Things looked pretty bleak after the Patriots defense lost both Matthew Judon and Christian Gonzalez for the season against the Cowboys. While the duo ran the spectrum from experienced veteran to promising rookie, they still represented two of the most promising playmakers on the defense and their absences would be a significant early-season hurdle for the team to overcome.
Their losses were compounded by the ongoing attrition that all teams face, as the beleaguered cornerback group has been struck the hardest, necessitating a trade to bring back J.C. Jackson. Judon's edge group took another hit this past week when Josh Uche was added to the injury report, missing the team's Week 7 matchup against the Bills.
However, just when it appeared that a skeleton crew would be thrown to the wolves against Josh Allen and the Bills, the Patriots defense found contributions that helped them solve Allen for the first time in four games, making enough plays along the course of the game to hand New England a much-needed victory.
On Tuesday, the defensive coaching staff highlighted some of the players who are stepping up and making a difference, starting with Jackson, who has stepped right back into his role as if he never left.
"I would hope that I scarred it into his brain enough while he was here on some of the stuff that we've talked about," joked cornerbacks coach Mike Pellegrino of Jackson's return. "He's done a really good job of just catching up on some of the new things and some of the techniques that may be different or some of the coverage calls that may be different. He's done a really good job trying to lock in and really bring the attention to detail."
According to PFF, Jackson has allowed just 10 catches on 20 targets in three games back with the Pats, while holding Bills star receiver Stefon Diggs to just two catches on five targets for 32 yards and a touchdown.
With Jonathan Jones back in the lineup after battling his own injuries, the Patriots are getting their secondary back to a place where they can still compete with the best. Jackson's impact hasn't just been on the field, as Pellegrino praised his impact on the group as a whole.
"I've been really impressed with his attitude, pushing himself, pushing everybody to play better," said Pellegrino. He's always been a guy that loves to work. You know, I'm out there at practice, I got two seconds myself. He's like, "Mike, come on, let's go do something. Let's go do some long balls.' You know, he always wants to do extra work. He's out there 10 minutes before practice starts, working on his footwork with me, he does a great job of trying to stay on top of his craft."
While Jackson represents a new(ish) face that the team had to bring in after injuries struck, Christian Barmore is a player who was already here but has stepped up his play to another level in recent weeks, once again showing the promise that he flashed early in his career before injuries helped derail some of his momentum.
Barmore was the team's highest-rated pass rusher against Buffalo, filling a major void caused by Judon's absence. Barmore recorded a sack and four total pressures as he helped keep Josh Allen off balance all game long. Now in his third year, Barmore is making big plays at a point where the team desperately needed his pass-rushing presence.
But it hasn't just been pass rush alone that Barmore is bringing, as the third-year veteran is also making strides against the run, making himself a valuable three-down presence for the team.
Defensive line coach Demarcus Coving praised Barmore's ability to make an impact while still playing within the framework of the defense.
"[Barmore]'s been doing a good job for us, in the run game, pass game, being consistent for us and doing a good job of playing his role on the defense and doing a good job of just making some plays for us. That goes to his work throughout the week. You know, his preparation and hard work throughout the week, and then which leads to game day."
"He's making some plays while doing his job within the framework of the defense."
"B-More's had a really good year," said Bill Belichick on Wednesday. "He's been healthy. He had a good offseason. I'd say this is the hardest that he's trained or was able to train. Some of that's been a little bit rehab related. He's had a good offseason, good training and he's playing well. I think those things usually go together."
Finally comes the most unexpected contribution of all, as the injuries to Judon and Uche quickly thrust fourth-year edge Anfernee Jennings into the most significant role of his career. Last week against the Bills, Jennings played 69 snaps, the highest total of his career, while recording three pressures and a team-leading five stops, his second-straight week with five stops.
Jennings was one of the most improved players on defense this summer. He's always been a long and stout edge defender, but showed newfound ability to defeat blocks and make plays in the backfield. Still, Jennings had to wait his turn, going inactive for the teams's first two games. But now that opportunity has arrived, the Alabama product is making the most of it.
"Whatever we ask him to do, he's gonna do it," said Covington. "He's a true competitor and starting last year, he did a really good job for us rotating in there.This year, with the injuries to the outside linebacker position, defensive end position, now he's stepped into a greater role.
"He's always ready and I know anytime we call three-three, he's always gonna be ready and set the tone for us, one of our true competitors."
"Anfernee's had an opportunity with some of the injuries we've had at that position," said Belichick. "He's had an opportunity to play a lot, and he's definitely stepped up. Sometimes that's what this league's about, is getting an opportunity, however that happens, and taking advantage of it when you get it."