One of the most productive edge rushers in football plays for the New England Patriots.
When most hear that, they probably think of Browns stud Myles Garrett or Defensive Player of the Year favorite Micah Parsons. But there's another former Pro Bowler among the elites who deserves recognition.
According to Pro Football Focus, Patriots linebacker Matthew Judon is currently tied for second in quarterback pressures (39) and is tied for the league lead in sacks (8.5) through eight weeks.
Since signing with the Patriots last offseason as a free agent, Judon has blossomed into a quarterback's worst nightmare. His explosiveness to turn the corner and counter-rushes when offensive tackles over-compensate for an excellent first step has awarded him more freedom in Bill Belichick's system to impact the quarterback in the passing game at a high level.
After ranking near the top of the league for most of the 2021 season in pressuring the quarterback, Judon is at it again and is hoping to sustain his level of play. Last season, a bout with COVID-19 late in the year and a rib injury caused his production to wane down the stretch, with COVID impacting his breathing and playing strength in the final three games of 2021.
Speaking exclusively to Patriots.com, Judon isn't looking for the "why" of how he has been so successful since joining the team but is trying to keep the positive momentum rolling.
"I don't know. But whatever it is, I'm going to keep doing it. Sometimes when you work hard, you don't really know what the remedy or ingredient is, you just kind of continue to go with it," Judon said. "I'm going to go with it and continue to do what I'm gonna do."
Judon divulged earlier this season that there are specific play calls where the coaching staff gives him the green light to pin his ears back to go after the quarterback.
For the most part, Belichick preaches rush lane discipline and quarterback containment. However, there are times when the Patriots want to dial up the pressure, and they let Judon pick his spots, while others in the pass rush contain once Judon gets the QB off his spot.
"We have plays called and put in to allow me just to go, and sometimes I've got to run a game and loop things of that nature. But when I get those calls and I hear those calls, I'm excited. But I don't take any play for granted. I play full speed, try to full tilt, but when I know I get to go, it's a little extra off the line. Just because I know my defense got my back."
"We've just been talking throughout the plays and how the game plan is sometimes, I'm chasing, and sometimes he [Josh Uche] has the green light. We are kind of building chemistry with me, him, and Ant [Anfernee Jennings]. As time progresses, that's kind of what it looks like based on how the game progresses," Judon said.
In Sunday's win over the Jets, Judon logged an outstanding seven quarterback hurries and a batted pass. Within the rush plan, Judon had opportunities to go after Jets quarterback Zach Wilson in obvious passing situations to hurry the young QB into mistakes and throwaways.
One of those hurries was on a critical third down play early in the game, with the Jets threatening to score a touchdown in the red zone. With Judon and Uche standing up over the left side, the veteran pass-rusher had the green light to beat the left tackle any way he saw fit to get to the quarterback. In this instance, Jets left tackle Duane Brown aggressively sets to the outside to cut off the corner, so Judon uses a smooth swim move to jump inside the tackle. Once Judon swims inside, Uche makes him right by closing the pocket to Wilson's left, forcing the Jets QB to throw the ball away. The Jets would then have to settle for three points on the drive.
This season, offensive tackles are gearing up for Judon's explosive first step to protect the edge as Brown did above. But Judon has successfully countered with an inside move. Typically, he uses either a rip or swim finisher to clear the tackle's hands and get to the QB.
"I think maybe people think I'm a speed rusher more than a power [rusher]. So you just have to have a counter off of it and use everything you got," the Pats star told Patriots.com.
Out of Judon's 8.5 sacks, seven takedowns have come on what Pro Football Focus labels as "true pass sets," where they take screens, play-action, and designed rollouts out of the equation. In other words, a true one-on-one between Judon and an offensive lineman.
Along with consistently winning his one-on-one reps, the Pats also utilize Judon as a "wrap" player on stunts to pressure quarterbacks, and he'll also occasionally drop into coverage.
As you would expect with a Bill Belichick defense, New England designs exotic pressure schemes to mess with the pass protection, where sometimes Judon will drop into coverage while the defense blitzes a player who would typically play in coverage.
Last week, that led to a highlight where Judon wrecked a play away from the ball by jamming the slot receiver, bumping a shallow crossing route as it came across the field, and then closing on Wilson with the pressure scheme flushing the Jets quarterback out of the pocket.
After logging 12.5 sacks in the first 13 games of the 2021 season, Judon went without a sack in the final four games and only hurried the quarterback four times. As we previously mentioned, injuries and illness played a major role, while the team is also trying to manage his workload more than it did a year ago to keep him fresh for the entire season.
In the first eight games of the 2022 campaign, Judon has played on 74.7% of New England's defensive snaps, which is a small decrease in usage compared to the 2021 season (81.3%).
"I didn't even notice, man. I honestly think it's just more other guys are playing well. They're just playing more because they're playing well and deserve to be out there. When they make plays, I make plays too. Our defense makes plays as well. I'm an extension of them. They're an extension of me," Judon said last month.
The Patriots are also getting great production from defensive end Deatrich Wise (30 QB pressures), while Uche (14) and second-year standout Christian Barmore (11) are also contributing. As a unit, New England is second in pressure rate only behind the Dallas Cowboys (28.9%).
Although Judon is focused on maintaining his level of play for at least 17 games, last season's late drop-off in production doesn't seem to be top of mind for the Pats pass-rusher.
"Like I said, you just really don't know what the key ingredient is. Every day you just have to come in here and work your butt off, work your tail off. I mean, that's the National Football League. The best ability is availability, and when you are available, you give it everything you have because you don't know when it will be your last game or your last play. So, that's what I've been doing. That's why I work so hard."
With Judon leading one of the NFL's best pass rushes, the Patriots defense has climbed to sixth in Football Outsiders' DVOA efficiency metric.
Watch out for the man with the red sleeves.