots.com on Monday.
After the two Patriots linebackers were ranked as the top linebacker in their respective High School classes in back-to-back seasons, McMillan and Wilson kept track of each other's college and pro careers. Now together in New England, the Pats linebackers are excited to bring speed and energy to New England's defense.
"We put a lot of work in grinding with the whole defense. It's exciting to have a player like Mack out there with me who can run to the ball. Sometimes he beats me to the ball," McMillan said.
McMillan, a former second-round pick of the Miami Dolphins in 2017, made a standout open-field tackle in last Friday night's preseason finale against the Raiders. Las Vegas timed up a screen pass to running back Brittain Brown with the Pats defensive line in the backfield. It looked like Brown had green grass and blockers out in front for a big gain, but McMillan chased him down from behind to limit Brown to seven yards.
"I was looking at the situation. I got the look I was looking for, and I just triggered and ran full speed [towards the ball carrier]," McMillan said.
On the next third-down play, McMillan took away Raiders backup quarterback Chase Garbers's first option over the middle, forcing Garbers to hold the ball and eventually throw it away when the pass rush arrived, helping the Pats defense force a quick three-and-out.
As for Wilson, the former Alabama linebacker's pursuit speed to blitz the quarterback and close out on receivers in zone coverage has also stood out in the preseason this summer.
Despite noticeable impacts for McMillan and Wilson, another linebacker has emerged as a starter in the final two preseason games for the Patriots defense.
Fourth-year linebacker Jahlani Tavai played only 56 defensive snaps for the Patriots last season but has earned the start in the last two preseason games with the first-team defense.
Tavai played 55 snaps for the Patriots defense against the Panthers and Raiders after earning the start. At the same time, McMillan began seeing playing time on Las Vegas's third possession, and Wilson came in shortly after in the second quarter.
The playmaking abilities of McMillan and Wilson have fans clamoring for more of the duo this season. According to Patriots linebackers coach Steve Belichick, fans will get their wish.
"They're definitely going to be a big part of the defense. Excited to have both those guys, and they've made some plays for us in the preseason. I'm excited, and I know they are, too," Belichick told Patriots.com during Monday's media availability.
After a disappointing end to the 2021 season, the Patriots knew they needed to improve their team speed defensively to compete with the explosive offenses around the AFC moving forward.
Although it needs to carry over into the regular season, Raekwon McMillan and Mack Wilson are giving the Pats defense exactly what it needs.