The Patriots defense is off to a historic start. They lead the league in every major defensive category, often by a wide margin. Their league-leading points-per-game (6.8) is less than half of the second-place Bears (13.8). They're on pace for a league record in sacks. Their third down conversion percentage is a microscopic 12.7 percent. Five games in they still have yet to allow a passing touchdown.
Yes, the list of high rankings is long and well-deserved, but so too is the number of players the team has been able to play on defense, which is perhaps their biggest strength and the primary reason why they've been so dominant.
"We rotate a lot," said Bill Belichick on Tuesday at his weekly press conference. "I mean, we've played 20 players on defense the last four or five weeks. So, naturally, you start splitting it up between 20 guys, that's what you're going to get. Show me how many teams play 20 players on defense. I don't know. There's not too many."
A closer look at those twenty players and their snap percentages gives a clear picture of how the Patriots have been able to keep a constant flow of fresh defenders rotating onto the field.
|Defensive Backs||Linebackers||Defensive Line|
|Devin McCourty 90.9%||Jamie Collins 77.6%||Adam Butler 49.4%|
|Stephon Gilmore 89.4%||Kyle Van Noy 66.5%||Michael Bennett 39.9%|
|Patrick Chung 78.3%||John Simon 52.9%||Danny Shelton 38%|
|Jason McCourty 77.6%||Dont'a Hightower 44.9%||Lawrence Guy 36.9%|
|Jonathan Jones 68.8%||JaWhaun Bentley 43%|
|J.C. Jackson 54.8%||Shilique Calhoun 36.9%|
|Duron Harmon 51%||Chase Winovich 32.3%|
|Terrence Brooks 24.3%||Elandon Roberts 24.3%|
"To be able to have players that can do multiple things and do them well, it gives you a tremendous advantage," continued Belichick. "You can substitute or you can not substitute. We have a lot of players that fall into that category. So, we have the ability to sub if we want to, or if we don't want to, we can let the players play where they normally play and they can certainly handle that adequately."
With so much depth comes some tough choices and only so much playing time to go around. Michael Bennett's play time has been a hot topic of conversation in particular, given his high salary and history of being an every-down player. Though he's only playing about 40 percent of the snaps, Bennett has chipped in with two-and-a-half sacks, four QB hits and three tackles-for-loss. Even in limited action he's been productive and will be kept fresh for the long haul.
But the true teeth of the defense are the linebackers, led by a trio of interchangeable three-down players in Dont'a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins. With their depth it allows them to hide their intentions before the snap.
"Being versatile helps and obviously the more you can do, the more you can mix things up, the more it helps," said Hightower in the locker room on Tuesday. "It helps with disguising especially with other offenses who like to game plan. We're able to line up in different positions and spots. One spot they might be thinking Kyle's on the edge, the next he's off the ball and vice versa with everybody else."
The secondary on the back end is every bit as deep as they've ever been, going seven players deep who have played over half the defensive snaps. Captain Devin McCourty said they're not buying into the hype surrounding the defense.
"For us it's the same thing each week, studying our opponent, and understanding what we need to do to play well," said McCourty on Tuesday. "We talk about playing well situationally and trying to turn the ball over. For us as a defense that's not going to change and that's something we have to stay locked in on."
As for who plays when and how much, Belichick said it's all about how the game unfolds.
"We have a lot of good players," explained Belichick. "Each week is its own week. It depends on the situation, it depends on the game plan, sometimes it depends on how they play the game. So, I didn't know that Washington was going to be in 10 personnel for 30-some plays, or whatever it was. So, that changed some of our play time. It's not like we go into the game and say, 'This is how many plays each guy is going to play.' I mean, we just don't do it that way."
Whatever they're doing it's working at historic levels and if all 20 defenders continue to buy in they might all go down in history together.
Practice and Injury Report
The Patriots held a walk through on Tuesday, their only media-accessible practice of the week. All were in attendance on a cloudy day, though Phillip Dorsett appeared to be the only player visibly limited. It's a good bet that Dorsett will not be able to go on Thursday night.
Shilique Calhoun was a new addition to today's injury report.
DID NOT PARTICIPATE
WR Phillip Dorsett II, Hamstring
RB Rex Burkhead, Foot
LB Shilique Calhoun, Ankle
S Patrick Chung, Heel
S Nate Ebner, Groin
WR Julian Edelman, Chest
WR Josh Gordon, Knee
Locker Room Sound Bites
Matthew Slater on Tom Brady's competitiveness and finding motivation by watching younger quarterbacks:
"Tom is one of the most competitive people I've ever been around inside or outside of sports. I certainly think he's always going to do whatever he can to create a chip for himself, to keep himself competitive. Certainly I think as you become a more seasoned player in this league you can look to younger guys and what they're doing, it can be a source of motivation."