The Patriots suffered a tough defeat at the hands of the Cowboys in Week 4, but there could've been more impactful losses on the field as two of the team's best defenders, Matthew Judon and Christian Gonzalez, both left the game due to injuries and did not return.
It's hard to understate the importance of Judon and Gonzalez to the defense, and while we await tests to fully assess the prognoses for the duo, the team must be prepared to turn the season around potentially without two of their most impactful defenders.
The early outlook for Judon was not good, with NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reporting that Judon was being evaluated for a biceps tendon injury and is expected to at least miss some time. A more serious biceps tear would likely cost Judon the rest of the 2023 season, something it seemed like Deatrich Wise was already preparing for in the locker room following the loss.
"Devastating. But [Judon] was in good spirits, and we'll be with him mentally throughout the year. I know he will be with us too," said Wise. "There will some guys behind him that will be stepping up and filling his spot…I really don't know (if he will miss time). I just always hate when guys get hurt."
There's really no replacing Mr. Red Sleeves, as Judon has been the defense's key pass rusher and most accomplished defender over his last three seasons in New England. Judon had 28 sacks in his first two seasons with the Patriots and had already logged four in another typically hot start to the year.
The depth behind Judon is also extremely thin. Anfernee Jennings played 28 snaps building off the 19 snaps he played in his season debut last week against the Jets, but failed to record any tackle stats. Jennings is an easy bet to swap in for Judon during early down work and had a strong training camp where he showed development in all phases of his game. There's been some promise to his game that is intriguing. Jennings was inactive for the first two games, a disappointing development after the solid strides he made in the summer. Now, Jennings could get his first real chance to play a significant role since his rookie season in 2020.
It's on third down where Judon's absence would be most felt with Josh Uche being the key player to offset the potential loss in pass rush production. Uche played just 18 snaps against the Cowboys and recorded his second sack of the season, but thus far in 2023, he's played the same amount he played last year, 38 percent of the snaps as a pass rush specialist. Just once has Uche surpassed 50 percent of the snaps in a game, making him an unlikely candidate to pick up the majority of the slack. Even if his role remains one primarily on third down, he'll be needed for increased production, however, he's also likely to see increased blocking attention without Judon across from him.
With Ronnie Perkins plucked off the practice squad by Denver, Jennings and Uche are the only true outside linebackers left on the roster after Judon. A few other players can play roles on the edge though, like Keion White, Jahlani Tavai and Mack Wilson, but do not bring the pass rush acumen of Judon. Finding a way to consistently affect opposing quarterbacks will be the defense's biggest challenge if they're without number nine for any amount of time.
Veteran Trey Flowers is another potential option to consider as he's eligible to come off of Injured Reserve this week. Flowers is more of a hand-down defensive end than a stand-up linebacker like Judon, but is versatile enough that he could replace some of Judon's role. But that could mean a shift on defense, perhaps to more even fronts that allow Flowers to play a role similar to the one he played during his first stint with the team.
No matter what the Patriots do, replacing Judon's production for any length of time will be a difficult task.
Gonzalez's injury is just the latest in a long line of cornerback injuries that have hit the defense hard this year. Jonathan Jones has missed the last three games, while both Jack Jones and Marcus Jones have landed on Injured Reserve. Jack is eligible to return to the team this week and that couldn't happen at a better time. Jonathan has continued to practice through these three weeks and now his return will be even more hotly anticipated.
Myles Bryant (100 percent defensive snaps) and Shaun Wade (89 percent of defensive snaps) were the lone duo left standing after the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month was lost in the early going against the Cowboys. Ameer Speed (12 special teams snaps) and two practice squad DBs, Breon Borders and Azizi Hearn provide the final layers of depth but have yet to play any defensive role.
According to WEEI's Mike Kadlick, Gonzalez suffered a dislocated shoulder and will receive an MRI on Monday to determine the severity. Those kinds of injuries can run a broad range of missed time, so his status is more uncertain than Judon's. If Jonathan and Jack Jones can both get back this week the team should be able to manage in Gonzalez's absence, however, there's no replacing the promising start that he was off to and the impact that he made with excellent coverage against some of the game's best receivers in his first four weeks.
Perhaps more impactful is how these losses are felt off the field. Judon and Gonzalez are unquestionably the two most exciting players on the Patriots defense at this point. Any turnaround from the 1-3 start would seemingly have to be sparked by players like them. Without them, some secondary players must step up and the team must find a way to fill in their important roles.
"It's a next man up mentality," said Jabrill Peppers following the loss, himself narrowly avoiding what looked to be an injury during the game that left him writhing on the sidelines for a bit. "That's always been the motto. If they are out there, they are capable."
On Monday morning, Bill Belichick preached caution before jumping to conclusions about injuries, despite reports that have already been circulating.
"If a player gets injured during the game, especially when we're on the road, it's always better to get a little better, more definitive evaluation the next day, after the adrenaline has settled down and the hype of the game is off and we get a chance to look at whatever tests the medical people need to do, whether that's scans, MRIs, X-rays, post-evaluation – somewhere between 12-24 hours after the incident occurred – and just find out more," said Belichick. "So, rather than speculate and guess and throw a bunch of stuff out there, we'll try to get a more definitive answer before we do anything or say anything."
No matter how the injuries play out, the Patriots need to find a way to get back on track this weekend against the Saints, with a very good chance that some new faces will be called upon to step up.