Entering the 2020 season, the Patriots biggest question on the defensive side of the ball was how the team would replace three of their most productive linebackers. The team lost 19 sacks from 2019 and in Football Outsiders' season preview they calculated the Patriots defense had lost more production than any defense since 2002-03.
But three games into the 2020 season, the new faces have been stepping up.
Shilique Calhoun recorded his first career full sack against the Seahawks and followed it up by forcing two fumbles against the Raiders and getting another half-sack. Chase Winovich has two sacks and a forced fumble himself, while ranking second in Pro Football Focus' pass rush win rate. Derek Rivers has a sack-and-a-half and John Simon is on pace to set career highs in tackles, playing the most snaps of thema ll.
Together, they have continued the tradition of play-making edge players. Despite the turnover, it all still feel vaguely familiar, as the coaches continue to push the right buttons to create a disruptive and takeaway-driven front.
Calhoun, back on another one-year deal after winning a role as a designated pass rusher and special teams player in 2019, has been making multiple impact plays the last two weeks.
"As [Shilique]'s gained more experience in our defense and with his teammates, his communication and recognition and reactions have all improved, and his overall amount of responsibilities have increased, as well," said Bill Belichick on Friday morning. "So, he's done an excellent job for us and continues to expand his role defensively, which is good for him and good for us and gives him more versatility."
The five-year veteran used his first season to study those ahead of him, veterans like Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy and Dont'a Hightower.
"Trying to learn from the guys that have been doing it before me, trying to get a better understanding of how they see the defense," described Calhoun of his first season in New England. "Which allowed me to play a lot quicker, allowed me to be a lot more comfortable in my role.
"Watching those guys, really gaining a better understanding of the whole defense, it allowed me to kind of play the way I am now."
"Shilique is, first and foremost, very athletic as a pass rusher," said Winovich of his teammate. I've learned a lot from him and some of those moves, you can tell he was probably a pretty good basketball player back in high school.
"It's great having him as a teammate despite his Michigan State roots."
Winovich's hot start is the result of an offseason spent with a lot of attention to detail. With more experience, the game is starting to slow down for the second-year player.
"I'd say that's the biggest thing, kind of timing with the quarterbacks and getting my footwork down," said Winovich on where he thinks he's improved. "There's so many little intricacies that take time to develop and time to really focus on."
How can Winovich and Calhoun continue their hot starts?
"I think it falls under Bill's biggest motto, 'Do your job,'" said Calhoun. "That's the main step we take, just doing our job. Doing it to the best of our abilities.
"Leaving a good legacy like the older guys did for us."
Practice & Injury Report
The Patriots had their final practice of the week on the lower field where Cody Davis missed his third practice of the week and was ruled out on the final injury report. The Patriots have five questionable players, all significant starters.
The team also announced their second practice squad swap of the week, this time adding linebacker Michael Pinckney and releasing defensive lineman Xavier Williams. Pinckney was a four-year player at Miami and was seen as an active run defender. He'll add reinforced depth at a position where the Patriots have experienced some recent injuries, with Josh Uche ending up on Injured Reserve.
DB Cody Davis (rib) - DNP
DL Adam Butler (shoulder) - LP
WR Julian Edelman (knee) - LP
G Shaq Mason (calf) - LP
RB Sony Michel (quad) - LP
T Isaiah Wynn (calf) - LP
Only defensive tackle Chris Jones is listed as questionable for the Chiefs.
WebEx Quotes of Note
Julian Edelman on the Chiefs defense:
"I think you got to be ready for everything. They got that spin-the-dial mentality where you don't know what they're going to run and you got to stay on your fundamentals of each play. Worry about the keys to each play that you have. That's a huge part of it."
Bill Belichick on the rookies:
"I think this is in general a tough year for rookies overall. I think our group has competed very well and they've really done a good job of trying to embrace the challenges and embrace the knowledge that our veterans and our coaching staff has tried to impart to them on what it's going to be like, what they need to do, how to handle certain things that come up on the field, and they've tried to do it. But, again, there's no real substitute for the experience of doing it."
Rex Burkhead on the running back rotation:
"You just gotta embrace it whatever role you have for that week, whenever your number's called, you gotta be ready. Coaches do a great job with the game plan, putting us in a position to succeed. It's a great problem to have, we've got a bunch of guys that can do multiple things and are very versatile, and who love playing the game of football. When we go out there, we root for one another, we compete our tails off. and we're all growing every single day."