The Patriots defense is off to one of their best starts in team history. They've allowed just three points in two games and rank first in yards-per-game, second on third down (16.7 percent), and first in the red zone.
While the unit is stacked at every level, the heart of the defense is the linebacker corps, a versatile group who cover all ends of the spectrum. There's athleticism, strength and speed in varying amounts across the board, especially the collection of players who can play on the edge of the defense.
First-year outside linebackers coach Demarcus Covington specified what they look for in their linebackers.
"The big thing for us is we're all about tough, smart, dependable players," said Covington during assistant coach media availability on Friday. "I can say that about all our players that we have. Which makes it easy on us, and it makes it good for those guys when they go out on the field."
The outside linebackers run six deep and each has played a significant role to start the season, giving the coaches plenty of options to play with when formulating a gameplan and that includes three players - Dont'a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins - who can play inside or outside the defense.
Earlier this season Bill Belichick commented how difficult it can be for players to do both, highlighting how special this group is.
"It helps to have length, especially when you're playing on the end of the line, and power to set the edge," said Belichick. "Instinctively, it's more of a challenge. Seeing the game from on the line of scrimmage and seeing the game from off the line of scrimmage, it's kind of like two different games."
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"We've always been a gameplan defense, a defense that changes every week," said inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo. "We're not a team that goes out there and does the same thing every week, it's been that way since I was here and before I was here. It's always good, so the offense doesn't really know what to prepare for."
Their own preparation is a key area of focus, especially when it comes to studying opponents. Covington broke down how the group targets their potential blockers.
"What's [the offensive tackle's] strengths, what're his weaknesses and how we can attack him and how they can attack us," Covington said. "We try to hit those targets throughout the week, whether it's a different player, whether they do this different this week, whatever it is. We try to focus on that so [we] can go and attack that here in the game."
But the most important thing is setting the edge, something that all the outside linebackers have done well so far this season and reflected by the stellar tackling rate.
"There's no good play without fundamentals and technique," said Covington. "Setting the edge is all about playing low, low pad level, using your hands, striking, exploding out of your hips and leverage on the blocker."
But more than technique it's a frame of mind.
"Having pride in setting the edge of the defense," said Covington. "That's one of the biggest things in the NFL. You're going to get tackles, tight ends who are big strong guys who are professional athletes who are getting paid to do this. It's a big challenge every week and so we take pride in that, making sure the edge is set."
Practice & Injury Report
For the third-straight practice this week both James Develin (neck) and Shalique Calhoun (not injury related) were absent and Develin was officially ruled out later in the day. Develin is a huge part of the running game and not having him will make for tough sledding, especially as the offense looks to get Sony Michel fully on track. Calhoun has played a lot in the first two games, but given the depth at outside linebacker as discussed above, the defense could overcome his absence.
A new absence at training camp was Matt LaCosse, who was just coming off his first game action of the season. LaCosse hurt his ankle in Week 1 of the preseason and has been on the injury report since the start of the regular season. If he doesn't play against the Jets it will only compound the problem of not having James Develin. Ryan Izzo could be in line for a big bump in playing time if he's the only tight end available, though he popped up on the injury report as well, so the team could choose to elevate practice squadder Jakob Johnson.
In roster moves, it appeared that linebacker Scooby Wright was back with the team in place of Gerri Green, who Mike Reiss of ESPN reported had been released from the practice squad. Wright joined the team late in the summer and showed up well, jumping right into the final preseason game against the Giants. An active and aggressive off-the-line player, Wright could provide special teams and inside linebacker depth.
Obi Melifonwu was also missing from practice but was seen later in the locker room during media availability.
FB James Develin, Neck
LB Shilique Calhoun, Not Injury Related (DNP)
OT Marcus Cannon, Shoulder (LP)
TE Ryan Izzo, Calf (LP)
TE Matt LaCosse, Ankle (DNP)
Locker Room Sound Bites
Tom Brady on the focus for the team leaders.
"We're just focused on being a good teammate, trying to provide positive leadership, a great working environment. I think we're all trying to get the best out of each other as players. You develop different relationships. I've had a lot of a lot of great teammates over the years. A lot of guys in the hall of fame, in the Patriots hall of fame, guys that I learned from. I think I take that responsibility as a veteran leader and try to provide that same type of leadership."